By Xinhua writers Qiu Lin, Yu Zheng
BEIJING, June 19 (Xinhua) -- Wheelchair-bound
theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who speaks through an electronic speech
synthesizer, has acquired a cult status among Chinese youngsters much like that
of Tom Cruise.
The British scientist wowed the audience when he
delivered a lecture Monday in China's Great Hall of the People.
Rows of cameramen fired a volley of flashes at
Hawking in a media frenzy usually reserved for major political figures or pop
stars, although his hosts had warned earlier that bright lights could harm his
The 64-year-old was invited by his longtime friend
Shing-Tung Yau, a Harvard mathematician and Fields Medalist, to Beijing to speak
at the International Conference on String Theory 2006.
"Can you hear me?" Dr. Hawking began his discourse
with his standard question for such occasions, the metallic voice fed through an
amplifier installed in his wheelchair.
Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
before getting his PhD in 1965, Hawking has been confined to a wheelchair since.
He lost function of his three last working fingers two years ago and can now
only communicate by moving his eyelids.
He controls his computerized voice system using a
blink-activated infrared system embedded in his glasses. To change each section
of his prepared text, he blinks an eye, slightly scrunching up his cheek in the
Accompanied by five nurses, Hawking was aided by a
man who helped scroll through PowerPoint slides, which were detailed and full of
Seemingly snoozing in his black wheelchair, Dr.
Hawking, in a stripped dark shirt, related his thoughts on the enigma of the
origins of the universe.
Was the universe eternal? Or did it have a beginning?
A key turning point came in the 1920s when American astronomer Edwin Hubble
observed other galaxies and concluded that the universe was expanding. "Hubble's
finding was one of the most important intellectual discoveries of the 20th
century, or any century," Dr.Hawking said.
"Many scientists were still unhappy with the universe
having a beginning because it seemed to imply that physics broke down," Hawking
said. "One would have to invoke an outside agency, which for convenience one can
call God, to determine how the universe began."
He described how the General Theory of Relativity of
Albert Einstein and the discovery of the expansion of the universe provoked
conceptual changes, which meant that the idea of an ever-existing, ever-lasting
universe was no longer tenable.
The theorem which he and Dr. Roger Penrose developed
in 1970 said that the General Theory of Relativity explained how the universe
and time itself might begin in the big bang and that time would come to an end
in black holes.
"One can get rid of the problem of time having a
beginning in a similar way in which we got rid of the edge of the world," Dr.
Hawking said. Looking for the beginning of the universe was like looking for any
place south of the South Pole, he said.
"As one moves north, the circles of constant
latitude, representing the size of the universe, would expand," he said. "To ask
what happened before the beginning of the universe would become a meaningless
question because there is nothing south of the South Pole."
In his view, the beginning of the universe would be
governed by the laws of science: the creation of the universe would be down to
spontaneous quantum creation.
The image which Hawking drew of the beginnings of the
universe was that of bubbles appearing and bursting, corresponding to mini
universes that expand and collapse.
"Only those which grew to a certain size would be
safe from re-collapse and would continue to expand at an ever increasing rate,"
Dr. Hawking said.
"Cosmology is a very exciting and active subject. We
are getting closer to answering the age-old questions: Why are we here? Where
did we come from?" Dr. Hawking said.
Dr. Hawking rose to international fame after the
publication of his best-seller, A Brief History of Time.
On his website, Dr. Hawking encourages other disabled
people tostudy theoretical physics.
Some Chinese amateur scientists took the opportunity
to indulge their own theories. With thick handwritten manuscripts, a middle-aged
retired soldier stood in the aisle of the conference hall and touted his
evidence proving the General Theory of Relativity totally wrong.
To many college students, Hawking is a star.
Organizers of the conference gave away 6,000 tickets to Beijing college students
holding valid IDs.
"Frankly speaking, I didn't quite understand his
lecture," said Zhang Tao, a freshman at Beijing Institute of Technology. "I come
here to see Hawking as he is my personal hero."
The appeal of Hawking largely comes from his ability
to be a great thinker despite his physical challenges. Like Zhang and dozens of
his classmates, many students from high schools and universities attended the
conference to get a glimpse of the great man in person.
"I feel uncomfortable when seeing him mobbed by so
many people taking pictures," said college student Zhou Cheng, who had his own
copy of A Brief History of Time.
Prof. Yau said he hoped the appearance of Dr. Hawking
would inspire an interest in the physical sciences among young people.
"It's okay if many of them are unable to understand
Hawking's theories, because he will still inspire young minds," Yau said.