Hawking set to 'beam up' to Israel

Israeli colleague recalls 30 years of friendship with 'daring' cosmologist.

hawking 88 (photo credit: )
hawking 88
(photo credit: )
It will be standing room only across the country when the world's most famous theoretical physicist - Cambridge University Prof. Stephen Hawking - arrives for a week-long tour on Thursday. Coincidentally, some of his theories regarding space may just become reality. Last week, after receiving the prestigious Copley Award in Britain, he said Man should settle other heavenly bodies because the Earth was being destroyed, both ecologically and in other ways. NASA seems to have the same idea, as it announced a dramatic plan Tuesday to establish an "international base camp" on one of the moon's poles, landing astronauts in 2020 - 51 years after the first moon landing - and setting up a permanent colony four years later. NASA decided to pursue an outpost on one of the moon's poles because they are better for long-term settlement. The South Pole is preferred because it's bathed in sunlight 75 percent of the time and may have natural resources nearby. Interest in Hawking's visit - his fourth to Israel and the first since 1989 - is high not only because of what thoughts he will present, but also because of how he will say them. Having been struck with Lou Gehrig's disease at the age of 21 and given only "two or three years to live," the nearly-65-year-old genius cannot speak or move a limb in his body. He lectures and writes by batting his eyelids at a computerized voice synthesizer. In fact, it takes so much time for him to convey his thoughts that his lectures will be pre-recorded and broadcast from the podium as he sits in his wheelchair. But that will not stop the scientists and laymen who want to hear his thoughts on "The Origin of the Universe" and other topics at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the Bloomfield Science Museum, Bir Zeit University, Neveh Shalom's Center for Excellence and the British Council branch in east Jerusalem. His visit has been carefully organized by the British Embassy to "promote Britain as the international partner of choice in science and technology collaboration." Hawking's highest-profile visit to Israel was in 1988, when he was presented with the $100,000 Wolf Foundation Prize in Physics in the Knesset's Chagall Hall along with fellow theoretical physicist Prof. Roger Penrose of Oxford. The two were cited for "their brilliant development of the theory of general relativity, in which they have shown the necessity for cosmological singularities and have elucidated the physics of black holes. In this work they have greatly enlarged our understanding of the origin and possible fate of the universe." Prof. Tsvi Piran, a Hebrew University theoretical physicist and dean of HU's School of Business, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview Tuesday that during his 30-year friendship with Hawking, he didn't recall "any political expression of his views on Israel, the Arabs and Palestinians." They first met at Oxford in 1976 when Hawking was performing post-doctoral research at the University of Cambridge. "Stephen can't speak on the phone. He can read e-mail, but he is not someone you speak to a lot. Every conversation for him is a big effort, so you think several times before daring to bother him," Piran said. Hawking attended two conferences in Israel organized by Piran, who recalls taking him to the baptismal site on the Jordan River near the Kinneret. "He has a good sense of humor. I remember that then, in 1983, he was able to speak somewhat - with help from an interpreter who could understand him better. He asked to have his shoes removed and to put his wheelchair into very shallow water. A woman who didn't know who he was said out loud: 'Poor soul. God is watching over you!' He whispered to me: 'I hope God is watching over her!'" While Hawking is no longer able to speak because of a tracheostomy operation, and his physical condition has declined as he ages, said Piran, "His intellect continues to be powerful. He is daring and likes experiences. Not too long ago, he asked to be flown in a jet fighter, and he did it. If he had a chance to go to space, he would sign up tomorrow," Piran said. Hawking would love to receive a Nobel Prize, said Piran, but he knows he is unlikely to receive one, as the work of Nobel laureates must be proven and his abstract ideas can't be. "His most important contribution is his theories on Hawking radiation and black holes, which contributed a lot to our scientific understanding, even though there is no practical application of his theories. But he didn't get the Wolf Prize for nothing. And the understanding of electricity took 150 years until it resulted in practical uses," he said. Piran said scientists always thought that "nothing can emerge from black holes." Hawking suggested that, after the Big Bang that created the universe, primordial or mini-black holes were formed. Along with colleagues, he proposed four Laws of black hole mechanics, and in 1974, he calculated that black holes should thermally create and emit subatomic particles, known as Hawking radiation, until they exhaust their energy and evaporate. "He said this radiation is released like that of a spiral heater, and that the black hole eventually evaporates from the release of this heat. It was a revolutionary discovery, but the problem is proving it. To understand the phenomenon, one has to combine quantum theory and the theory of relativity," Piran said. Hawking originally believed that if, for example, one threw a kilo of gold or a kilo of garbage into a black hole, they disappeared and you could never know what went in. But Hawking admitted he was wrong at the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation in Dublin in July 2004; Black holes, he said, eventually do transmit, in a garbled form, information about all matter they swallow. His first book, A Brief History of Time, was published in 1988, and instantly made him very famous. Piran recalled that the text had been rejected by several publishers. When a physicist whose brother-in-law ran a small publishing firm heard about it, he ran to the publisher and said it was a treasure. "The company published the book, and the rest is history," Piran said. Piran said he looks forward to his friend Hawking's visit because he hopes it will increase the Israeli public's awareness of the joy of pure science. "I hope it will excite young people especially and induce the government to invest more in it. Knowledge shouldn't just be a commodity you want to make money and a career from. It is the biggest intellectual challenge. But in recent years, there has been a decline among our youth in basic science, and this is a shame. Maybe Hawking can reawaken it. "In 2004, I was on an advisory board of the Israel Science Agency. The whole agency has an annual budget of $600,000. It is a joke. I have a friend in the US who just received a personal research grant from NASA for $550,000," he said. The British Council in Israel has apparently gotten the message and is offering a children's quiz competition on Hawking during his visit, with three prizes from London's Science Museum. It is open to all children under the age of 13 who live in Israel. The English-language questions can be found at www.britemb.org.il/hawking/HChildrensCompetition.htm. Answers must arrive by December 22, and the winners will be announced on January 8.