/ 7 May 2008

Stephen Hawking to spend time in SA

He’s been described as science’s first real rock star and the most famous physicist never to win a Nobel Prize. He knows black holes and p-branes inside out and he’s headed for South Africa.

Cambridge Professor Stephen Hawking, author of the best-selling A Brief History of Time, arrives in Cape Town this week to deliver a public lecture, his first on the African continent.

Hawking (66), who has advanced motor neuron disease and is confined to a wheelchair, communicates via a computer and a voice synthesiser.

The public lecture is on Sunday evening, following the opening of a research centre at the Muizenberg-based African Institute for Mathematics and Science (Aims).

Hawking will also attend the launch of the National Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stellenbosch.

”Hawking is thought of as the greatest mind in physics since Albert Einstein,” Aims director Professor Fritz Hahne said in a statement released on Wednesday.

”With similar interests — discovering the deepest workings of the universe — he communicates mysterious matters not just to other physicists but also to the general public.

”We are honoured to host and listen to the most famous living scientist on the planet.”

Hawking holds the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge, which was once occupied by Isaac Newton.

He is known for his contributions to the understanding of quantum theory, black holes and the Big Bang theory of the universe’s origins.

He detailed these in A Brief History of Time, which was published in 1988, and had sold nine million copies by 2002.

It was on the British Sunday Times best-seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks, though it has been described as one of the world’s most unread books.

Hawkings’s illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, was diagnosed when he was 21.

Doctors, giving him a lifespan of no more than two or three years, told him he should not bother to finish his doctoral thesis.

He progressively lost the use of his arms and legs, and, after a bout of pneumonia, his voice, and is now almost completely paralysed.

He was reduced to using a thumb to control the computer system attached to his wheelchair, but when he became too weak for even that, he went over to an infra-red ”blink switch” clipped to his glasses.

By squeezing his cheek muscles he is able to scan and select characters on the screen to write, surf the web, send -mail and ”speak” through the synthesizer.

His disability has not dulled his appetite for adventure.

In April last year he became the first quadriplegic to float free in zero-gravity, in a flight paid for by billionaire Richard Branson.

In a converted Boeing 727 nicknamed the ”Vomit Comet”, Hawking experienced weightlessness eight times as the plane went through a series of parabolas.

The flight was in preparation for his goal of an excursion beyond the Earth’s atmosphere in 2009 as a guest of Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism company.

Despite his scientific bent, Hawking has an impish sense of humour, joking about meeting Marilyn Monroe, ”a celestial object”, through time travel, and playing a hologram of himself in an episode of Star Trek.

Hawking, divorced once and busy divorcing his second wife, was some years ago asked in a television interview what he didn’t understand about the universe. He replied: ”Women.” — Sapa