Stephen Hawk­ing:

Across the Uni­verse

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Qian Wei

Stephen Hawk­ing made three trips to China, even at a time when fa­cil­i­ties for the dis­abled were lack­ing. One of Hawk­ing’s post­grad­u­ate stu­dents, Wu Zhongchao, gives an in­side ac­count of these vis­its, and tells how the physi­cist’s pop­u­lar­ity in China soared as a re­sult

In 1979, Wu Zhongchao went to Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity as a se­nior vis­it­ing scholar from the Uni­ver­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy of China (USTC) in He­fei, An­hui Prov­ince. Five years later, he com­pleted his PHD in cos­mol­ogy un­der the tute­lage of em­i­nent physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing (1942-2018).

Wu trans­lated sev­eral of Hawk­ing's renowned works into Chi­nese, in­clud­ing A Brief His­tory of Time and The Uni­verse in a Nut­shell, and main­tained a life-long friend­ship with his men­tor.

On March 14, when news of Hawk­ing's death at the age of 76 reached Wu, who was then in the US state of Colorado, he was over­whelmed by a mix of feel­ings. Through a tele­phone in­ter­view, he gave an in­side ac­count of Hawk­ing's three vis­its to China.

De­but Visit

In the early 1980s, China had just started open­ing its door to the out­side world, and many peo­ple from across the globe were hop­ing to visit the an­cient and mys­te­ri­ous Mid­dle King­dom. Hawk­ing was among them, but he had no idea which uni­ver­sity was suit­able to

visit. Wu rec­om­mended Hawk­ing should visit USTC, based in He­fei, An­hui Prov­ince.

Back then, USTC was con­sid­ered a leader in cos­mol­ogy and as­tro­physics re­search, and Hawk­ing read­ily ac­cepted. Wu told our re­porter that Hawk­ing was very in­ter­ested in the visit and he even planned to visit Ti­bet, but he had to drop that plan be­cause of his phys­i­cal con­di­tion. Hawk­ing suf­fered from mo­tor neu­ron dis­ease, also known as ALS.

In 1982, USTC sent Hawk­ing an in­vi­ta­tion. Back then, it was rare to even use the tele­phone in China, re­called Wu. “At that time China was back­ward and when the in­vi­ta­tion ar­rived in Cam­bridge, it had gone moldy and black. It was not pre­sentable, but Hawk­ing didn't care,” Wu said.

Hawk­ing's trip, how­ever, was ini­tially turned down by the Bri­tish Em­bassy in China. The rea­son was sim­ple – He­fei was a rel­a­tively small city with inadequate trans­porta­tion which was un­suit­able for the Bri­tish aca­demic, who was al­ready con­fined to a wheel­chair. In ad­di­tion, all Hawk­ing's food had to be trans­ported by air from the UK, and there was no di­rect flight to He­fei.

Nei­ther USTC nor Hawk­ing wanted to give up. Hawk­ing in­sisted that as long as he could sur­vive, he would make the trip. As a com­pro­mise, USTC in­vited Bernard Carr, then pro­fes­sor at Queen Mary Uni­ver­sity of London, who was also one of Hawk­ing's stu­dents, to make an ex­ploratory trip to the uni­ver­sity first. Be­fore his de­par­ture, Carr in­vited Wu to din­ner to learn more about the uni­ver­sity and China.

In June 1983, Carr vis­ited USTC and de­liv­ered a pre­sen­ta­tion on the an­thropic prin­ci­ple: that the uni­verse we see has to be hos­pitable, or we would not be here to ob­serve it. When he re­turned home, he told Hawk­ing that He­fei is in a uni­verse in which he could sur­vive.

In April 1985, Hawk­ing made his first visit to China at the age of 43. The provin­cial gov­ern­ment of An­hui Prov­ince pulled out all the stops for their dis­tin­guished vis­i­tor, ac­com­mo­dat­ing him at the Daox­i­an­glou Ho­tel, where top Chi­nese lead­ers, in­clud­ing Mao Ze­dong, had stayed.

Wu was then vis­it­ing sev­eral uni­ver­si­ties in Europe and the US and was un­able to ac­com­pany Hawk­ing, but he told Wu that He­fei left an in­deli­ble im­print on his mind. Wu said that Hawk­ing later vis­ited sev­eral Chi­nese cities, in­clud­ing Bei­jing, Hong Kong and Hangzhou in Zhe­jiang Prov­ince, but still kept the fon­d­est mem­o­ries of He­fei and USTC.

“He men­tioned USTC sev­eral times in con­ver­sa­tions with me later, prob­a­bly be­cause of the uni­ver­sity's aca­demic at­mos­phere. Back then A Brief His­tory of Time hadn't been pub­lished, and all the at­ten­dees at his USTC lec­ture were pro­fes­sion­als and stu­dents,” he said.

Out of the Ivory Tower

On April 1, 1988, A Brief His­tory of Time rolled off the presses in Bri­tain and Wu com­pleted his trans­la­tion the same year. He con­tacted sev­eral pub­lish­ing houses in China, but none would pub­lish it, ar­gu­ing that few peo­ple would read such a the­o­ret­i­cal work.

Hu­nan Science & Tech­nol­ogy Press even­tu­ally took the bold step and pur­chased the copyright at the knock­down price of US$300. Wu re­counted that back then, the con­cept of copyright was un­known to many peo­ple in China. “If the pub­lish­ing house didn't pay for the copyright, I would have paid my­self,” he said.

