A capacity 550-strong audience gave a standing ovation at the end of a moving, amusing and wide-ranging autobiographical speech by Stephen Hawking on the occasion of his 70th birthday on Sunday.
Sadly Professor Hawking was unable to attend the 70th Birthday Symposium in person as he is recuperating at home after a short spell in hospital, but he was able to watch it online as Intel cameras broadcasted a live webcast of the Symposium.
The day began with a welcome by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz who paid tribute to the famous scientist, before revealing that benefactors Dennis and Sally Avery had offered a gift to establish a Stephen Hawking Professorship in the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology.
Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal gave the fateful news that the Andromeda Galaxy will crash into our own galaxy in about 4 billion years.
Professor Saul Perlmutter, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for the co-discovery of dark matter, and theoretical physicist Professor Kip Thorne, a long-term collaborator with Hawking who measures the success of his own books in "milli-Hawkings", gave insightful lectures on their areas of cosmological expertise.
The Symposium ended with the playing of Hawking’s recorded lecture entitled "A Brief History of Mine", in which he looked back over his life, from his birth on 8 January 1942 "exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo".
At school he was not a high flier. "My classwork was very untidy, and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers. But my classmates gave me the name Einstein, so presumably they saw signs of something better. When I was twelve, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything. I don’t know if this bet was ever settled, and if so, which way it was decided."
After studying Natural Sciences at University College, Oxford, he came to Cambridge for a PhD in Cosmology in October 1962. "At that time it became clear something was not quite right with me. The Christmas after arriving in Cambridge I went home. It was a very cold winter and my mother persuaded me to go skating on the lake in St Albans even though I knew I was not up to it. I fell over and had great difficulty getting up." He described spending weeks in hospital having tests. "They never actually told me what it was, but I guessed enough to know it was pretty bad so I didn’t want to ask."
After initial depression he began to accept his condition and to progress in his work. "After my expectations had been reduced to zero, every new day became a bonus and I began to appreciate everything I did have. While there’s life, there is hope. And there was also a young woman named Jane whom I had met at a party. Getting engaged lifted my spirits and I realized, if we were going to get married, I had to get a job and finish my PhD. I began to work hard and I enjoyed it."
Professor Hawking discussed his research in "the Golden Age in which we solved most of the major problems in black hole theory", his belief in M-theory as the answer to questions such as Why do we exist? and Why is there something rather than nothing? and how he came to write his famous multi-million-selling book ’A Brief History of Time’.
In a moving conclusion he advised: "Look up at the stars and not down at your feet," reflecting that "It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. Our picture of the Universe has changed a great deal in the last 40 years and I’m happy if I have made a small contribution.
"Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
Virgin chief executive Sir Richard Branson was in the audience. He said it was “wonderful to be celebrating his 70th birthday, which in itself is remarkable. He should have won the Nobel prize many times, he is somebody who has discovered many things in his lifetime and he has managed to do that through extreme disability. Stephen Hawking is very keen to go into space and one of his greatest desires is to find out if there is other life in space. We are hoping that by Christmas time we will have put our spaceship [Virgin Galactic] up into space, and hopefully soon it should be possible to get Stephen Hawking into space.”
The Symposium was sponsored by Intel and SGI.