Life as a fairy tale

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1988, exclusive, by a sheer luck : a journalist could still meet Stephen Hawking for two hours. Which was soon over.  We talked about ecology, of course. What else ?

hawking-signéStephen Hawking is the stuff of legends: Einstein’s spiritual son is locked in paralysis, as if to expiate the sin of Physics – the bomb – his superior mind patiently stripping down the machinery of the universe. That’s how the media have shown him. Will he some day find out the hidden formula to unite the theories of Science? “Can he read God’s mind?” asked Newsweek. The publishing world is vibrating from the shock of his popular success, A brief history of time[1]. A beautiful title, quickly sold out, for an extremely long book to write, through the very restricted, imperceptible moves of two fingers on a small box linked to a screen. After multiple sclerosis, after tracheotomy, which robbed him of motion and speech, Stephen Hawking then is enduring fame, which will deprive of privacy. But why expose one self? Seeing him on pictures, potted in a wheelchair, with one shoulder askew and a terrified smile on his weary face, I had absolutely no desire to meet him.

The idea came from Globe. Personally, Physics kill me. I remember the baccalaureate[2] and having to cram a three years program in two months. For it’s a pyramid: you can’t play at the top if you don’t know the basis. Never having learned by rote, not even the multiplication table, and sacked from the course since Christmas, I declared Physics tedious. I had the highest mark on the exam and immediately, forgot it all. One year later, I decided maths were going round in circles, like Archimedes’ spiral whose equation is so beautiful I stopped right there. Nevertheless I read Stephen Hawking, and you’re going to love it too.

« A famous English scientist (some say Bertrand Russell) was giving a conference on Astronomy. He was explaining how the earth revolves around the sun and how the sun, in turn, revolves around the large mass of stars we call our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said:

« What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise. » The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, « What is the tortoise standing on? » « You’re very clever, young man, very clever, » said the old lady. « But it’s turtles all the way down! »»

My apologies, Mister Hawking, for stealing your tricks, the delicious beginning of your first chapter; it is meant to introduce you to the readers. I hope the translation suits you; it would need a poet. I fear a physicist would add images. Not to betray you would require a master in conciseness (I don’t claim to be). Thank you for explaining Newton and Einstein as no one ever did, and for the sweet revenge of seeing success befall one who still credits people’s understanding.


It was Globe’s idea, not mine. As early as the beginning of summer, before the bomb exploded at the journal office. Before reading Hawking, and before he became a best-seller. I would had much rather produce the masterly report on Botany neglect in France; show the ruin of Montpellier Botanical garden, second oldest there is, after Padua; denounce short-sighted scientific policies; mention the University of Wisconsin, Moscow Botanical Institute, Japanese visitors gaping at a grapevine on the facade of the old coaches post-building, at the heart of Paris Museum, which is to be demolished; describe the experts’ outrage at the state of our collections; but Globe wanted Hawking. A physicist at that! In other words: the enemy. Physics have ruined public research. Biology could die, Ecology is no more. While this sicko is playing God on his wheelchair, forests are going down, 30 ha by minute. A quarter of the flora is doomed[3]. A tropical flower remedy to childhood leukaemia can no more be found in its forest habitat, turned into a desert. We may well be loosing, at this very instant, the plant that could cure the wheeling physicist or AIDS. That’s what I was thinking as I considered this great idea of Globe. But summer has gone by, I met Stephen Hawking and consequently I worry for him.


The reasons why I accepted are not all that clear. There was the bomb in front of the journal, an old word of advice from Bob Dylan: «Never trust a cop in raincoat, when asked to define yourself exactly, say you are an exact mathematician »[4]; a past rebellion against an obtuse math teacher who rammed incapacity into the pupils’ heads (how resignation prints itself into children’s soft brains is properly vertiginous); and on top of it all, the puzzled discovery of sea pollution by the media stammering vague ecology notions. I did not feel on a par, but to flee, to act, to breathe new air, to meet a genius…


It would require credentials. My fairy godmother cleared the way. One sunny morning I found myself on the buttercups sprinkled lawn at the Observatoire de Meudon. « Science is chiefly a game » declared Jean Pierre Luminet, a young physicist with a radiant health, while ducks took off and landed on the pond. To be able to work in such a place seemed amazing. There was even a vegetable garden with wild annual delphiniums that no murderous hand had come to weed.


