Stephen Hawking:The Big Questions

Life, the universe and everything-Professor Stephen Hawking will have in more answers than most when he appears on 'The Big Question',this week. But what does he make of these RT teasers...?

Nick Griffiths

Have we been visited by aliens?
It seems that primitive life appeared fairly soon after the earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. This suggests that the chances of life developing elsewhere in the universe are fairly high. Some of these other forms of life might have started on planets that were formed billions of years before the earth so they may have progressed to space travel. The question then arises: have we been visited by aliens and if not, why not? Despite the claims of UFO sightings, I don't believe we have. I think that any such visit would be obvious and probably unpleasant. What would be the point of aliens revealing themselves only to a few cranks? If they want to warn us of some great danger, they are being pretty ineffective.

Why did you agree to the cameo role in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'?
I enjoy Star Trek and think that science fiction serves a useful purpose of expanding the imagination. Although we may not yet be able to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before, we can do so in the mind. Science and science fiction stimulate each other. The script that the Star Trek producers provided for my brief scene was good and the actual filming in the Paramount studios in Los Angeles was fun. But I won't be giving up the day job quite yet.

What would you do if you won the National Lottery?
I must be one of the few people in the country who has never bought a lottery ticket. I object to the National Lottery because it encourages gambling and because it takes money from those who are least able to afford it, but who are desperate to escape their situation. It is pretty shabby of the government to exploit their weakness. I am not impressed by the argument that it raises money for good causes. If we think things are worth supporting then we should be prepared to pay for them out of the tax coffers. Gambling profits are a sleazy way of doing it. If that is acceptable, why not run the health service on the profits of state brothels? Even if I didn't have these objections to the lottery, I still wouldn't go in for it because the odds are so bad - only half the money that is staked comes back as prizes. The only certain winner is Camelot.

Does time fly when you're having fun?
Time rushes even when I'm not having fun. I have so many things I want to do and ordinary tasks like eating and washing take me more time than most people. But I enjoy life and it's fun most of the time. Having had my expectations reduced almost to zero when I was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given only a couple of years to live [33 years ago], everything now is a bonus. I look forward to the 21st century.

Hawking's Universe

Recalling the heady youth of the now computer-voiced scientist.

So indelibly etched on our consciousness is the image almost iconographic- of Professor Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair, that it is hard to imagine him ever having been any different.
Yet the first signs of the motor neurone disease that has wasted his muscles were (not visible until Hawking's time as a postgraduate at Cambridge. That's him in the boater , at Oxford.

Second row on the left:Filkin.In the boat:Steve
Pulling together: the last time producer David Filkin (inset, circled) and Stephen Hawking (right, in boater) teamed up was when Hawking was a demanding cox to Filkin's Oxford eight

"When I was with Stephen at Oxford we were both rather noisy undergraduates. He was an extrovert, a fun-loving person," says David Filkin, producer of Stephen Hawking's Universe, the series that tackles the universal mysteries from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch.
Hawking, a physics student, coxed the eight that Filkin rowed with. "We were an appalling collection of individuals who didn't train much," says Filkin of the rugby playing crew. "So I knew Stephen as a very determined leader who made sure that our boat performed far better than any of us dared expect, because he wasn't going to let us get away with a casual ride."

This was at the start of the sixties and it demonstrates the man's obstinacy. Motor neurone disease usually proves fatal within two to five years. Hawking, a father of three who remarried in 1995, has survived the disease for more than 30 years. His talents as a scientist were also becoming clear. "One time, his physics set were in the quadrangle discussing the week's problems. 'I've only managed two,' said one student. Another had only solved one. Stephen rushed up and said, 'Quick, I haven't done the problems this week, what are they like?' They said, 'We're all having trouble with them.' So he rushed off and met them for the tutorial the next morning and said, 'You were right, they were difficult. I've only done six.' "

Filkin and Hawking went their separate ways after leaving Oxford. "It was only when the proposal for the series came up that I went back to see him," says the producer, "and of course it was a huge contrast. Here we were in our fifties, meeting for the first time since we'd been rowing in our twenties. I wasn't sure what to expect but he immediately put me at my ease. Now I have known two very different people on the surface who are very much the same underneath."

