PIERS MOR­GAN DE­LI­CIOUSLY IN­DIS­CREET

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE -

FRI­DAY, MARCH 17

Pro­fes­sor Stephen Hawk­ing has been at the top of my in­ter­view bucket list for 30 years, ever since his book, A Brief His­tory Of Time, ex­ploded him into global sci­en­tific su­per­star­dom.

To­day, af­ter two false starts over the past year, when he had to can­cel due to ill health, I fi­nally got to sit down with him for Good Morn­ing Bri­tain.

I was asked to for­ward my ques­tions a month in ad­vance to give the pro­fes­sor enough time to pro­gramme his an­swers into a com­puter.

Due to his ALS mo­tor neu­rone con­di­tion, he ‘writes’ by us­ing a cheek mus­cle to ac­ti­vate a sen­sor that se­lects let­ters or words.

Ad-lib­bing is pos­si­ble, but very la­bo­ri­ous as it can take him half an hour to fin­ish one sen­tence.

‘Peo­ple can be ap­pre­hen­sive at meet­ing the pro­fes­sor for the first time,’ his PA, Anthea, warned my team. ‘But I don’t count Mr Mor­gan in this. I think the pro­fes­sor is in­trigued to meet Piers!’

Iron­i­cally, it was this rev­e­la­tion that made me feel un­usu­ally ner­vous.

Stephen Hawk­ing is nor­mally ‘in­trigued’ by cos­mo­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena like the Big Bang and black holes. The po­ten­tial for me to look stupid in front of the world’s most in­tel­li­gent man was very high.

Out­side his of­fice, in the De­part­ment of Ap­plied Math­e­mat­ics and The­o­ret­i­cal Physics at Cam­bridge Univer­sity, is a large black­board with com­plex equa­tions chalked all over it.

‘What’s that?’ I asked his tech­ni­cal as­sis­tant, Jon.

‘No idea,’ he chuck­led. ‘Peo­ple just come and write on the board.’

Pinned near it was a photo of the pro­fes­sor with his quote: ‘Re­mem­ber to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and won­der about what makes the uni­verse ex­ist.’

His of­fice is packed with fab­u­lous stuff: a Simp­sons clock (he’s ap­peared in the show many times), a framed copy of the Galaxy Song record signed by Monty Python, model space rock­ets, a gi­ant poster of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, two more black­boards and pic­tures of him with var­i­ous Popes and Pres­i­dents.

Pride of place be­hind his desk goes to a mocked-up holo­gram im­age of Hawk­ing with Ein­stein and Isaac Newton that was used in one of the Star Trek movies.

There are also dozens of copies of A Brief His­tory Of Time to send to fans. ‘I’ve read it,’ I told Anthea. ‘Oh good,’ she replied, with a sus­pi­cious raised eye­brow, ‘then he may ask you sup­ple­men­tary ques­tions about it.’ Gulp. Anthea in­tro­duced us by rais­ing Pro­fes­sor Hawk­ing’s right hand so I could shake it.

‘It’s a great hon­our to meet you, Pro­fes­sor,’ I bab­bled ex­cit­edly. ‘I’ve waited three decades to do this!’

He trig­gered a but­ton on his com­puter that blasts out in­stant pre-set an­swers. ‘Let’s get on with it!’ His face con­torted into a grin. The in­ter­view was provoca­tive and fas­ci­nat­ing.

He warned against a hard Brexit that would leave Bri­tain ‘iso­lated and in­ward-look­ing’, ham­mered Jeremy Cor­byn as un­electable (‘It’s no good hav­ing the right prin­ci­ples if you never get into power’), de­clared him­self a fem­i­nist who was de­lighted at the ‘seis­mic shift for women to ac­cede to high-level po­si­tions in pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety’, and said the real dan­ger from ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is if we let it self-de­sign, ‘for then it can im­prove it­self rapidly and we may lose con­trol’. He also at­tacked Don­ald Trump’s travel ban and said he fears he ‘may not be wel­come’ again in Amer­ica af­ter call­ing Trump a ‘dem­a­gogue’ be­fore the elec­tion.

When I asked what mes­sage he’d like me to for­ward to Pres­i­dent Trump, he spent 25 min­utes com­pil­ing an an­swer de­mand­ing Trump sack Scott Pruitt, his new en­vi­ron­men­tal chief who doesn’t be­lieve car­bon diox­ide causes cli­mate change.

‘Cli­mate change is one of the great dan­gers we face and it’s one we can pre­vent. It af­fects Amer­ica badly, so tack­ling it should win votes for his sec­ond term.’ He paused for a minute. ‘Are you fin­ished, Stephen?’ asked Jon. The pro­fes­sor wasn’t, and added two more words: ‘God for­bid.’

Then his face broke into an­other mas­sive grin again as his staff laughed.

‘Stephen loves a bit of mis­chief,’ ex­plained one of his two car­ers. I ended with some quick-fire ques­tions. ‘The Dalai Lama told me the mean­ing of life is hap­pi­ness,’ I said. ‘What do YOU think is the mean­ing of life?’

‘I have no idea. But I do re­mem­ber when I was hap­pi­est. It was 1967 and the birth of my first child, Robert.’

‘You solved the mys­tery of life, what’s the mys­tery of true love?’

‘Thank­fully this is be­yond hu­man rea­son­ing and should re­main so,’ he replied.

‘Are you the world’s most in­tel­li­gent be­ing, present com­pany ex­cepted?’

‘I would never claim this. Peo­ple who boast about their IQ are losers.’

‘If the world was end­ing to­mor­row, what’s the last thing you would do?’

‘Be­ing with my fam­ily, lis­ten­ing to Wag­ner, while sip­ping cham­pagne in the sum­mer sun.’

‘If you were forced to live on a desert is­land with three peo­ple, who would you choose?’

‘If I were able-bod­ied, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, Ein­stein and Galileo.’

Pro­fes­sor Hawk­ing only de­clined to an­swer this ques­tion: ‘Should Arsene Wenger re­sign as Arse­nal man­ager?’

Anthea ex­plained: ‘He doesn’t feel qual­i­fied to an­swer as he is not a foot­ball fan.’

As it was St Pa­trick’s Day, I’d asked if the ge­nius fan­cied a pint of Guin­ness.

He did – al­though he prefers Bloody Marys – and even pro­grammed in ‘Cheers, Piers!’ as we posed for pho­tos with our beer.

From black holes to the black stuff... what a day.

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