Much has been written about the scientific implications of the extraordinary recent lecture by renowned Cambridge University physicist, Stephen Hawking at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. But I would like to take a moment to reflect on the event as an exceptional moment of “theater.”
Let me first describe the atmosphere I experienced upon arrival at the pavilion. I had wondered in advance just how many seats a scientist could fill in a venue most often dedicated to concerts. Guess again! As I attempted to reach the pavilion’s parking garage, throngs of pedestrians, arriving for what turned out to be a sold out performance, slowed my progress. While walking toward the box office to pick up the tickets reserved for my entourage, several people on the street asked if I had tickets to sell. With many young people in the crowd, and the tension of a sell-out, there was the atmosphere of an important rock concert in the air. I confess to being amazed by the extent of the excitement.
The stage was bare except for two large screens on either side. Then the waiting began for this orderly and eclectic crowd. Finally, after a brief introduction, Mr. Hawking was called on stage. The revered scientist was visiting the pavilion in connection with a month-long physics conference to inaugurate Texas A&M’s George P. and Cynthia W. Mitchell Institue for fundamental Physics. There were moments of anticipation before Hawking appeared. Then, neatly dressed like an ivy leaguer in conservative wool sport coat and a black and white checked shirt with open collar, the professor began his slow, wheelchair ride to center stage with the accompaniment of what I believe was the longest and most thrilling standing ovation I have ever heard. The diminutive figure, believed by many to be the greatest scientific mind of our time, was slumped in his wheelchair and unable to move or speak after some forty years battling Lou Gehrig’s disease. But none of these disabilities had prevented Hawking from arriving for his lecture: “Brane New World.” (A pun of sorts on the novel “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley.)
Now in place at center stage, Hawking paused at length as the crowd that had just cheered his arrival quickly quieted with the reverence of a church congregation. There was a kind of almost breathless attention from an audience that was clearly on a quest for truth. An elaborate computer system was attached to the wheelchair with hand held controls that enabled this frail genius to communicate with the audience via a voice synthesizer. Several more moments of awkward silence were relieved when the synthetic voice announced, “Howdy!” The Texas crowd erupted again with laughter and applause.
I will not be so bold as to try and interpret the profound science of the lecture that followed. Suffice it to say that Hawking had the audience in the palm of his hand as his slide lecture described theoretical worlds of perhaps as many as ten or eleven dimensions, dwarfing our own three-dimensional world even if we add the dimension of time. In describing his evolving view of the universe, he intrigued the audience with statements such as, “I must admit I have been reluctant to believe in extra dimensions,” and “We have no way to determine what is real.” With great humor he poked fun at himself by suggesting a few amusing scenarios that might result in his winning a Nobel Prize. The scientist even showed a video clip of an amusing Star Trek episode in which he made a holographic appearance joining Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in a poker game. Hawking elicited more laughter from the audience when he suggested, “Maybe we are characters in a computer game played by aliens!” He also called The Woodlands founder, George Mitchell and his wife Cynthia to the stage to express his gratitude for the Mitchell’s support of research in theoretical physics. With a wide smile, Hawking presented the couple with a copy of his book, “The Universe in a Nutshell.”
Overall, what was endlessly fascinating was the quiet and attentive respect this audience of thousands paid to this brilliant thinker as he carefully framed his remarks for eerie broadcast through the vocal synthesizer. The voice itself had an odd yet commanding sound, and reminded me of the scene when Dorothy and her friends first gained an audience with “…the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.” There was just such an atmosphere of awe and mystery on this unforgettable night at the pavilion.