When I had Lunch with Prof. Stephen Hawking


I joined physics because of Stephen Hawking & his Brief History of Time. A year after high school, I was still one of those clueless teenagers with no real agenda for the day. I happened to find Brief History of Time almost randomly from a street vendor at my small town in India.

By the time I finished reading the book, for the first time I had a sense of determination, a quest to march rest of the life for. The daydreams back then were filled with just buzzwords: Black Holes in our universe, Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Exactly 3 years after I finished reading this book, I was doing research on black holes in the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics where Prof. Stephen Hawking serves as the Research Director. To see him around at work all the time is, to put it mildly, quite intimidating! But then there were those afternoons when you are stretched on a couch in the hallway, attempting to read a book (in my case, Gravitation by Kip Thorne), and suddenly you see Stephen Hawking passing next to you. What to do you do? Stand up, adjust your glasses and act all alert? No! Because Stephen Hawking is just so uber cool and humble that not even once he would expect a special focus or attention, even from a person like me who is at the lowest order in the academic food chain.

One day while I was having lunch in the Institute's cafeteria (called Black Hole Bistro), his staff approached & asked politely if Prof. Hawking can join for lunch on my table. I almost feared passing out! He was sitting right across me for about an hour, and in my head I just couldn't stop the flashbacks - that bunking of classes in India to read his book in the university canteen, getting mocked by those extrovert seniors "Kya Einstein Banega? CAT ki Coaching kar", convincing my Gujarati family that all I want to do in life is "study black holes".

I gathered some courage and told him that I joined physics because of his book and owe it to him for being such an inspiration for us young researchers. At first, I wasn't sure if he heard or understood my thick Indian accent. So I quietly continued my meal. But a few mins later came a voice from his computer: "Thank You! I am very glad to see you are here."

It was only then I realized the obvious that during those instance of pause he was writing his response, one letter at a time, while also being spoonfed his meal. And this is how he has been doing legendary research on black holes, and also science communication almost his entire lifetime.

This week has been particularly emotional. I received my medal of the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics ("Scientists Changing The World").It was awarded by the previous recipient of this prize, Prof. Stephen Hawking, with an official citation:

"For The Observation of Gravitational Waves, Opening New Horizons in Astronomy & Physics"

The quest is still on, in fact just started, but holding this medal gave a validation, to a decade-long journey, where all I had at the start was just curiosity and self-determination. And for that, I owe it to you, Stephen Hawking.

To our 300-year-old legacy of Gravity, from Newton to Einstein to Hawking. 

ColumnsKaran Jani