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The Trek Nation - An Evening With Stephen Hawking

An Evening With Stephen Hawking

By Diane Smith
Posted at March 24, 2003 - 10:13 AM GMT

Noted physicist (and one-time Star Trek: The Next Generation guest star) Professor Stephen Hawking is currently in Texas to lead a month-long symposium at the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics at Texas Agricultural & Mechanical University. Sharing ideas, he and 10 other leading physicists from Europe and the United States hope to enlarge human understanding about the nature and workings of the universe. On Friday, March 14, Diane Smith attended a public lecture by Professor Hawking, entitled "Brane New World".


I'm seated in the Cynthia Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, outside Houston, Texas, anticipating the arrival of Professor Stephen Hawking. All around I hear the buzz of the audience; some discussing quantum physics, some debating Prof. Hawking's theories. Some are simply fans, like myself. Never has a scientist had such a following, and I hope he knows how much we admire him, for he exercises the brains and broadens the vision of those of us not holding a PhD. His subject is "Brane New World".

After brief introductions, there follows an outline of Prof. Hawking's work, including his stints in two TV series — The Simpsons and Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are Aggie cheers when Texas Agricultural & Mechanical University, where Prof. Hawking is doing current work, is mentioned, but the Trekkers in the audience bring the house down with their cheers. Without further ado Prof. Hawking is wheeled out to a thundering, standing ovation. When the immense crowd is again seated, we hear the first synthesized word: "Howdy". He then says, "Can you hear me?" As one, we say yes.

The Brane Theory, which is derived from the word "membrane", is introduced. "How many brains does it take to understand brane?" he asks. Prof. Hawking explains the four dimensions in great detail. He elaborates on the space time continuum, which exists as warps and curves, as opposed to a level plane. Paths of planets appear bent because of this. If we were to assume the universe is flat, our calculations of the positions of the planets would be wrong. The three dimensions of space and one of time are all we can see. Well, we can't see time, except in the movements of the planets and the devices we use to measure it. Are there more dimensions? Why believe in more dimensions than we can see? Are they science fiction or actual consequences?

The Hawking-Penrose Theorem states that general relativity will break down at a singularity, which is what a black hole is. To clarify, here is an excerpt from Prof. Hawking's web site:

"With Roger Penrose, Prof. Hawking showed that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity implied space and time would have a beginning in the Big Bang and an end in black holes. These results indicated it was necessary to unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory, the other great scientific development of the first half of the 20th Century. One consequence of such a unification that he discovered was that black holes should not be completely black*, but should emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear. Another conjecture is that the universe has no edge or boundary in imaginary time. This would imply that the way the universe began was completely determined by the laws of science."

[*Black holes are not completely black. They emit radiation; or more accurately, evaporate radiation. "If a black hole becomes dismembered (or if any of my theories can be proven), I would get a Nobel Prize," Hawking notes, smiling broadly, acknowledging the applause.]

Seated astonishingly motionless in his specialized chair, save for the occasional, wide, engaging smile or facial expression and the steady clicking of the hand-held device which miraculously brings us his thoughts through the marvel of computers, Hawking seems like a rather tired, scholarly Jimmy Stewart. Focusing on his face, you don't get an impression of the extent of his severe physical limitations.

I had expected a pre-recorded speech; however, there are pauses of up to 30-40 seconds, perhaps some as long as a minute, where he keys his lecture, sentence by sentence into his synthesizer, completely sans notes, for two hours. The small click and whirr of the machine alerts us to the next sentence, allowing time for taking copious notes. I see people to the right, to the left, front and back armed with pens and pads, I among them. But while they focus on mathematical formulae and quick illustrations, I scribble only the main points and my impressions of this man who has survived 40 years with an illness which took my own mother within six, who has focused his exceptional mind to contemplate our deepest questions.

Who would presume that I, with only two years of college, could simply buy a ticket and sit in the august presence of so many eggheads, including possibly the smartest man on earth? How many PhDs are here, anyway? However, a large part of the audience seems to be from all walks of life — children, elders, Aggies, Trekkers — and I feel I fit right in. All races, all creeds are here — just like a Trek convention. Everyone is quiet, dignified, and hanging on his every word. We laugh when he tells a joke and we applaud when his truths strike us.

The M Theory, Positivist Philosophy, Mathematical Models that describe and codify observations - these are the things he's discussing while I write. Whoosh! It goes right over my head. Then he captures my attention and my understanding with his ready wit and down-to-earth humor: "Maybe we are a computer game being played by aliens". The slide show situated beside a live camera shot of his face flashes a hilarious cartoon depicting just that.

"I must admit that I am reluctant to believe in extra dimensions," he says. The M Theory states that there are 10-11 dimensions, four of which we can see. Why don't we observe the other six to seven dimensions? If they exist, they are very small. The professor uses a human hair as an example. Take one off your head and look at it. You easily see the length, and albeit very small, the breadth and height. Place it under a microscope. You will see many other dimensions to the hair, layers wrapped around the original strand. If other dimensions exist, they are similarly very small: a billionth of a billion centimeters and possibly curled up, as are the layers of the hair.

Gravity and electrical forces act differently within branes, which are the shadowy dark matter present when a planet rests within a hollow of warped space time. Picture a flat plane, or the hood of your car. Now press indentions in the plane, as if giant hailstones had hit. Place planets within the indentions. Now shine a light over the creation. You will see shadows made by the planets against the walls of the indentions — these are branes. Within a brane gravity extends outward in all directions, and can be felt, while electricity remains rather flat and one-dimensional. Without dark matter, the universe would fly apart.

Stephen Hawking diagramPerhaps the branes collided at the juncture and caused the Big Bang. The universe represented at the top is expanding. Imagine a balloon whose surface area is coated with the galaxies. With this, a cartoon flashes on the screen. A little angel with wings blows up a black balloon festooned with stars in recognizable patterns.

"Let's hope there's no one with a cosmic pin to pop the bubble!" says Prof. Hawking. A little devil inches across the screen and sticks a pin into the balloon — POP! — and the audience roars with appreciation.

Prof. Hawking then segues into a discussion and illustration of the creation of a hologram. "I know about holograms, having portrayed one on Star Trek," he notes. More cheers, and the screen shows the entire scene of the sixth-seaon season Next Generation episode, "Descent", in which Prof. Hawking, portraying himself, plays poker with Einstein, Newton and Commander Data — and wins!

The lecture ends and he thanks the audience for its attention. There is a prolonged standing ovation, accompanied by cheers and whistles, during which many, including myself, take out their cameras. Then Prof. Hawking turns his chair and slowly rolls off the stage.

Just being in the presence of this gentle, brilliant, dignified man is worth trying to understand him. He seldom travels these days, so I'll treasure the memory of this lecture for many years.

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Diane Smith is a new contributor to the Trek Nation.