As long as he keeps talking.....
Professor Stephen Hawking investigates secrets of the universe - such as the new evidence of black holes.

From big bang... to big crunch, as Stephen Hawking unravels the secrets of the universe
Most of us are content to wonder what to have for dinner and how to fit it in around Coronation Street. Not Professor Stephen Hawking. Where did we come from? How did the universe begin? Why is the universe the way it is?" he asks at the start of Stephen Hawking's Universe, a six-part series that attempts to unravel the secrets of the cosmos, from the big bang to the inevitable big crunch, via black holes and parallel universes.
His hook A Brief History of Time, which sold eight million copies, provides the basis for the BBC2 series, conceived by producer David Filkin. Experts worldwide have been interviewed, and Hawking himself introduces each new thread. The Cambridge Professor of Mathematics also acted as adviser. Filkin would fax him an outline of each programme, which Hawking would rework.
"At first I was nearly put off the whole project," says Filkin. "Quite pleased with myself, I sent Stephen outlines for the six programmes. He sent back a fax listing about six points, all of which he thought were wrong. I phoned his assistant, Sue Massey, and said, 'What does this mean? Is he really not keen to do the series?' And she said, 'No, no, quite the opposite.'
"Because of Stephen's communication needs [he has motor neurone disease and talks through a computer, requiring laborious typing, he keeps what he says to a minimum. Instead of spending time saying he likes this and that, he just says what he wants put right. Sue Massey said, 'If he hadn't liked the outlines for the programmes, you would have had 36 things to correct!'"

Warp factor five: black holes - or super-dense, super-powerful collapsed stars - affect everything around them

There's no getting away from black holes So powerful are their gravitational fields, not even light can escape. That's why they're black. And that's why they can only be seen indirectly - by observing their effect on surrounding space, by watching this week's Horizon on how black holes produced everything in our solar system, or by scanning for them across the parallel universe of the net. There are web pages (1) that cover the most commonly asked questions about black holes, from whether they definitely exist to what you would see if you fell into one (answer: not much, you'd be dead). To really understand how they warp everything around them, it may help to see a computer simulation by the University of Arizona (2), which has fabulous images and a gentle walk through the maths and physics of what happens.
The influence of these super-dense, super- powerful collapsed stars is also apparent at many sites that display astronomical photographs. One Hubble Space Telescope image on the Cambridge Astronomy site (3) shows the dust disc around a huge black hole in the centre of our galaxy, calculated at being 1.2 billion times the mass of our sun. Another (4) reveals a hole that's not only sucking in anything that falls into its gravity well, but forever blowing "bubbles" of what are thought to be sub-atomic particles. And there's a black hole known as "Old Faithful" (5) - like the Yellowstone Park geyser - because every half-hour it spurts out a 100 trillion ton jet of stellar matter. Black holes also feature as regular pin-ups in the "Astronomy picture of the day" galactic gallery (6), which has a different space snapshot every day.



Quentin cooper presents The Material World, Thursdays Radio 4

Radio Times 25 November - 1 December 2000

Now you've seen the photos, grasped the physics and tried the simulations, brace yourself to experience a black hole first-hand. I don't mean the theme rides named after them - like the in the-dark Alton Towers roller coaster (7). I don't even mean the fun but slow-to load Space Invaders-style black hole video game you can play free via the web (8). Such are the fascinating properties of black holes that several sites (9) have amazing animated "fantasy movies" of what it might be like to fall into one. And, according to a New Scientist article (10), this fantasy could become reality: particle accelerators are now so powerful there are fears they could accidentally create a black hole that would swallow the Earth and everything on it. Which would be bad.

Further Reading

A BBC book of the series "Stephen's Hawking's Universe" is available, price £19.99





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