Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Stephen Hawking at the Flint Center

I have always enjoyed physics and astrophysics, and the epitome of that enjoyment was attending a live lecture by the famous by Dr Stephen Hawking at the Flint Center yesterday.

The event was roughly two hours, divided in three parts. First, Dr Hawking gave a fascinating exposition of black holes and the Hawking radiation, then his long time friend, Prof. Kip Thorne gave an excellent talk about his research on black holes. The sessions ended with a Q&A session dubbed: the best of Hawking.

The event was sold out, and the Flint Center was overflowing with patrons standing up on the side to listen to Dr. Hawking. It is not hard to understand why. Dr Hawking is a world renowned physicist who can explain complex topics in simple terms that everyone can understand and enjoy. Because of his deteriorating physical condition due to ALS, most of the lecture and Q&A session were prepared--later on Kip revealed the reason is that the technology that Dr. Hawking uses to communicate allows him to talk at the rate of about 3 words per minute, which is not suitable for live events.

Dr Hawking was both illuminating and entertaining; I specially enjoyed how he explained such a difficult topic as black holes using simple and humorous analogies. Take the Hawking radiation for example, where information could escape a black hole, but in a different form than that originally in the black hole. Dr Hawking compared the phenomena to an encyclopedia that has information, but when you burn it it turns into ashes and smoke. The information is still in the ashes and smoke, albeit not in an easy form to recover.

Incidentally Dr Hawking made a bet that nothing can escape a black hole earlier in his career, and when he proposed the Hawking radiation, he paid up the bet with an encyclopedia, albeit not a burnt one.

Dr. Thorne was next, and he talked in detail about his research. The two fascinating takes were it is hard to measure gravitational waves, that the equipment designed to do that is amazing: mirrors separated by 4km, to measure a perturbation on the order of magnitude of 1E-17 cm. Dr Thorne laughed that such a resolution is ridiculous, that he has spent half his career convincing people that it would work, that there are a lot of stations around the world that are setup to measure gravitational waves due to collisions of black holes.

Dr. Thorne then showed simulations of colliding black holes, and simulations of how their vortices would interact (clockwise/counter clockwise spins). The resulting patterns were breathtaking, and reminded me of the great Turkish pottery patterns and designs.

In the end Dr Hawking answered questions from his best of Hawking sessions. The answers were informative, and humorous, like the one about time travel, where Dr Hawking said he has experimental evidence it does not work: he once hosted a party for the travelers from the future, but did not send the invite until later. No one showed up.

He also had a great answer to the Landau physicist productivity scale, where Landau assigned Newton 1, Einstein a 0.5, and himself a 2. The question was where would Hawking rate himself, to which he answered: Landau was good, but not that good. And people who rate themselves are losers.

But perhaps his best answer was what does he miss due to his ALS condition. Dr Hawking was profound in his answer, listing the blessings he has in life: an excellent physics career, 3 children and many grand children, wonderful friends, and a fulfilling life.

What a treat it was to see Dr. Hawking in person, and to listen to him for a little bit of time.

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