British physicist Stephen Hawking used his first public speech in Canada to talk about the mystery of the origin of the universe. The world’s most famous living scientist also talked about his life, his work and his influences at Waterloo, Ont.’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics on Sunday.
The Big Bang theory, the creation of galaxies and his passion for cosmology were among the topics Hawking covered using graphics, photos and humour. “The no boundary proposal means that one can picture the origin of the universe as being like the formation of bubbles and steam in boiling water,” said Hawking, who was named a research chair at the institute.
“Quantum fluctuations lead to the spontaneous creation of tiny universes out of nothing,” he said. “Most of the universes collapse to nothing but a few that reach a critical size will expand in an inflationary manner and will form galaxies and stars and maybe beings like us.”
Hawking also spoke about his early days at the University of Cambridge. When he was originally diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, he didn’t expect to live to complete his PhD, but his disease didn’t initially progress and “things picked up,” he said.
The invitation-only speech was attended by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Industry Minister Tony Clement, Research in Motion co-founder and Perimeter Institute founder Mike Lazaridis as well as scientists, students and other Hawking fans.
Flaherty said he found the speech fascinating. “He’s trying to summarize a life of research in 50 or 60 years in less than an hour or little more than an hour. The time just flew,” he said. “It was fascinating the people he worked with over the years and the development of theories that changed the world.”
Neil Turok, director of the institute, has been friends with the renowned scientist for years and said it is “brilliant” having him visit for six weeks. “It’s hard to take it all in,” Turok said. “It’s very emotional for me for him to come here and bring his endorsement, his enthusiasm to the Perimeter Institute,” he said.
While at the institute, Hawking is developing a model of the beginning of the universe, said Turok. A conference was held at the institute with leading experts from all over the world last week. Hawking and other scientists are struggling with “difficult notions” about the beginning of time and trying to predict what the next generation of experiments will find. Initially, Hawking was to begin his part-time research post at the Perimeter Institute last summer but was delayed due to health problems.
Hawking received a standing ovation at the conclusion of Sunday’s event which was taped for broadcast on TV Ontario. Two high school students who won the institute’s “I Love Science” contest to attend the speech were in awe. “I thought it was phenomenal,” said Allison Carter, 16, of Calgary, who admitted she was star struck. “In one of the essay books that I have there is a very similar essay and it was really neat to hear it in person.”
Parastoo Abtahi, 17, of Richmond Hill north of Toronto, said the speech was fabulous. Her favourite part of the speech was when Hawking was talking about black holes, she said. “It was really good to see him in person,” she said. “The whole idea of meeting him was a dream.”
The Canadian Press