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My lunch with Stephen Hawking

I write this in remembrance of Stephen Hawking, two days after he passed away at 76 (decades after doctors told him he had only a few years to live). This is the tale of when I had the good fortune to meet and talk with him over lunch some 20 years ago…

It was May 1998, and Stephen Hawking was visiting Silicon Valley. At the time, I was at Silicon Graphics, the company that had pioneered 3D computing, heading up marketing for an Internet software product line. Professor Hawking was in town to visit two specific companies, Silicon Graphics and Intel. He came to us because cosmology was increasingly dependent on massive compute power and because Silicon Graphics was making the hottest supercomputers on the planet. The goal of the Professor’s meeting with us was to secure more of our hardware for his Cambridge lab on the best possible terms.

More than a dozen execs from across the company got the golden ticket to attend a lunch with the famed physicist and his entourage. We converged at Amber India, an awesome and very popular Indian restaurant at the time in an unremarkable strip mall on El Camino Real in Mountain View. This being Silicon Valley, it was a very informal event, with no assigned seating. As people began filing into the room set aside for the event, I noticed it was set up with a single, very long table for the 20 or so of us. Also, it seemed the Professor would end up not at a head-of-table position, but rather in the middle of one side. I had to choose my “entry vector” very carefully to have any hope of not ending up out of ear shot of the guest of honor. In one of my proudest moments of social engineering, even though I was not even close to the most important exec representing Silicon Graphics, I “just happened” to find myself seated directly across from Stephen Hawking!

For the next hour, I was able to hear every word said by or to the Professor, a man for whom I had enormous respect. What struck me throughout was his sense of humor. So much of what he laboriously pecked out, character by character, would, when read out by his iconic synthetic voice, turn out to be a joke. For example, earlier that day the folks at Intel upgraded the CPU on the computer that powered his speech system, switching it over from a rather anemic AMD chip. Asked how his morning went, Stephen replied, “Very well. Now I have Intel inside.”

Throughout the lunch, Hawking had a twinkle in his eyes, and used most of his words for humor

At some point, I remarked that I hadn’t known what a great sense of humor he had. That launched him into sharing that he was really proud to have recently been asked to guest star in a future episode of The Simpsons. He loved the show and was looking forward to appearing in it. A year later, he would make his Simpson’s debut in “They Saved Lisa’s Brain”.

Stephen Hawking first appeared in The Simpsons in “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” which aired a year after our lunch

Eventually, I got up the nerve to share the story of my personal connection with physics and to ask him a question related to it. You see, as a young man, I went to M.I.T. to become a physicist. My freshman physics class was taught by Professor Alan Guth (who pioneered the theory of cosmic inflation), and as a sophomore, I managed to talk my way into Professor Henry Kendall’s physics project lab (a class only for juniors and seniors). That led Professor Kendall to invite me to work in his research lab over the winter break.

(Funny aside: Eight years later I would hear on NPR that Professor Kendall had just won the Nobel Prize. For a moment I fantasized how great it would be if he had been awarded the prize for the stuff that I had gotten to work on. Alas, it was instead for work that he had done 23 years earlier at Stanford, proving the existence of quarks.)

I shared all of that with Professor Hawking, but also that shortly thereafter I dramatically changed the trajectory of my studies and career path, switching majors from physics to, believe it or not, creative writing. (Yes, I know, that’s an unusual major to take at M.I.T.; long story for another day.)

“So, while I was once quite deeply into physics,” I said to Professor Hawking, “I haven’t really followed it since changing majors 16 years ago. Did I miss anything big?”

And then time slowed down. I knew it would take several minutes for him to compose an answer, as he picked character after character by subtle movements of his tongue (if I recall correctly). The first minute felt like an hour. My mind raced.

Was my question too cheeky? This is one of the smartest brains on the planet, and perhaps my question wasn’t worthy. Maybe I should rephrase it. No, no. That would be rude, as he’s halfway through answering. And he’d just have to start all over again..

After eternity finally passed, Professor Hawking’s now-Intel-powered synthetic voice replied with the only non-joking response I remember of the entire meeting:

“The biggest change in physics in that time is the Internet. In the past, I would publish and wait months for responses to come in. Now, I get immediate reaction from around the world.”

His answer resonated deeply with me, and helped make sense of and affirm my journey away from physics, through creative writing (and a bunch of other things), and eventually all the way to the turbo-charging of my Silicon Valley career four years prior, by spotting and paddling fast enough to catch the Internet “big wave,” just as it was hitting in 1994.

And that was my epic lunch with Stephen Hawking. R.I.P.