Stephen Hawking is a British theoretical physicist best known for his research on singularities in general relativity and the quantum-mechanical interpretation of black holes. He is a very important theoretical scientist, if not the most important one alive. And he came to Stockholm. As part of a conference on Hawking radiation, he visited Sweden in order to discuss new ideas about information loss in black holes. This included a public lecture held on August 24, 2015, which I was lucky to attend.

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. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.

Stephen Hawking

The evening at the Stockholm Waterfront Congress Center started with welcoming remarks by Carol L. Folt, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She said, that even for a chancellor of a world-class university it is outstanding to meet and to listen to such an important person. And so thought we.

Stephen Hawking - Introduction by Jim Parsons

Introduction by Jim Parsons

But before the lecture was about to start, there was a second introductory speech – held by Jim Parsons, actor of Sheldon Cooper in the TV series The Big Bang Theory. It was a video produced for the lecture, where he payed homage to Hawking. He said that the British physicist would be the only scientist to be respected by him (except for himself), not without emphasizing that Hawking still has some major weak points, such as that he declined a joint research of the world’s two best physicists (Cooper & Hawking). I did not really know what to expect from the evening when I came there, but I would not have expected such a humorous start. And it turned out that the whole lecture would be full of jokes and laughter.

Stephen Hawking explaining "Quantum Black Holes"

Stephen Hawking explaining “Quantum Black Holes”

When Stephen Hawking entered the stage, there were standing ovations for more than a minute. This repeated after his first words “Can you hear me?”. Because Hawking has lost the ability to speak due to the disease ALS, he communicates via a speech synthesizing computer controlled by cheek muscles and the eyes. The lecture was prepared beforehand in small pieces that could independently be activated. This made it possible to have an authentic and reasonably fast presentation.

What was the lecture about? – The title was “Quantum Black Holes” and it was about the possible loss of information after an object entered a black hole. While mass, charge and angular momentum are conserved, only thermal Hawking radiation can leave the black hole, which is then independent of what initially entered the black hole (here is the loss of information). This is known as the black hole information paradox. Hawking revealed, that he had an idea about how this information might still be conserved and he will discuss it with leading scientists on the Hawking Radiation Conference here in Stockholm.

Concluding his speech, he said, that if there is a message to take home, it would be, that “black holes ain’t as black as they were painted. If you ever feel like you are in a black hole – don’t worry, you can still escape.”

Black holes ain’t as black as they were painted. If you ever feel like you are in a black hole – don’t worry, you can still escape.

Stephen Hawking

While the topic itself is highly demanding, Stephen Hawking succeeded in presenting it in an easy and entertaining way. By telling stories about Homer Simpson (see picture above) and references to Star Trek, one could easily understand what a black hole is and how it works. Nevertheless, it was a speech about an important topic of present research. I never heard a lecture, that combined these two worlds in such a fascinating way.

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