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Space, Time and Marilyn Monroe


The Guardian carries an interview by Emma Brockes with Stephen Hawking, a refreshing piece that steers clear of the usual condescension-tinged-with-awe tone that most intervewers seem to adopt when talking to him.

Starting off by telling us that it is wrong to “read him solely through his condition,” and that his curt tone “might as easily be a sign of geekiness or superiority or intolerance of non-scientists,” Brockes goes on to talk to Hawking about a lot of things, incuding the effect of art on people (good art is rare, mediocre art sucks), his latest book – A Briefer History of Time and most importantly for us, Marilyn Monroe.

A Briefer History of Time is not exactly String Theory for Dummies. Like a lot of specialists, Hawking has trouble imagining what it might be like not to understand what he does, or rather, where the non-scientist's understanding will be weak and where strong. The book's range is therefore a little eccentric, lurching between explaining what a scientific theory is (“a model of the universe”) and going into quantum mechanics in the kind of vertiginous detail that makes you open your eyes very wide as you read. It is fascinating, up to a point.

Hawking communicates by twitching his cheek, and articulating the simplest of thoughts takes him as long as 20 minutes. After a bunch of scripted questions about the book, Brockes switches over to live questions, an “arduous and time-consuming process.”

Behind his shoulder, his assistant nods. There will now be some time for live questions. Stupidly, given that I have read all about it, I fail to realise just how arduous and time-consuming the process of live communication is. If I did, I wouldn't squander the time on asking a joke, warm-up question. I tell him I have heard he has six different voices on his synthesizer and that one is a woman's. Hawking lowers his eyes and starts responding. After five minutes of silence the nurse sitting beside me closes her eyes and appears to go to sleep. I look around. On the windowsill are framed photos stretching back through Hawking's life. There are photos of one of his daughters with her baby. I notice Hawking's hands are thin and tapering. He is wearing black suede Kickers.

Another five minutes pass. There are pictures of Marilyn Monroe on the wall, one of which has been digitally manipulated to feature Hawking in the foreground. I see a card printed with the slogan: “Yes, I am the centre of the universe.” I write it down and turn the page in my notebook. It makes a tearing sound and the nurse's eyes snap open. She goes over to Hawking and, putting her hand on his head, says, “Now then, Stephen,” and gently wipes saliva from the side of his mouth. Another five minutes pass. Then another.

Hawking's assistant, who sits behind him to see what is going on on his screen, nods slightly. Here it comes: “That was true of one speech synthesizer I had. But the one I use normally has only one voice. It is 20 years old, but I stick to it because I haven't found better and because I'm known by it worldwide.” That's it? The fruit of 20 minutes' effort? This man is a Hercules.

Brockes confesses to Hawking that when she thinks string theory, she imagines cheese strings and asks him how he visualizes strings. Hawking tries to say something (I think the answer started with seventh letter of the alphabet), and then pulls back to tell her something inane about the human brain. Whatever, prof.

But he does redeem himself with this one:

I ask: “If you could go back in time, who would you rather meet, Marilyn Monroe or Isaac Newton?” and after 10 minutes he says in that voice that makes the blandest statement sound profound: “Marilyn. Newton seems to have been an unpleasant character.”

At least he has his priorities straight. Most of the time.

Full Interview