March 13, 2007
The Man on Stage
Just saw Stephen Hawking over at Berkeley. It was one of the most amazing talks I’ve ever seen — for reasons that had nothing to do with the talk itself.
I mean, it was good stuff: “The Origin of the Universe.” But my mind has been blown that way a few times already and Hawking didn’t say anything I hadn’t already heard.
But it wasn’t what he said. It was the scene.
Imagine the stage: huge, wide, dark — Zellerbach Hall at Berkeley. There’s Hawking in the middle: a crumple of brown suit in his wheelchair, in a pool of light. There’s a humongous projection screen behind him and a microphone stand set up in front of him.
In the beginning there’s a long pause. Really long. The applause dies down (as an aside, I’ve never seen an audience as warm towards somebody as this one was towards him) and then… crickets. For thirty seconds… a minute… two minutes.
Then suddenly, Hawking’s synthesized voice:
“Can you hear me?”
The climactic scenes of blockbuster movies are not as thrilling. There is a gasp, and laughs, and claps, and murmurs “yes.”
His voice still sounds pretty much like that original Macintosh synthesizer — you’d recognize it as, like, “generic computer voice” — except here in Zellerbach it’s loud, amplified, everywhere at once.
He barrels into his talk, accompanied by a line of white text along the bottom of the projection screen and a set of awesomely dorky slides. Yes: To describe the very shape and duration of the universe, Stephen Hawking uses PowerPoint clip art.
But of course the entire time, he’s motionless. For all we know Hawking could be a dummy, a cunningly detailed prop. The text has all been composed ahead of time, obviously. The screen is the only thing on stage that moves.
Well, almost. Hawking controls his world via a sensor that watches his eye — I think he blinks, or at least flexes the blink-muscle, to trigger it. And when it triggers, it makes a whispery beep. So throughout his talk, you can hear a background rhythm of these beeps: faint, just on the edge of perception even with the microphone so close, but distinctly there. Like a pulse.
I wish I could really capture how his synthesized voice felt. Booming out in that hall, in odd computery cadences, the tonal modulations almost musical sometimes, and a crisp digital sibilance… the guy I went with said “it sounded kinda like the voice of god” and he was totally right.