Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Stephen Hawking, and a physics festival

Back in the early days of my college life, there were distinct classes of science nerds. There were the wannabe science nerds, who thought it was cool to unite philosophy and science and so would read absolute rubbish like Capra’s “The tao of physics” (yes, I read that book too, during younger, more naive days). But a clear evolution towards being a true science nerd almost required reading one or all of three books. Feynman’s lectures, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Stephen Hawking’s A brief history of time. Once these books had been tackled, you were well on your way towards science geek superstardom.

Anyway, when I heard that Stephen Hawking was visiting Texas A&M for their annual Physics festival (thanks Patrix) I decided to go down there to hear him speak, after having bought tickets for his talk well over a week in advance.

When I reached the venue I finally understood that there indeed were science superstars. There were thousands of people there, for a sold out talk. People stood at the gates holding little signs saying “Hawking tickets wanted”, making it feel like the opening day of a Shah Rukh Khan movie in Mumbai. If I only had the sagacity to buy a bunch of tickets in advance, I could have made a killing selling them at the venue. The audience was as diverse as it was large. It wasn’t filled with scrawny, bespectacled, gawky, unkempt physics nerds alone. There were distinguished looking professors, moms with their kids, student couples on “dates”, tons of undergraduate students, and the long lines snaked their way into the auditorium. Apart from perhaps Jim Watson, I cannot imagine any other scientist who could so effortlessly fill up a huge auditorium and two spillover halls (which had the talk streaming in live on closed-circuit TV, and which is where I was). Especially a talk that was not free, and didn’t have any free food on offer. Heck, I can’t think of too many scientists who could bring out such an audience even if the talk was free and provided a lavish free banquet.

The crowds meant that the talk started 10-15 minutes late. One of Hawking’s former students, now a distinguished professor at A&M, introduced Hawking, and reminded us that Hawking had made an appearance in the Simpsons, and it is but a matter of time before he appeared on Futurama. I think it will be more than fitting for Hawking to appear on that show.

Stephen slowly started communicating through the speech synthesizer on this wheelchair. It is absolutely amazing that someone who can no longer really talk can communicate this well, thanks to the speech synthesizer. The synthesized voice was pretty good, had a slight British accent, and didn’t have a monotone, so listening to it was pretty easy (I remember reading an article where Hawking said he didn't like his previous speech synthesizer because it had an American accent).

I won’t go in to all the details of the talk itself, but just outline them. He started his talk with different creation myths across the world (and reminded us of the Bishop of Ussher, who in all his infinite wisdom calculated that the world was created at 9 am, on October the 22nd, 4004 BC, and the audience in my room burst out laughing). Hawking went on to then describe his interests in cosmology, and then outlined the Hawking-Penrose theorem, which showed that Einstein’s General theory of relativity implied that space and time would both begin in the “big bang”, and end in a black hole. A consequence of this was that relativity would have to be united with the quantum theory. Hawking also went on to describe (very briefly) how the universe expanded (with more than 90% of the universe’s expansion occurring in the first nano-second of the big bang, and all the remaining expansion taking a few billion years, and this process continues today), and then explained Cosmic microwaves, which are literally remnant heat waves left behind after the big bang.

Of course, if you want more details, you’re better off reading the book.

After the talk ended, I ventured out into the hallways where the Physics festival itself was taking place. This was (in some ways) more fun than the talk itself. Physics students and faculty at A&M had put together a tremendously informative exhibition, showing how some of the most fundamental aspects of everyday physics happen. There were exhibits on Cavendish, and two spheres demonstrating an experiment to calculate the value of G, the gravitational constant. There were exhibits showing how the phases of the moon happened. Other exhibits explained electromagnetism or gravity, or surface tension. There were little levitation devices, or little experiments (like rolling down a boiled egg or a raw egg down a slope. Which one would reach the bottom first?)……tons of stuff that people could see, touch, feel and understand.

The exhibits and the people explaining them were fantastic. The sheer number of people who had shown up really revealed the high degree of enthusiasm for science that still exists amongst people (even in these politicized, ideological days), and there were many, many kids out there, watching and learning. I thought it was an excellent effort by the A&M folks, and I also think science festivals like this, organized by major departments in big research universities will go a long, long way in educating the greater public about science, provide a broader appreciation of science and the road to discovery, and also make the people appreciate universities more (and not view them as elite ivory towers).

Lazy Sunday afternoons, with a nap and a movie, are wonderful. But every now and then, a science festival on a Sunday will be absolute icing on the cake.


Anonymous said...

To say I'm green with envy would be the understatement of the century.

Anonymous said...

PS: Really like the customizations you've put in. Great job!

Wavefunction said...

Hawking is a cool cat and pitches some dry humour. But he actually gave the entire talk? A lot of times, he presses buttons to move on to the next segment, but the segments have been usually prerecorded.

I would add Pauling's "Nature of the Chemical Bond" and Darwin's "Origin of Species" (or even "Voyage of the Beagle")

Sunil said...

witnwisdumb...thanks for the help in getting this template set up. I'll keep twiddling with it now...:-)

Ashutosh....both The Nature of the chemical bond and Origin of... are great books. But I don't know how many people have read them completely :-). I haven't....I've only read parts of them.

Anonymous said...

See Eric Berger SCIGUY (Blog)in
the Houston Chronicle for further
details and comments on Hawking's
Texas adventure...

Sunil said...

A. Thornton.....thanks 'much for that tip off. I read Eric's post, and it's good fun to read.

Others...Eric's post (and his blog) can be read here

--Sunrise-- said...

Stephen Hawking's book is definitely on my reading list... which is long enough as it is, but anyway...!

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised someone took the time to write such a nice blog entry about this event. I was one of the physics students at the Hawking talk / physics festival (specifically, the one throwing the phosphorescent frizbees to kids). I'm glad that you enjoyed our event.

Right after Hawking left A&M he went to Florida to ride the vomit comet. Pretty sweet :-)

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