In 1993, A Brief His­tory of Time hit the book­shelves in China, but to poor ini­tial sales. But af­ter steady pro­mo­tion by the pub­lish­ers, me­dia and academia, it gained pop­u­lar­ity year af­ter year. To date, at least one mil­lion copies have been sold in China, not in­clud­ing the large num­ber of pi­rate copies. In com­par­i­son, even the most pop­u­lar science works in China have sales of around 50,000 in China.

As his pop­u­lar­ity grew, Hawk­ing came to Bei­jing for the In­ter­na­tional Congress of Math­e­ma­ti­cians at the in­vi­ta­tion of famed Chi­nese-amer­i­can math­e­ma­ti­cian Shing-tung Yau in 2002. In Bei­jing, Hawk­ing was ac­corded a cor­dial re­cep­tion by then Chi­nese pres­i­dent Jiang Zemin.

At the in­vi­ta­tion of Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity, Hawk­ing spent one week in Hangzhou, cap­i­tal of Zhe­jiang Prov­ince. Un­like the trip to He­fei in 1985 when he had to take the train from Bei­jing, Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity picked Hawk­ing up af­ter he landed in the nearby me­trop­o­lis of Shang­hai in the only ve­hi­cle de­signed for the dis­abled in the prov­ince.

On Au­gust 15, Hawk­ing made a pub­lic speech on a “Brave New World” at Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity's sta­dium. The venue, with a ca­pac­ity of 3,000, was full to burst­ing, and some stu­dents even climbed up on the roof. Wu said Hawk­ing's ap­pear­ance fee was 50,000 pounds (US$70,200) then, but he charged no fee to the uni­ver­sity; even so, tick­ets were chang­ing hands for around 500 yuan (US$80), with many stu­dents com­ing from nearby cities.

Hawk­ing en­joyed his stay in Hangzhou, tour­ing the West Lake, where he saw the lo­tus flow­ers, and vis­it­ing The Three Pools Mir­ror­ing the Moon, a scenic spot older than Cam­bridge. Wu ac­com­pa­nied Hawk­ing through­out the trip.

“Dur­ing din­ner, Hawk­ing wrote down the words ‘In China, do as the Ro­mans do' on the screen of his speech syn­the­sizer. Mo­ments later, he con­tin­ued: ‘Just like the trip in 1985, peo­ple gath­ered around me be­cause I was in a wheel­chair,'” Wu told our re­porter.

In Bei­jing, Hawk­ing vis­ited the Great Wall for the sec­ond time. On his first visit in 1985, the Great Wall had no fa­cil­i­ties for the dis­abled. “Hawk­ing threat­ened to com­mit sui­cide if he could not visit!” Wu said, adding that sev­eral male grad­u­ate stu­dents had to carry Hawk­ing and his wheel­chair up to the Great Wall. His sec­ond trip was much eas­ier be­cause a sight­see­ing ca­ble car was al­ready in place.

Di­vine Way

From June 17 to June 24, 2006, Hawk­ing made his third visit to China and de­liv­ered a speech at the Strings 2006 con­fer­ence (an an­nual gath­er­ing of top-level physi­cists), that year held in Bei­jing. Be­fore­hand, Hawk­ing had in­vited Wu to Cam­bridge to dis­cuss the de­tails of his visit. Wu went back to Bei­jing from the US and stayed with Hawk­ing dur­ing his en­tire stay.

The sec­ond day af­ter his ar­rival, Hawk­ing went to the Tem­ple of Heaven, a place for em­per­ors to wor­ship heaven dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties (1368-1911). The staff pre­pared a spe­cial slope for him from the en­trance. Four young men helped carry his wheel­chair.

When they were on their way to the main build­ing, the Hall of Prayer for Good Har­vest, Hawk­ing sud­denly asked to stop. Ev­ery­body thought he wanted to go back be­cause of the hot weather, but then two words ap­peared on the screen of his speech syn­the­sizer: Mar­ble Way. The crowd burst into laugh­ter. There are three walk­ways to the top of the tem­ple – the right for the im­pe­rial fam­i­lies, the left for civil and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials, and the cen­tral one is the mar­ble way, used by Chi­nese em­per­ors. In front of the Hall of Prayer for Good Har­vest, Hawk­ing asked Wu to take a photo of him. Later that even­ing he asked: “Where is my photo of the as­cent of K2?” For Hawk­ing, the 27 steps up to the hall were as high as the world's sec­ond-high­est moun­tain. Hawk­ing later put the pic­ture in his biog­ra­phy, My Brief His­tory.

Dur­ing this trip to Bei­jing, his last to China, Hawk­ing made two speeches which re­ceived wide­spread me­dia cov­er­age, par­tic­u­larly on China's bur­geon­ing on­line com­mu­nity. For safety rea­sons, se­cu­rity guards had to pa­trol the floor of the ho­tel where Hawk­ing was stay­ing 24 hours a day.

To save time, Wu had gath­ered ques­tions from re­porters in ad­vance, but Wu said even the day be­fore the speech, there were no ap­pro­pri­ate ques­tions. Most of the Chi­nese re­porters wanted to know what Hawk­ing thought of China's tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments, or when he thought a Chi­nese sci­en­tist would be awarded the No­bel Prize. “It was just like a woman ask­ing if she's beau­ti­ful,” Wu said.

Dur­ing the press con­fer­ence, how­ever, Hawk­ing an­swered ques­tions from Chi­nese re­porters with great plea­sure. “I like Chi­nese cul­ture, Chi­nese food and Chi­nese women in par­tic­u­lar. They are re­ally beau­ti­ful,” Hawk­ing said.

Stephen Hawk­ing gives a speech at Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity on Au­gust 15, 2002

Stephen Hawk­ing eats a Chi­nese meal in Hangzhou, Zhe­jiang Prov­ince, Au­gust 14, 2002

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