CNN Interview Transcript

Larry King Live Weekend

Stephen Hawking Discusses Quantum Physics and ALS

Aired December 25, 1999 - 9:00 p.m. ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, an incredible man, an amazing intellect. It's been said that he can sell physics better than Madonna can sell sex. We're honored to have Professor Stephen Hawking with us for the full hour. It's all next on LARRY KING LIVE.


The words brilliant and genius probably get used way too much. But my guest tonight deserves both of them and more. Professor Stephen William Hawking is an intellectual icon, best selling author, the greatest mind in physics since Albert Einstein. A couple of notes about what you're going to see and hear. We traveled to Cambridge University in England to talk to Professor Hawking. The first interview was so fascinating we wanted more and our guest was gracious enough to agree.

As you probably know, Stephen Hawking suffers from a disease known as ALS. While he thinks in a lot more dimensions than most of us, he's wheelchair bound and uses a voice synthesizer to talk.

Operating that synthesizer isn't an instant kind of thing. So we gave Professor Hawking our questions in advance. There were some long pauses in the interview and we have cut them out.

But we've kept every word from Stephen Hawking because the man who says he aims to understand the universe, why it is the way it is, why it exists at all is someone you don't want to edit.


As a scientist, what would you say, professor, has been your biggest accomplishment?

PROFESSOR STEPHEN HAWKING, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY: I am glad to have advanced our understanding of the big bang and black holes, the beginning and end of time. I almost said to have shed light on black holes but maybe that is the wrong metaphor.

KING: Did you have this gift of knowledge as a child or did you develop it? Were you a very brilliant kid?

HAWKING: All children ask questions. How do things work? Why are they the way they are? But as they grow up they get told these questions are stupid or that they don't have answers. I am just a child that has never grown up. I still keep asking these how and why questions. Occasionally I find an answer.

KING: How, professor, do you regard yourself, teacher, researcher, scientist, all the above?

HAWKING: I would describe myself as a research scientist. I don't teach or lecture to undergraduates, but I have advised about 30 graduates for their Ph.D.s and in some cases almost written the thesis for them.

KING: Did you have a mentor?

HAWKING: I have had a number of good teachers and a few not so good but none that I would call my mentor. The nearest would be Roger Penrose (ph), whose work introduced me to the big bang and black holes. But he was more a colleague and collaborator than a mentor.

KING: Why, professor, did you choose the field you chose? Why physics? Why this area of study?

HAWKING: My father was a research scientist in tropical medicine so I grew up thinking that a research scientist was a natural thing to be. But I felt biology was too vague and descriptive so I went into physics, the study of the laws that govern the universe, because it was the most fundamental of the sciences. My father was disappointed I didn't go into medicine, but was consoled when my sister did so.

KING: You have been called, Professor Hawking, the most intelligent person on earth. What's it like to hear something like that? I imagine -- do you agree with it?

HAWKING: That is media hype. Newspapers have these ridiculous lists of the hundred most something people. Recently I was listed as the second most intelligent person in Britain but the first was Richard Branson.

KING: Mr. Branson, of course, owns an airline.


RICHARD BRANSON, CHAIRMAN, THE VIRGIN GROUP: I certainly don't consider myself more intelligent than Professor Hawkings. He is the sort of person who also doesn't take no for an answer, thinks outside the box and the difference is that he knows what's outside the box and he knows what's the other side of the universe. He can out brain anybody in Britain. He certainly can out brain myself. I left school at 15. What the hell's he talking about?




KING: Stephen Hawking says he never was very coordinated. He had lousy handwriting when he was a kid, didn't care much for sports but he started having real physical problems, stumbling, clumsiness, while he was a graduate student at Cambridge. In 1963, he was diagnosed with ALS and he was just 21 years old. Doctors told him he probably had about two years to live and they were wrong.


KING: ALS is the wasting disease that killed Lou Gehrig, baseball's legendary iron horse, and there's no cure for it. Not very long ago, Professor Hawking told an audience in Chicago that his greatest achievement is being alive.

