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March 13, 2007

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The Man on Stage

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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.

Posted March 13, 2007 at 11:28 | Comments (16) | Permasnark
File under: Society/Culture


wow -- great description, robin. i wish i could have been there! i want to see scientist-as-superhero live...

The 'Hawking' voice is a true orginal and can only be identified with him.

Yup, hard as it's been to quantify the experience of seeing and hearing him talk, I think you pretty much nailed it. I didn't realize it until last night, but he's definitely got this mythical quality about him, like he just stepped out of a comic book or a Joseph Campbell anthology.

Posted by: kiyash on March 14, 2007 at 11:42 AM

1. There is so god.
2. "Stephen Hawking has recently argued that there is 'no place for a creator', that God does not exist."
3. You call yourself a scientist, Robin? Tricked by the magic of stagecraft into absurd believe of a higher being?

Posted by: truth on March 14, 2007 at 01:09 PM

Well, I will not argue that I was utterly seduced by the stagecraft here -- but to clarify, we're using 'voice of god' here as a token for a certain kind of awesome experience, not literally.

ROBIN! You got Gawkered. Sweeeeeeeeet. I miss you guys.

Posted by: rebekah m on March 14, 2007 at 03:46 PM

4. jebus. do you call yourself a scientist, robin? I wouldn't :~) cavalier, perhaps paladin...mage? something archaic, gallant, cool and tricky, all at the same time!
5. clearly the 'scientist' label is too Fraught with those who cling to truth as though it were a god itself. chill, dude. it's all metaphorical.

6. No, definitely not a scientist. Merely scientesque.

7. In case anybody is wondering, I was going to snap a photo, but then I remembered how the last one at Zellerbach Hall turned out and decided against it.

That sounds like something I need to see before I die, or more importantly, before Hawking dies. Thanks for sharing your experience.

rAchel: ... barbarian, thief, or whatever that woman with the pole vaulting javelin thing was.

I can almost feel a little bit of the awe that you felt. Amazing story.

Also... "There is so god." ?? What is this, 3rd grade?

If you love Hawking's voice, I assume you've heard him rap:

Posted by: Joel on March 16, 2007 at 11:27 AM

Why not update Hawking's "voice" to resemble the soothing, dulcit tones of HAL from the movie 2001? Think you're in a state of awe would take you like 5 years to come down off that shit.

Posted by: Humberto on March 16, 2007 at 03:14 PM

Apparently, many people have offered to 'upgrade' Hawking's voice (there are loads of newer, better voice synthesizers available now) but he's refused... he says he really thinks of the old-school synthesizer as his voice. I like that a lot.

I'm sure a lot of visitors are coming from

Stephen makes some pretty far-out comments in his interview with NBC and elsewhere. He says he believes life on earth is at ever-increasing risk and that permanent escape of some people from the planet is imperative. Re-read Stephens own comments. They are both "far out there" and rational at the same time.

It is hard to imagine the condition of the planet being more hostile to life than space, but we know that is has been before.

"By the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished."

According to the Word of God, man may well escape the planet, but the coming judgment will destroy both the heavens and the earth.

"The heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men."

Amen, Amen, "The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up."

Yes, man may well escape Earth, but, "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him?"

The Word of God tells us that he “has appointed a day in the which he will judge the world in righteousness.” What about you? Are you ready for that day? Whether you are ready or not, you can be assured that, “it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment.”

See: Publicly Preaching the Judgment of Christ in video

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