I had been sent a transcript of Stephen’s lecture in advance, along with some briefing notes on the usual welcoming remarks and who I should thank at the finish, and a list of questions he had chosen from amongst the many sent in by readers of the Times Eureka magazine who were supporting the event, along with his answers. I just needed to think about some witty ad-lib remarks to make me sound cool. I felt as though I needed to seize the moment and break into song or do a bit of a stand-up routine.
Anyway, I was very excited. Now, I should say that I wasn’t in the best shape on Wednesday. I had just flown back in from Qatar that morning, having managed less than two hours sleep on a turbulent overnight flight, then I had to give a schools lecture at University College London just a couple of hours before the Hawking event. This was a talk I had agreed to do a while back and didn’t want to pull out of it once the Albert Hall gig came up. I was out of there at 7 p.m. and we (my wife Julie was with me) had a car waiting outside to whisk us off to Kensington. The thousands of people converging on the venue swelled the traffic considerably and it took rather longer than anticipated to get there. When we finally arrived we went in through the Stage Door at the back and met up with the other guests and VIPs in the Green Room.
I had been at other events with Stephen on several occasions in the past (the first time at a Buckingham Palace reception celebrating British science and, more recently, at the launch event of our Channel 4 series which we had co-presented, along with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Robert Winston) but I had never had the opportunity to talk to him. So this time I was determined to go over and chat to him; after all, we were about to be sharing the stage. I pushed my way through the crowded room to where he was sitting in the corner, being fussed over by his nurse. She told me to come round the other side of his chair so he could see me a little better. I immediately started to gabble on about how nice it was to finally get the chance to talk to him and how I hadn’t been able to do so at the our channel 4 series launch. Stephen smiled and and his features twitched as I spoke. I didn’t want to put him in the position of having to compose yes/no answers through his computer synthesised voice. When I finally came up for air his nurse said: “you do know how Stephen communicates, don’t you? He raises his eyebrows for ‘yes’ and twitches his mouth for ‘no’. There was a mixture of ‘yes’s and ‘no’s in there while you were talking.” Ah, now she tells me. Oh well, I apologised to him, but I am sure he is used to it. Anyway, guess what my parting comment was as I left him to do my sound check: I said: “Break a leg, Stephen!” “Oh, don’t tempt fate”, said his nurse, possibly not understanding the terminology used by us thespians, “I might accidently push him off stage and that might really happen!” I didn’t hang around for Stephen’s reaction.
As the time to take the stage approached I ran through in my head what extra things I might say to supplement the brief script I had been given. I had heard that Cliff Richard had been performing at the Albert Hall all of the previous week. Good, that would give me something amusing to mention. I already had something to say that I hoped would elevate my presence on stage from mere compere to warm-up act! I had been in email correspondence with Hawking through his PA and had asked him about his lecture and whether he was planning on talking about his pronouncements about the non-existence of God, which had hit the headlines a few weeks earlier. He asked if I would maybe say a few words making his position clear on the issue, so that he would be free to focus on the subject of his lecture: his life, career and the physics he had helped develop. This I was more than happy to do. I agreed to make the following statement: Stephen Hawking never claimed that God doesn’t exist. To him, and this is a view I share, God is the name people give to the reason we are here. For him, that reason is the laws of physics (or the laws of Nature), rather than a supernatural power with whom one can have a personal relationship.
After my introduction, I stepped aside and Stephen began his lecture. What followed was a remarkable eighty minutes or so – not so much because of what he said, but because a five thousand-strong lay audience sat mesmerised by a lecture about imaginary time, space-time singularities and multidimensional unified theories. They couldn’t have followed most of it, but that’s the Hawking effect for you. For the same reason millions buy his books, this audience was happy just being in the presence of this remarkable man. In any case, the lecture was in fact hugely insightful, touching and fascinating.
After he finished I had to go back on stage to read out the few submitted questions. However, I was aware that he would need a minute or two to bring up his answers on his computer. His nurse, who came up on stage with me, said she would give me a signal when he was ready and would I fill in the time by saying something. OK.. good.. I said I would tell a joke. Then, at the last minute, I decided instead to tell my ‘Hawking story’. Here’s how it goes: many years ago, I attended a lecture at Cambridge given jointly by Stephen and his long-time collaborator, the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. It was the fifth and last in a series of talks they had given alternately throughout the week. I had decided to attend only this the final lecture. At the end, the chairman asked if there were any questions from the large public audience. I was sitting near the back but my arm shot up faster than anyone else’s and I was immediately spotted and invited to stand up and ask Stephen Hawking my question. I don’t remember exactly what it was – something about the entropy of a black hole I think. Anyway, I wasn’t particularly interested in the answer as it was more about wanting to sound clever and to say that I had asked Stephen Hawking a question! Anyway, as soon as I had asked it I realised that, as the first questioner and not having attended any of the previous talks, I wasn’t sure what the convention was: do I remain standing while Stephen composed his answer or do I sit back down? I chose to just stand there, feeling and looking awkward. After what seemed like an eternity, Hawking computer voice burst into life: “Yes”, he said. “I covered that in lecture 2″. I wanted the ground to swallow me up.
Anyway, I told this story at the Albert Hall and the crowd seemed to enjoy it, as I hope Stephen did.
I got the nod from his nurse, asked the questions, Stephen answered them. The crowd cheered again and everyone left happy. I am expecting to be invited back soon to do a gig there, maybe a Royal Variety Act, conduct on the Last Night of the Proms or share the stage with Robbie. Or maybe Sir Cliff will invite me to do a duet….