HAWKING: I have ALS, a motor neuron disease. This is a condition in which the nerves controlling muscles die off but the sensory nerves continue as before. It is not supposed to affect intelligence but maybe I'm too far gone to notice. One form of ALS is linked to a defective gene, but most ALS seems to occur at random and its cause is not known.

KING: How has the disease affected your work?

HAWKING: Had I chosen almost any other career, my ALS would have ended it. But theoretical physics is all in the mind, so I was able to carry on. Obviously there are practical difficulties like handling books and papers, but I have found ways to deal with them. It is a lot easier now that everything is on computers. I can download physics papers on the Internet and don't need physical paper.

KING: Has the disease -- this is strange -- in any way been an aid to your work?

HAWKING: I can't say that my disability has helped my work but it has allowed me to concentrate on research without having to lecture or sit on boring committees.

KING: Professor, the normal life expectancy for someone with ALS is two to three years max. You've had it for 21 years. How do you explain that?

HAWKING: ALS seems to be a condition that can result from different causes. The variety I have must be different from the most common form, which kills in two or three years. Maybe my ALS is caused by bad absorption of vitamins. My wife says I'm an alien in the morning before I have my vitamins.

KING: What, professor, is your daily life like?

HAWKING: I lead a reasonably normal life but I need help with most things and the routines like getting up or eating take me longer. I am very fortunate in the help I receive from my wife and lucky that I can afford nurses to assist me.

KING: How do you deal with the inevitability that one day you will lose your ability to communicate?

HAWKING: We all face the inevitability of death one day. While I am alive, I will make sure I communicate one way or another.


KING: When Stephen Hawking says he will communicate, you've got to believe him. A pneumonia nearly suffocated him in 1985. Doctors did a procedure that let him breathe through an opening in his throat and a tube put into his trachea. His life was saved but his voice was lost. Still, as you've heard, the man speaks.


HAWKING: For a time, I could communicate only by raising my eyebrows when someone pointed to letters on an alphabet card. This is pretty slow and limiting. I couldn't hold a conversation and I certainly couldn't write a scientific paper. Fortunately, I have enough movement in my hands that I can press and release a single switch in my hand quite rapidly. This is used to control a computer program in which a cursor moves down the screen and then across. In this way, I can select words from lists on the screen. The words I have chosen are printed on the lower half of the screen. When I have built up what I want to say, I can send it to a speech synthesizer.

The synthesizer I use is 13 years old but I stick to it partly because I now identify with it and partly because it doesn't speak in a monotone but varies the intonation in an almost human way. It is very important that those who have to use artificial speech should have a voice they can identify with and feel happy with. No one wants to sound like a machine or Mickey Mouse.

With the computer program I use, I can manage 10 to 15 words a minute. By contrast, normal speech is 120 to 180 words a minute. This means that for speeches and lectures I have to write them in advance, save them on disk and then send them to the speech synthesizer sentence by sentence. It is possible that a different computer program might be slightly faster, but there is a basic limit to the rate that information can be transmitted by pressing a single switch.

In computer terms, I have a baud rate of about three that responds to the information in about 20 words a minute. By contrast, a political speech has a word rate of about 150 and an information content of zero.


KING: It may take Hawking as much as 40 hours to prepare a 45 minute lecture. By the way, some people think the synthesizer sounds Scandinavian. Hawking sometimes jokes about his computer's American accent. We'll be back with more.


KING: Welcome back.

Stephen Hawking was born January 8th, 1942, 300 years to the day of the death of the astronomer Galileo. Even when he was a little boy, he wanted to figure out how the world worked. He says that he loved taking stuff apart. Unfortunately, he wasn't very good at getting it back together.

In 1962, Hawking earned an undergraduate degree with first class honors from Oxford and then headed to Cambridge to study cosmology. He stayed on there after receiving his Ph.D. Hawking has wracked up all kinds of honors, including a dozen honorary degrees. He's also received the most prestigious prize in theoretical physics. It's named after the man Hawking calls the best scientific mind of the century.