We were talking about the Big Bang. It is not exactly what I thought it was. Let us say, very simply, just a very hot phase at a given moment in the great beginning of everything. Not the beginning, a phase. The explosion, it seems, is still going on. The universe is expanding. Galaxies are moving away as I am typing this. We have known it since 1929, I just checked in Hawking (thanks to him I can get rid of two books tomorrow; this manual is worth an encyclopaedia, index included). Indeed, the further the galaxies are, the more they flee. Edwin Hubble discovered that in 1929, by analyzing their glow. « The Big Bang theory existed much before, explained Luminet under the trees, but up to then cosmology, the study of the universe, was deemed purely gratuitous »; a second clue is the 3° Kevin (-270°C) Background radiation, echo from the big detonation which was discovered in the 1960s; thirdly, the large quantity of hydrogen and helium, which require a hot, concentrated phase. « These lighter elements could not be made in the stars which make all others; for we are from stars bits and pieces.» I found the idea very attractive but what is it based upon? « On the understanding of nuclear reaction, Luminet answered. Measures are precise enough that we can tell the universe went through a certain temperature range for about one hundred seconds. Let us say it is 99% certain. Stephen Hawking, for his part, looked into what happened before that hot phase, a more primitive state of the universe. The expansion theory has much developed, in the last few years. It was born in the 1920s. The Russian mathematician Friedman found cosmological solutions to Einstein’s equations of general relativity..




Stop, one moment to reflect. Imagine Cambridge, north of London, an academic town with bristling gothic spires, gilded statues on crenulated arches, mullioned windows, fashion boutiques, in a freezing climate; Professor Hawking’s wheelchair is parked under neon lights; the only office door is shut on the now empty, then buzzing, students cafeteria. The professor is fishing words on a screen. He is writing A brief history of time: « As we will see, the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe. This was first pointed out by St. Augustine. When asked: What did God do before He created the universe? Augustine did not reply: He was preparing Hell for people who asked such questions. Instead, he sais that time was a property of the universe that God created, and that time did not exist before the beginning of the universe. » For theoreticians, time is to be inscribed on an axis of coordinates in Einstein’s curved geometry, where, to go straight forward, the Earth revolves around the sun.


Back on Meudon lawns. Luminet spoke words of gold. « Einstein’s equations link the geometry of the universe to its material content. These are extremely complex. They cannot be solved in their general state. In order to find solutions, you have to simplify… Hawking first focused on singularities. Singularities, in a theory, are when the infinite appears; which usually means the theory is being applied outside its domain of validity. Physicists do not like finding infinites: they are the negation of every physical law. There were singularities in solutions of Einstein’s equations. Precisely, in the black holes[5] solutions. And then, in the cosmological solutions, one initial singularity: a beginning of time, with infinite temperature and infinite density of matter, resulting from the infinite curve of space-time. Were the singularities a mathematical artefact due to oversimplification? Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose’s great advance was precisely to show they were integral part of general relativity; that, given a few rather plausible, absolutely not simplifying, hypotheses, singularities were to appear; which does not mean they exist; the physicist still wants to eliminate singularities. Rather, it means that the relativity theory becomes invalid, in some extreme conditions, near instant zero of the universe and near the centre of black holes.»


