Stephen Hawking, professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, author of the best-selling A Brief History of Time and the world's foremost celebrity scientist, amused an Israeli television audience when he appeared on Channel 2 on Monday night.
The renowned astrophysicist, who arrived in Israel last Thursday for an eight-day visit, was interviewed on the Yair Lapid talk show.
Hawking discussed his severe case of ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, his celebrity status, his perspective on God, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and of course, quantum physics with Lapid.
The interview opened with a clip of Hawking on the popular American cartoon show, The Simpsons. It became much more solemn, however, when Lapid questioned Hawking about his disease and how it had impacted both his life and career.
Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at 21 and given only two or three years to live. Yet miraculously, he defied the odds, and today is a 64-year-old professor at one of the world's preeminent academic institutions.
Yet the disease did take its toll. As time progressed, Hawking gradually lost the use of his arms, legs, and voice, and is now almost completely paralyzed. He has a computer system attached to his wheelchair, which allows him to function normally. He also lost his natural ability to speak and thus, uses an electronic voice synthesizer to communicate.
Incidentally, Hawking's synthesizer speaks with an American accent, despite the fact that he is British. When Lapid asked him why this is, he said that the synthesizer is a very old model from 1986 which is no longer made. He can't bear to part with it, as it is the voice he is now internationally identified with.
Hawking discussed the fact that he became interested in physics prior to becoming physically disabled, which worked to his advantage as his field is one of the few in which his work would not be seriously impaired by his condition.
"It was fortunate that I was a physicist so I could continue my profession," he told Lapid.
Despite his condition, Hawking has been able to marry twice and has had "three attractive children." Hawking stressed that family was very important to him and they helped him to thrive, despite his debilitating illness.
The high point of the interview came when Lapid asked Hawking about the positive aspects of his disability. "I don't have to sit on many boring committees," Hawking replied wittily, soliciting a laugh from the audience.
Hawking said he was rather distraught at the current Israeli-Palestinian situation. He was last here in 1990, and said he felt the situation had deteriorated substantially over the past 16 years.
When asked the purpose of his visit, Hawking said he wanted to see what the situation was like now with his own eyes. "It is very different on the ground than what you read about in the papers." He said he hoped that a solution to the conflict could soon be reached.
When asked whether or not he believed in God, Hawking replied by saying that the laws of science determine the evolution of the universe and that God "may or may not have created those laws, but he cannot intervene, or else they wouldn't be laws."
In a frank discussion of his unique celebrity status, Hawking happily divulged that his name is more recognized than the names of most film actors "The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized," said Hawking, poking a bit of fun at himself. "It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away."
The interview closed on an optimistic note, with Hawking addressing his viewers. "However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. Where there is life, there is hope."
On Sunday, he met with teenaged scientists at the Bloomfield Museum of Science in Jerusalem, where he discussed black holes and the nature of the space-time continuum. Later that day, he met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Hawking and Olmert discussed the ever-present issues between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and how those issues could be most efficiently resolved.
Since his arrival, Hawking has also held a video conference in east Jerusalem which was broadcast to science students in the Palestinian Authority and has had dinner with representatives of the National Academy of Sciences.
On Thursday he will speak about the origins of the universe to an audience of over 1,000 at Hebrew University at an the event that will be broadcast over the Internet. Hawking will also visit both the Weizmann Institute and Tel Aviv University, will meet with representatives of the Israel Academy of Sciences and will give a public lecture at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah.