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UC Berkeley Press Release

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking to draw crowds

– It's a rare day that a physics lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, fills 2,000 seats, with an overflow crowd of several hundred people eager to watch a live video simulcast on a big screen.

But that day will arrive next Tuesday (March 13) on campus when cosmology superstar Stephen Hawking delivers the annual J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture in Physics. Tickets for Hawking's talk at the 2,000-seat Zellerbach Auditorium - and for the live video simulcast at the 700-seat Wheeler Auditorium - sold out swiftly. There are some 400 names on a waiting list.

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

"The only other event that sells out this quickly is Yo-Yo Ma," said Christina Kellogg, spokeswoman for Cal Performances, which is co-producing the Hawking lecture along with UC Berkeley's College of Letters & Science.

To prepare for a visit from the world-famous disabled cosmologist, students and faculty have been reading "A Briefer History of Time," the 2005 sequel to Hawking's 1988 bestseller popularizing the mysteries of the universe.

This Thursday (March 8), one-time seminars on the book will be presented at UC Berkeley by Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist George Smoot and astronomer Alex Filippenko, a world-renowned expert on exploding stars, black holes and galaxies.

The College of Letters & Science mailed out "A Briefer History of Time" to some 3,800 students last November as part of its new "On the Same Page" program, which provides each freshman with a book that has changed the way we view the world, as well as opportunities to discuss the book with faculty members.

Students who attend the related talks are automatically being entered into a lottery. The winners will get to meet Hawking at a March 13 pre-lecture reception. One hopeful is Seth Saltiel, a UC Berkeley freshman who attended two seminars and plans to major in physics.

"Hawking's a really good example of a disabled person who has overcome huge obstacles," Saltiel said. "He's seen as one of the smartest people in the world."

That certainly resonates with theoretical physicist Marvin Cohen, who set into motion Hawking's visit to UC Berkeley. "Young people are captivated by what it must be like to be a brain that is so alive in a body that is not responding, and all you can do is think," said Cohen. "It's like science fiction."

Cohen said he invited Hawking to deliver the annual Oppenheimer Lecture when he ran into him at Britain's Heathrow Airport four years ago. At the time, Cohen was grumbling about having had to fly from Edinburgh to London, but when Hawking, who is virtually paralyzed by motor neurone disease, told him he was flying to China, Cohen realized he had it easy.

Through e-mail correspondence, arrangements for Hawking's visit began, and finally the scheduling, sponsorship and funding fell into place. As interest and support flooded in, Cohen realized the event could grow to rock star proportions, and Cal Performances got involved.

"Stephen's a big draw, and that's understandable," said Cohen, former president of the American Physical Society, a group whose goal is to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics and which publishes major physics journals.

Hawking, the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University - a post once held by Isaac Newton - was diagnosed at age 21 with a neurodegenerative disease known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease. He was not expected to live to finish his Ph.D.

Today, at 65, Hawking has surpassed his life expectancy by 40 years. But he can barely move. To communicate, he blinks an eye and twitches a cheek to activate a low-powered infrared beam that moves a cursor across a dictionary. What he has written is then sent to a voice synthesizer and amplified.

And when he types in the word, "Big," said Cohen, "the next word is always "Bang."

Big Bang cosmology has never been more popular, say physicists. Since the early 1990s, data from probes, satellites and the Hubble Space Telescope have allowed cosmologists to not only measure the expansion of the universe, but to show it is accelerating.

Because of these discoveries, and the universal questions Hawking tackles, his lectures always attract a broad audience of scientists, philosophers, theologians and others.

"When you're a kid, you look into the sky and you see all these stars and you ask, 'Where did it all start?'" Cohen said. "Everyone can identify with that."