HAWKING: Undoubtedly the greatest scientific figure of the century is Albert Einstein. He revolutionized our ideas of space and time with his general theory of relativity. It is said that space and time are not just a fixed background in which events take place but that they are curved and warped by the matter and energy in the universe. We are still working out the implications of general relativity.

After Einstein, I would rank people Werner Heisenberg, Irwin Schroedinger and Paul Dirac, who developed quantum theory, the other major advance this century. It changed our picture of the universe and of reality itself. When we have found out how to combine these theories we will understand how the universe began, is evolving, and will end.


KING: Since 1979, Hawking has been the Lukesian (ph) professor of mathematics at Cambridge. Sir Isaac Newton, the man who discovered gravity, held that same post three centuries ago.


KING: Did you ever want to be anything besides a research scientist? Did your incredible intelligence in any way make you feel like you had to go into science for the betterment of man regardless of your own personal dreams?

HAWKING: Before I got ALS I considered a number of other careers including being a political leader. Because I wasn't born in the U.S., I couldn't be president but I might have been British prime minister. However, I'm glad I left that job to Tony Blair. I think I get more job satisfaction than he does and I expect my work will last longer.

KING: Did you ever consider changing direction when you got ALS and focus on taking that mind of yours and finding a cure for it?

HAWKING: I don't think I would be much good at research on ALS and I wouldn't want to engage in it even if I could. I am happy to follow research from a distance but I want to get on with a fairly normal life and forget about ALS.

KING: What did you think of the movie "Good Will Hunting?" Could you associate with the lead character, a kind of genius? HAWKING: I was very encouraged to see a film about real intellectual struggle but I wasn't convinced by the central character. She seemed to regard the discoveries she made as just mathematical tricks and didn't get pleasure from them. In my experience, when you discover something that no one knew before that is the most wonderful feeling in the world. It is like sex but it lasts longer.

KING: One could only imagine what that's like. You said before there was a 50-50 percent chance that your string theory would be proven out by the end of this century. How's that coming and for definition, what is the string theory?

HAWKING: In 1980, I said I thought there was a 50-50 chance we would find a complete unified theory within the next 20 years. String theory would be one aspect of that unified theory. Although we have made a lot of progress since then, we don't yet have a complete unified theory of the universe. Nevertheless, I still think there's a 50-50 chance we will find a complete unified theory in the next 20 years. But that 20 years starts now.

KING: Helping in the quest for a unified theory, a super computer called Cosmos. It lives at Cambridge University. Its task? Nothing less than tracing the origins of the universe. Talk about looking way back. Scientists figure the universe is about 15 billion years old.

HAWKING: I think everyone wants to know where we came from and how the universe began. Cosmos can help us find answers to those questions. Hopefully, when we understand how the universe began it will give us a clue as to why it began the way it did or even why it began at all.




KING: Is there anywhere, professor, in the world that you have not been that you would like to go and why?

HAWKING: Where I would really like to go is not anywhere on earth but out in space. If I were someone like Bill Gates I would hire the space shuttle. It would only cost a few hundred million dollars.

KING: What advice would you give an intelligent, open-minded young man or woman contemplating a future career? Would you recommend science and research? If you had to start all over again in the year 2000, would you choose what you've chosen?

HAWKING: I think science and research are more satisfying than just making money. But if I were starting now, I might choose molecular biology rather than cosmology. We may find the basic laws that govern the universe but we will never exhaust the complexity of possible biological systems. KING: What, Professor Hawking, do you consider the most important discovery of this millennium?

HAWKING: I think the invention of printing was a breakthrough for the human race. It meant that information and discoveries could be disseminated widely and not just on a one to one basis by word of mouth or handwritten manuscript. It led to an ever increasing rate of scientific and technological development. This has now made printing almost obsolete and replaced it by the Internet.

KING: What do you expect will be the biggest change in the way we'll live in the future?

HAWKING: I think genetic engineering with humans is going to occur whether we like it or not. It will change our standard of what is human but it will be a gradual change because there's so much we don't know and because humans take time to grow up. We won't change much in the next 100 years but we might after that.