The demonstration was produced in 1970. « Then Hawking focused on black holes. He had a good idea… » Some twenty years research were to lead to the « monstrous betrothal » of general relativity, which describes large scale phenomena such as gravitating planets, with quantum mechanics, which describe elementary particles, the infinitely small. These two do not inhabit the same world. An experiment to unite them would require constructing a particles accelerator larger than the solar system. However, both theories work: quantum mechanics underlie electronics. General relativity fits in the data that precise satellites use to scan the Earth with a 5cm accuracy. But we remain a far cry from wedding them within equations, so everyone says – except Mr. Hawking.


Luminet, who devoted a book to black holes4, was describing a double stars system in which one, the smaller, invisible one, might well be such a voracious hole: A collapsed star which sucks the big one in. « Each revolves around the other, like the Sun and the Earth...» What was that? « The Sun also revolves a little around the Earth: two bodies revolve around their common centre of gravity; the Sun being so much more massive, the centre of gravity of the Earth Sun system almost coincides with the Sun ». Alas, had I read Newton, I would be spared such errors. But my dictionary is no better which ignores Madame du Chastelet, who, in 1759, translate Isaac Newton’s de Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), the most important work in the history of Science, and foundation of the gravitation theory. Women have to fight prejudice even in posterity. Before leaving Luminet, I asked the question I could not withhold: Was really Hawking The Best or just a fascinating sick man? « May be both…It seems his disease forced him to concentrate on the most important issues. What else can he do but think? However Hawking not only thinks… he elucidates. »


It went on, uneasy, to knock on Thibault Damour’s door. Damour was the only French person invited to the De Principia… publication tercentennial. Professor Hawking sitting in Newton’s chair at Cambridge, Damour is therefore our best expert on gravitation, QED. This theoretician profession demands only a head, paper and a pencil, « reason why I embraced it », he told me, pointing out that the computer was really his mailbox. I feared he would think I was one vampire journalist thirsting for tragedy, but no: « Go see Stephen. I think the book is a very good thing for him, for all of us. He enjoys meeting people, he is so isolated… » Damour then spent the afternoon giving me an idea of Richard Feynman’s calculus, which Hawking applies in quantum cosmology, the necessity of using imaginary time (whose square is negative) to bypass the uncertainty principle, which always enchanted me (a particle position and speed cannot both be known at the same time, measuring would disturb the trajectory.) As good-looking as Robert Redford, in photos, Rick, the American Richard Feynman, was idolized by his students.


I went along with theoretician physicist’s blessings and his recent article on general relativity[6]. Einstein, it says, got the intuition from day dreaming, where he mused falling from a roof: his hat, wallet, keys and body (with his mouth shut, I suppose, to avoid biting his tongue) all landed at the same time. In the somewhat hermetic text, my critical eye picked: fortuitous but significant, magical, metaphysical horror, astronomical zoo, providential, rather rare forms in La Recherche magazine. I was trembling when composing a fax to send to Cambridge. Two days later, my answering machine announced Professor Hawking would see me  « any day after four ».

In spite of Globe urgings, I had not read the article about Einstein in Les temps modernes;[7] which would have frozen me with awe at Hawking description. I could swallow fifty pages of the History of time per day and forget everything within a week. I had started from the beginning three times, without exhausting its beauties. In short, it was with a light heart I flew away. Boarding the plane, objective chance, my friends Hélène and Patrice F., the latter in a wheelchair. I knew he had been in an accident, but… « Don’t worry, I can walk. This is only for airports. I am very lucky. » Hawking says the same thing: sclerosis and tracheotomy apart, I have been very lucky – and me indeed, enough to embrace Tibetan Buddhism. No waiting for us at London customs, Patrice being in a wheelchair. Cambridge was busy and piercing cold but after all it was September in England, and a city built on marshes.


Stephen Hawking in a wheelchair behind the table, pale and frail, eyes lowered, shyness personified. A lady in white sits knitting at the back under the high set window: « Go near him and introduce yourself. » I take a seat at his right and decide to reveal my age to the head bending my way against the back of the chair. An expression of friendship from the largest eyes in the world says: thank you. Babies’ eyes: I love you, please don’t hurt me.

