Dec. 12, 2006
Stephen Hawking opens up to Israelis on popular TV talk show
by Simeon Cohen
Stephen Hawking, professor of mathematics at Cambridge
University, author of the best-selling A Brief History of Time
and the world's foremost celebrity scientist, amused an Israeli
television audience when he appeared on Channel 2 on Monday night.
The renowned astrophysicist, who arrived in Israel last Thursday
for an eight-day visit, was interviewed on the Yair Lapid talk show.
Hawking discussed his severe case of ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease,
his celebrity status, his perspective on God, the
Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and of course, quantum physics with
The interview opened with a clip of Hawking on the popular
American cartoon show, The Simpsons. It became much more solemn,
however, when Lapid questioned Hawking about his disease and how
it had impacted both his life and career.
Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at 21 and given only two or three
years to live. Yet miraculously, he defied the odds, and today is
a 64-year-old professor at one of the world's preeminent academic
Yet the disease did take its toll. As time progressed, Hawking
gradually lost the use of his arms, legs, and voice, and is now
almost completely paralyzed. He has a computer system attached to
his wheelchair, which allows him to function normally. He also
lost his natural ability to speak and thus, uses an electronic
voice synthesizer to communicate.
Incidentally, Hawking's synthesizer speaks with an American
accent, despite the fact that he is British. When Lapid asked him
why this is, he said that the synthesizer is a very old model
from 1986 which is no longer made. He can't bear to part with it,
as it is the voice he is now internationally identified with.
Hawking discussed the fact that he became interested in physics
prior to becoming physically disabled, which worked to his
advantage as his field is one of the few in which his work would
not be seriously impaired by his condition.
"It was fortunate that I was a physicist so I could continue my
profession," he told Lapid.
Despite his condition, Hawking has been able to marry twice and
has had "three attractive children." Hawking stressed that family
was very important to him and they helped him to thrive, despite
his debilitating illness.
The high point of the interview came when Lapid asked Hawking
about the positive aspects of his disability. "I don't have to
sit on many boring committees," Hawking replied wittily,
soliciting a laugh from the audience.
Hawking said he was rather distraught at the current
Israeli-Palestinian situation. He was last here in 1990, and said
he felt the situation had deteriorated substantially over the
past 16 years.
When asked the purpose of his visit, Hawking said he wanted to
see what the situation was like now with his own eyes. "It is
very different on the ground than what you read about in the
papers." He said he hoped that a solution to the conflict could
soon be reached.
When asked whether or not he believed in God, Hawking replied by
saying that the laws of science determine the evolution of the
universe and that God "may or may not have created those laws,
but he cannot intervene, or else they wouldn't be laws."
In a frank discussion of his unique celebrity status, Hawking
happily divulged that his name is more recognized than the names
of most film actors "The downside of my celebrity is that I
cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized," said
Hawking, poking a bit of fun at himself. "It is not enough for me
to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away."
The interview closed on an optimistic note, with Hawking
addressing his viewers. "However bad life may seem, there is
always something you can do and succeed at. Where there is life,
there is hope."
On Sunday, he met with teenaged scientists at the Bloomfield
Museum of Science in Jerusalem, where he discussed black holes
and the nature of the space-time continuum. Later that day, he
met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Hawking and Olmert discussed
the ever-present issues between Israel and the Palestinian
Authority, and how those issues could be most efficiently resolved.
Since his arrival, Hawking has also held a video conference in
east Jerusalem which was broadcast to science students in the
Palestinian Authority and has had dinner with representatives of
the National Academy of Sciences.
On Thursday he will speak about the origins of the universe to an
audience of over 1,000 at Hebrew University at an the event that
will be broadcast over the Internet. Hawking will also visit both
the Weizmann Institute and Tel Aviv University, will meet with
representatives of the Israel Academy of Sciences and will give a
public lecture at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah.
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