KING: Professor, where will you be, what will you be doing on, at midnight on December 31st?

HAWKING: We are having a Simpsons fancy dress party. People are coming as Springfield characters. The great thing is I can go as myself.


HAWKING: I don't know which is the bigger disappointment, my failure to formulate a unified field theory or you.

DAN CASTELLANETA, ACTOR: I don't like your tone.

HAWKING: If you are looking for trouble, you've found it.

CASTELLANETA: Yeah, just try me you -- oh. The guns are openers. Come on, you idiots. We're taking back this town.

HAWKING: Time for this hawk to fly. Wrong button.

CASTELLANETA: Did you have fun with your robot, buddy?

YEARDLY SMITH, ACRTRESS: Dad! Oh, Dr. Hawking, we had such a beautiful dream. What went wrong?

HAWKING: Don't feel bad, Lisa. Sometimes the smartest of us can be the most childish.

SMITH: Even you?

HAWKING: No, not me. Never.




KING: Stephen Hawking has written extensively in the field of theoretical physics, most of his work is highly technical. Intellectual heavy lifting to say the least. But in 1988 he wrote the book "A Brief History of Time".


HAWKING: My original aim was to write a book that would sell on airport book stalls. But for that, maybe the publisher should have put a naked woman rather than me on the cover.

MARK BARTY-KING, PUBLISHER: Stephen always saw this book as being a great mass market book. And I think publishers found that quite difficult to assess at beginning, because it was, you know, a very difficult book, and very much a science book. And it was probably one of the first science books that ever broke out into the mass market, in the way that Stephen had predicted.

HAWKING: All over the world, people come up to me and say how much they have enjoyed my book. They may not have understood it all. If they did, they would be ready to start a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. But they have got a feeling of being in touch with the big questions: Where did we come from, and how did it all begin?

BARTY-KING: I certainly couldn't understand the book, and, however, I did read it with some enjoyment, always expecting to be able to understand it. And it was so lucidly written it was actually a pleasure -- a pleasure to read. But we didn't -- we didn't know that this book was going to break out in the way that it did. We started with a very small printing of, I think, 5,000 copies.


KING: "A Brief History" practically took up residence on the best-seller list when it came out. It's been translated into some 30 languages and sold about 10 million copies worldwide.


BARTY-KING: Whether Stephen is contemplating a sequel if any kind at this point, I don't know, but it would be nice if he was.


KING: A sequel to "Brief History?" Who knows. But the book did inspire a movie, and we'll show you highlights from it later. All this has made Hawking something of a media darling and a commercial hit.



HAWKING: I had always spoke to see this in my lifetime. I have been wondering about the mysteries of the universe since I was a child. Yet, looking at the beauty of these things still fills me with wonder. For me, physics is about seeing further, better, and deeper. And from here, I can see forever.


KING: What, Professor, is cosmology?

HAWKING: Cosmology is the study of the whole universe, its origin, evolution, and eventual fate. It is a background to all our lives.

KING: What, in your area of study, Stephen, do we know the least about?

HAWKING: We feel we are tantalizingly close to a complete Unified Theory, but we might be miles away or barking up the wrong tree. If I had a wish, it would be to know whether we are on the right track.

KING: What is a black hole?

HAWKING: A black hole is a region that is so warped by gravity that light cannot get out. Or at least people thought that light could not get out of a black hole, until I showed that the Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics allows light to leak out slowly. Some people call this Hawking Radiation.

KING: When, Professor, did the universe begin, and do you know when it'll end?

HAWKING: We have good evidence the universe began in a big bang, about 15 billion years ago. We are less certain how it will end, but recent observations suggest a universe will expand forever at an ever- increasing rate.

KING: Do you believe in life in other places, other planets?

HAWKING: Life appeared on earth fairly soon after the earth was formed, 4.5 billion years ago. That suggests that primitive life will appear spontaneously on any suitable planet. On the other hand, intelligent life seems very rare. It has yet to be detected on earth.