The blond eyelashes close. Hawking stares at the screen, on the left, where words scroll so fast I can’t read them. « How are you? » Where does the male voice come from? « Not bad, except for the cold» (In fact I am full of drugs so I won’t sneeze, spit and kill him).« Has the French version come out? » « No; I have your book with me, all scribbled up. » I open my bag upside down, the content falls at my feet. The lady behind me laughs softly, so do the big grey eyes. « Did you understand it ? » The voice is very late. « Not sure I got everything. May I ask questions? » «Yes»… « This system is great », I say for, suddenly, I see : the beautiful hands joined on the box do not move, the slightest pressure is enough to select a word from the upper section of the screen; then the word appears in the lower part, at the end of the sentence. Hawking writes very properly, missing neither a period nor a capital letter. He has turned off the voice and goes on giving by screen the most confidential answers you could dream of. What a great feeling of intimacy, that’s how he trapped them all.


Globe: « you wrote: ‘If everything in the universe depends on everything else in a fundamental way, it might be impossible to get close to a full solution by investigating parts of the problem in isolation. Nevertheless, it is certainly the way that we have made progress (…) one does not need to have a theory of the structure and constitution of the sun and the planets in order to calculate their orbits.’… But is not space-time affected by everything that happens in the universe ? Hawking: Yes but not very much. So, you can still regard time space as being flat, in the first approximation, and then you calculate the small amount of curvature that massive bodies introduce. » My new friend’s eyes check that I understand. All is right. Globe: « One second after the Big Bang the temperature of the universe would have dropped to ten thousand millions degrees, a thousand times that of the centre of the sun. But you write we reach such temperatures in H bombs… –The sun is not really all that hot. If it were, it would burn as fast as an H bomb. » I am delighted. But for him, what exertion. He is panting, he is starting, his endocrine system totally upset. If I have an bad thought, he’ll drop dead. « Are you suffering ? » A no nonsense voice answers : No.

Globe: « You mention dark matter. Does it mean matter that does not emit light or matter that cannot emit light? – The term dark matter is used to denote…» stop. New screen. « Do you wish to enter this word: /denote/ into your lexicon? You already have 2750 words, you may add 25. » He weighs the pros and cons, at length … « denote matter we have not yet detected but which we think may be there. It may be in the form of stars too dim for us to see, or it may be elementary particles. There may not be much dark matter, but there could be enough to make the universe collapse », then a glare, like a scream.


Globe: « I wonder about the fundamental numbers you mentioned (the eyes smile). The size of the electric charge of the electron… Hawking: It is 1/137, we don’t know why. However if it were much different we would not be here – a insisting look now. -The mass ratio between proton and electron …- 1/830 I think. – How does one calculate that the world contains 1 followed by 80 zero particles? – The universe may contain more than that. That is the number in the part that we can see. We know how big is the part that one can see, and we know roughly the density of particles. »


GlobeDid Einstein realize he had made a big mistake by trying to describe a static universe? Would you leave me … one minute. » I thought he was dismissing me for good.


The nurse came for me in the deserted cafeteria, adorned with grey pictures of the great predecessors. Already six pm. Where were we ? Einstein, did he see his error ? … « Yes, a few years later, he said the cosmological constant was the biggest mistake in his life. – When you write so, it is a quotation, then. » The eyes approve. « You say that the effort to read your book adds twenty millions millions millions millions units of disorder to the universe. What is the unit to measure disorder? – The answer to one yes or no question is one unit of order. If the universe has n units of disorder, it means it can be in any of 2 multiplied by itself n times, 2n, different states. »


Globe : « You also write that imaginary time may be the only true time ». The eyes are smiling now. « I have to conduct my affairs in real time. Imaginary time is just for physics. – Do you believe there is life in other parts of the universe? – It may exist, but if there are highly advanced beings out there, why have they not visited us? I don’t believe Unidentified Flying Objects are from outer space. If we were visited, I think it would be much more obvious. »


