(photo credit: AP)
Israeli scientists and laymen are looking forward to the eight-day visit to Israel, which began last night, of Cambridge University theoretical physicist Prof. Stephen Hawking, whose brilliant mind and adventurous spirit are imprisoned in a body paralyzed by Lou Gehrig's disease.
The visit, his fourth in 23 years and his first since 1989, is organized by the British Embassy in Tel Aviv and will include visits not only to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Rehovot, but also to the Jewish-Arab community in Neveh Shalom and to Ramallah in the Palestinian Authority.
The 64-year-old scientist, author of the seminal A Brief History of Time, will begin the official part of his tour on Sunday, when he meets teenage science majors in an event organized by the British Council at Jerusalem's Bloomfield Museum of Science. The event will be carried live via Web cast on the British Council's Web site (www.britishcouncil.org.il). Later in the day he will meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Plagued since the age of 21 by the disease, which usually kills its victims within two or three years, he can barely move. He gives his lectures and writes his articles and books by batting his eyelids via an infrared sensor on his eyeglasses at a computerized voice synthesizer. In fact, it takes so much time for him to convey his thoughts electronically that his lectures will be pre-recorded and broadcast from the podium as he sits in his wheelchair. Over 1,000 people who have received special invitations will on Thursday listen to Hawking at the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus. Hawking, who will be on stage, pre-recorded his speech on "The Origin of the Universe" because his real-time computerized lecturing is painfully slow.
Also during his visit here, he will visit the Weizmann Institute and Tel Aviv University, where senior scientists will discuss "Challenges and New Horizons in Physics" in Hawking's honor. During the coming week, he will also have an intimate dinner with heads of the Israel Academy of Sciences and a small number of guests; give a public lecture at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah and speak to Palestinian science students through a video conference in east Jerusalem.
Last week, Hawking was awarded the Copley Medal, Britain's highest commendation for scientific achievement, for his work in theoretical physics and cosmology. The medal was first was awarded in 1731 by the Royal Society, Britain's elite scientific academy. "The long-term survival of the human race is at risk as long as it is confined to a single planet," he told the BBC last week. "Sooner or later, disasters such as an asteroid collision or nuclear war could wipe us all out. But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe."
His visit has been carefully organized to "promote Britain as the international partner of choice in science and technology collaboration." As the vast majority of Israelis will not be able to see him in person and giving interviews is difficult for him, the British Embassy has set up a special Web site for the visit at www.britemb.org.il/hawking. It also contains a quiz competition for children, with prizes from London's Science Museum.