KING: Do you believe in a sixth sense, a spirit world, another level of existence?

HAWKING: I do not believe in a sixth sense, if you mean extrasensory perception. That would not be consistent with my belief that a universe is governed by a mathematical laws. Spiritual values belong to a different category to the physical universe.

KING: Do you believe in God?

HAWKING: Yes, I do, if by God you mean the embodiment of the laws that govern the universe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME") HAWKING: If you were watching an astronaut foolhardy enough to jump into a black hole, at some time on his watch, say 12:00, he would cross the event horizon and enter the black hole. But no matter how long you waited, you would never see the astronaut's watch reach 12:00. Instead, each second on the watch would appear to take longer and longer, until the last second before midnight would take forever. The astronaut wouldn't notice anything special when his watch reached midnight, and he crossed the event horizon into the black hole, until, of course, he approached the singularity and was crushed into spaghetti.






HAWKING: Einstein never accepted quantum mechanics because of its element of chance and uncertainty. He said, "God does not play dice." It seems that Einstein was doubly wrong. The quantum affects of black holes suggest that not only does God play dice, He sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.


KING: What, Professor, puzzles you the most? What do you think about the most?


KING: Welcome aboard. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

HAWKING: I see great danger for the future. But I'm an optimist. I expect we will find a way forward.

KING: What do you think is the biggest challenge that we have to overcome?

HAWKING: I think the biggest challenge we face is from our aggressive instincts. In caveman -- or caveperson days, these gave definite survival advantages and were imprinted in our genetic code by Darwinian natural selection. But with nuclear weapons, they threaten our destruction. We don't have time for Darwinian evolution to remove our aggression. We will have to use genetic engineering.

KING: What's your biggest worry for society?

HAWKING: My biggest worry is population growth. If it continues at the current rate, we will be standing shoulder to shoulder by 2600. Something has to happen, and I don't want it to be a disaster.

KING: Do you think we'll ever cure disease?

HAWKING: We are already able to cure most diseases of the past. But unless we become immortal, we are bound to die of something. We can extend our lives, but it is probably more important to improve the quality while we are alive.


KING: As you heard a minute ago, Professor Hawking is deeply concerned the world is getting overcrowded. What about the possibility that it's getting overheated, too? His thoughts, now, on global warming.


HAWKING: The temperature of the earth has gone up and down in history, so one might argue that a recent warming was just a natural fluctuation. But there is no question that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now far higher than it has ever been in the past.

Carbon dioxide is produced when we burn coal, oil, or gas. It is what is called a greenhouse gas. That is, it let's in heat from the sun, but makes it difficult for the heat to escape again. So the large amount of carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere will inevitably cause global warming. How much the warming will be, we don't know.

If it were only a few degrees, that would be serious, but we could adapt to it. But the danger is the warming process might be unstable and run away. We could end up like Venus, covered in clouds and with the surface temperature of 400 degrees.

It could be too late if we wait until the bad effects of warming become obvious. We need action now to reduce emission of carbon dioxide. And that action must include the U.S., since you have by far, the highest emission per head.





HAWKING: ... but then I said "In that frame of reference, the perihelion of Mercury would have recessed in the opposite direction."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: That is a great story.

BRENT SPINER, ACTOR: Quite amusing, Dr. Hawking.

You see, Sir Isaac, the joke depends on an understanding of the relativistic curvature of space-time. If two non-inertial reference frames are in relative motion... UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Do not patronize me, sir. I invented physics. The day that apple fell on my head was the most momentous day in the history of science.

HAWKING: Not the apple story again.


HAWKING: I raise $50.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: All the quantum fluctuations in the universe will not change the cards in your hand. I call.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You are bluffing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: And you will lose.

HAWKING: Wrong again, Albert.


JONATHAN FRAKES, ACTOR: Red alert. All personnel report to duty stations.

SPINER: We will have to continue this another time. End program.


KING: Well, we all watched "Star Trek," and you have worked with time and travel and the like. Do you think we'll ever travel from Britain to Japan in an hour?