Globe : « Exobiologists say we are going to find life on Europa, a moon of Jupiter – That would be exciting, but my guess is that we won’t. Mars was a more likely place but we did not find anything. – Do you think that research for organic life in space is vain ? – I think we should look, even if we don’t find anything. »


« Globe : «You mention the ancients’ vision that regular catastrophes obliged to start civilization again. Do you believe in historical progress ? » Hawking (quite happy looking ): « The rate of scientific progress is much greater than that of biological evolution. Human behaviour is governed by genetic factors, he stops, looks my way – in part. That part of our behaviour is not going to change. It may destroy us all with the weapons that scientific progress has made possible. – You say that quantum mechanics is the key to biology. Surely you don’t reduce biology to chemistry ? – Yes I think it can all be explained by molecular biology, which is just chemical. »


« But don’t whole living organisms have properties that the sum of their parts do not have ? … – So does a computer, but you don’t think a computer has a soul ». A violent look, like a mean cat.


Globe : « What made you write this book for the lay man and woman? – I wanted to explain to ordinary people the exciting progress that is being made in science. Science affects all our lifes, so it is important we all have some understanding. And (very determined looking) I wanted money to pay for my daughters school fees. But when I finished she was about to leave school. – How long did it take? Six … years. » – I believe it, it is so carefully written … Is writing more difficult than maths ? I enjoy it. »


Globe : « Is there such thing as Physics free from politics and the military establishment ? » Ha Ha! say the eyes, here we are : « my work is of no use to the military. – A journalist friend carried an investigation at the CERN particle accelerator[8], which is supposed to be pacific. He discovered that the manufacturers of apparatus for antimatter are the same ones who manufacture weapons. » Long silence. « I don’t think particle accelerators are much use for weapons and my kind of work is of no use at all. »


Globe : « Back to biology: diversity is vanishing from the biosphere, we are losing genes very fast. Biologists say it is from too much analysing; not studying whole plants and animals anymore, only biochemical reactions, and that we should protect endangered species – May be we will soon be able to create diversity. – In order to transfer a gene, one must have it… – We hope to do better than that. I still have to operate in real time and my wife is expecting me.» Seven pm already. « Did you want to add something? The words slowly appear, one by one: That would take for ever.»


It was rather sweet. I took a picture of the very kind eyes. Then he panicked. I will never forget this vision of terror: head collapsed, open mouth, eyes upward to the sky. This is the price then. The nurse put his head back into place. The innocent look, again. « Please excuse the American accent of my voice. » So nice. « I am very moved » I said. I wanted to kiss him as I would have a baby and slightly brushed his hand. As I was leaving I wished « good travel through life ». But nothing. Eyes lowered. He ignores me. I am forgotten. As I was closing the door, the voice answered very loudly, with an American accent: « Thank you. »


©pictures & text  Marie-Paule Nougaret

with Thanks to Stephen Greenstein for help in translation and especially Odette Grille without whom I would not even start working at it.

[1] A short history of time, 198 p. Bantam books, London, I988.

[2] French final school exam

[3] According to IUCN, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 60 000 plants are menaced, that is 1/4 of the described flora (250 000 species).

[4] Advice to Geraldine for her miscellaneous birthday, in Bob Dylan Writings and Drawings, Ramdom House New-York.

[5] Black holes are such states where matter is so dense, it collapses. See « Les trous noirs », Jean- Pierre Luminet éditions Belfond 1987, Paris.

4 Idem

[6] Thibault Damour, La Relativité Générale, in La Recherche, n° 189, juin1987.

[7] Roy Liskar, «Einstein In memoriam» in Les Temps Modernes, décembre I979.

[8] CERN, Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire, is a ring shaped accelerator under three countries : Italy, Switzerland and France frontier near Geneva. The journalist was Patrice Van Eersel, for Actuel magazine.


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