PIERS MORGAN DELICIOUSLY INDISCREET
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.