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Errol Morris on Stephen Hawking, “a king of infinite space”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2018

From an interview with Errol Morris on his friend Stephen Hawking (about whom he made a documentary), Morris shares why Hawking’s A Brief History of Time resonated with so many people beyond the scientific community.

I read the book on the plane on the way over. I was surprised, because I had been told that it was a book about theoretical physics and cosmology. But it was something much more than that. It was a work of literature.

He had done something strange and unusual and powerful. He had described himself and his own situation in terms of his science. Hawking’s greatest discovery — Hawking Radiation — was, in its own way, a tour de force. He was combining elements from general relativity, from quantum mechanics, and from thermodynamics in a new way. There’s something extraordinary about it, but what was most extraordinary about it is that here you have this entity, a black hole, from which nothing can escape. The gravitational field is so strong, surrounded by an event horizon. Nothing can escape from the black hole. Nothing inside that event horizon can get out.

What did Hawking show? Hawking showed that black holes are not entirely black. Radiation can escape from a black hole. He showed the mechanism through which this could occur.

At the same time, he’s telling you that he’s been condemned to this chair, to motor neuron disease, to ALS, and is really unable to talk. He’s lost his ability to speak, and now has to use a computer device, a clicker, a screen with a built-in dictionary and cursor. Despite the disease, he’s not trapped inside of himself. He’s able to communicate. He would always cite the famous line from Hamlet, “Bounded …”

“… in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.”

The whole thing is well worth a read. Like this bit about Hawking’s voice double:

Q: What was the process of working on the film with him like? Not all of those passages are from the book. Were you sending him questions?

A: Yes. He was writing answers, and some of the material was taken from lectures that he had given. Some of it was written for the film. I called him the first nontalking talking head. It became pretty clear that you had to assemble a dictionary of Hawking shots, but there’s no point in interviewing him for those, because it’s not synced. It’s a voice synthesizer. He gave us the voice synthesizer so we could just assemble his voice in the office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he insisted on calling “the pseudo-Cambridge.” There’s nothing like this project.

Q: Wait. He sent you the synthesizer so he could send you an answer and then you could feed it through the synthesizer to get the sound of his voice delivering the answer?

A: That’s correct.