The smartest guy in the room

Stephen Hawking at the Perimeter Institute

Last Sunday an array of VIPs—Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Kevin O’Leary, the angry guy on the CBC reality show Dragons’ Den—convened in a theatre at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo to pay tribute to Stephen Hawking. The British astrophysicist sat in his wheelchair while the politicians buttered him up. Then he delivered a lecture through his speech synthesizer about his early years in physics.

The next day a bunch of physicists took a lunch break from a conference where they were discussing what happens when black holes of various sizes orbit each other. A caregiver pushed Hawking to a place at one of the cafeteria tables, where he ate some lunch and listened to the chatter and gossip among his colleagues.

There were no cameras or dignitaries at the lunch. I was there only by chance. But in some ways this was more significant than the previous day’s pomp. Hawking didn’t become the world’s most famous physicist by giving lectures, after all, but by thinking and working, and he is at Perimeter to think and work.

He is one of 10 Distinguished Research Chairs, leading international scholars who will camp out periodically at Perimeter and work with its faculty and students. He’s about halfway through his first six-week visit. On evenings and weekends he gets out to sight-see. So far he’s gone to African Lion Safari and enjoyed the ribs at Ethel’s Lounge.

Days are for discussion and calculation. Motor neuron disease slows him but doesn’t stop him. He controls his computer by twitching his cheek to control the cursor on a computer screen. It works best if you frame questions to him as a yes or a no. Neil Turok, Perimeter’s director, is an old Cambridge colleague of Hawking’s. He admitted after Sunday’s big televised show that he was impatient for the fancy business to be done “so we can get back to work.”

Of course in its own way, Sunday’s glamour was work too. A lot of taxpayer money has gone into Perimeter, about $90 million from the feds and as much from the Ontario government since 1999. That’s on top of $170 million from Research in Motion founder Mike Lazaridis. The physics that goes on there is so hard to explain (quantum foundations, anyone? Superstring theory?) that constant effort goes into underlining its importance. The man in the wheelchair is handy to that effort. After his speech, Hawking joined Turok and Lazaridis at dinner with two federal ministers, Flaherty and Gary Goodyear, both plainly starstruck.

O’Leary also became part of the sales pitch. “Imagine in 1905,” Lazaridis told the audience, “if Albert Einstein had stood in the Dragons’ Den.” Would the business geniuses have funded his crazy ideas? Not likely. But that’s what’s needed today, Lazaridis argued.

That’s the point Hawking wanted to make too, as it turned out. Sort of. Mostly he used his own life to show that you can never know what you’ll need to know. Governments spend a lot of time trying to pick winners in science. Hawking, the greatest winner of his lifetime, has never even bothered to try. He just followed his heart.

He showed up at Cambridge in 1962 hoping to study the nature of the universe with Dennis Hoyle. “Cosmology was at that time hardly recognized as a legitimate field. Yet that was where I wanted to do my research.” Hoyle was too busy so Hawking fetched up with a lesser-known prof, which came in handy when Hoyle’s defence of a steady-state universe fell into dispute soon after.

All the action was in elementary particle physics, where you could design experiments to peck away at electrons and nucleii and eke out their secrets. Cosmology was mere guesswork. Hawking quoted a colleague who considered attendees at a 1962 Warsaw conference on general relativity to be “hosts of dopes.”

Hawking’s instincts ran all the other way. Elementary particles? “Too like botany.” Hushed admiration for odd species of quarks and gluons. “Cosmology and gravitation, on the other hand, were neglected fields that were ripe for development.”

By the late 1960s, data from radio telescopes had driven a stake through Hoyle’s steady-state hypothesis. With Roger Penrose and other colleagues, Hawking was hot on the trail of proof that the universe began with a big bang. “It was a glorious feeling, having a whole field virtually to ourselves. How unlike particle physics, where people were falling over themselves to latch onto the latest idea. They still are.”

A single-minded focus on pursuing the latest trends would never have got him where he wound up. “The importance of special places and special times cannot be overstated,” Hawking said. “That happened in Berlin, Germany, in the 1920s when quantum mechanics was born, and again in Cambridge in the 1960s. It seems to me that the same ingredients are being assembled here,” at Perimeter. “I am hoping and expecting great things will happen here.”

What’s important is not that Hawking said these nice things but that he was in Waterloo to say them. And with that, it was back to work.