HAWKING: Britain to Japan in an hour is quite possible. But to do it in half an hour would require more than orbital velocity, and would be very difficult. You would need a rocket to hold you down to earth.

KING: Do you like science fiction, Professor? Can it be harmful, or helpful, or neither?

HAWKING: I think science fiction is useful, both for stimulating the imagination and for defusing fear of the future. But science fact can be even more amazing. Science fiction never suggested anything as strange as black holes.

KING: Professor, do you believe in the concept of time travel?

HAWKING: Time travel seems to be allowed by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity in certain situations, but if you combine General Relativity with Quantum Theory, it looks like you would be wiped out by a bolt of radiation before you could travel into the past. We certainly haven't seen any tourists from the future.

KING: Where do you believe that our research dollars -- and we have plenty of them -- would be best spent? HAWKING: There isn't a single answer to that question. There are a whole range of projects in different fields. In my own field of physics, I would say more satellites to observe the universe about the atmosphere. And something to replace the SSC Particle Accelerator that was being built in Texas, but which was canceled in 1994 when the U.S. went through a fit of feeling poor.

KING: Professor, what do you think of the Y2K bug? Are you worried what's going to happen on January 1st?

HAWKING: I think the Y2K bug has been exaggerated. I expect January the 1st, 2000, to be a great anticlimax. A few things will go wrong, but it won't be the end of the world if ATM machines don't work.

KING: Do you surf the net? What do you think of this Internet thing?

HAWKING: I use the Internet each day to get physics papers and to get the news from the BBC or CNN. But I regard surfing the net as as mindless as channel hopping on television.

KING: What is the most intelligent person in the world do for fun?

HAWKING: I have told you it's ridiculous to call me the most intelligent person. And what I do for fun is private.


KING: We respect the professor's privacy, of course. Still we managed to have him tell us what kind of music he likes.


HAWKING: It was in 1963 that I first developed an interest in Wagner, or Wagner, as my speech synthesizer pronounces him. I had just been diagnosed as having ALS, or Motor Neuro Disease. and given a distinct impression I didn't have long to live. I regarded Wagner as music that was dark enough for my mood. My mother bought me tickets to go to the Wagner festival at Bayreuth in Germany, and I went with my sister, Philippa. It was magic. His personal use and conduct were pretty objectionable. But his music, though sometimes pompous and long-winded, reaches a level no one else does.



KING: Welcome back.

We've shown you many sides of Professor Stephen Hawking. One you haven't seen yet is Stephen Hawking the sports fan. Well, fan of one sport, anyway.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HAWKING: My younger son, Tim, is very keen in Formula One racing, and it's an interest I can share with him. We know Frank Williams, who runs the Williams Team, and who is in a wheelchair like me. We have watched several races from the Williams pits. It is exciting to see behind the scenes, but the noise is terrific.

KING: You have three children, Professor. Did they have the best science fair projects in school? What are the kids doing now?

HAWKING: Only my eldest son, Robert, was interested in science. He's now a software engineer with Microsoft in Seattle. My daughter, Lucy, studied French and Russian, and is now a journalist. My younger son, Tim, is at university doing French and Spanish. And I have a grandson, William, who is learning to talk and is fascinated by computers.

KING: You mentioned earlier we'll all die of something. Do you think you can live another 30, 40 years with this disease? Do you think this disease might be cured?

HAWKING: I don't look too far ahead, but I'm now thinking of my 60th birthday in 2002. I don't expect to be cured of ALS. It will be enough if it just doesn't get worse.

KING: What keeps you going? We all can see and are aware of your condition and how well you deal with it. What is that inner thing that keeps you going?

HAWKING: Curiosity. I want to know the answers. I enjoy life. I will keep going as long as I can. What else can anyone do?

KING: And finally, happiness is relative, of course. Are you a happy man?


KING: Thank you, Professor.

What an hour.


HAWKING: If we do discover a complete theory of the universe, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all -- philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people -- be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. For then, we would know the mind of God.




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