5 Things You Didn't Know About Stephen Hawking

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getty images

Stephen Hawking is undoubtedly one of the world's most recognizable theoretical physicist, but let's take a look at five things you might not know about the longtime Cambridge professor:

1. HE PUT HIS MONEY WHERE HIS MOUTH WAS

When Hawking thought he was right about a scientific theory, he didn't back down, and he wasn't afraid to wager on himself.

Perhaps the most famous of Hawking's bets came in 1997, when he found himself in an argument with fellow theoretical physicists Kip Thorne and John Preskill. Hawking and Thorne contended that the information carried in Hawking radiation in black holes must be "new," a notion that would have required rewriting quantum physics. Preskill, on the other hand, felt that it was the view of black holes that needed rewriting. Since Hawking had likened the fate of information in a black hole to "burning an encyclopedia," the men wagered a set of encyclopedias on the outcome of their argument.

In 2004, Hawking presented a paper that contradicted his previously held beliefs, so he conceded the bet and presented Preskill with a copy of Total Baseball, The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia.

This bet wasn't Hawking's first. In his bestseller A Brief History of Time, he described a similar bet he made with Thorne in 1975. Hawking had long been a believer in the existence of black holes, but he wanted an "insurance policy" that would give him some consolation if his theories turned out to be bunk. The wager: if black holes didn't exist, Thorne had to cough up a four-year subscription to the British satirical magazine Private Eye for Hawking as a consolation prize. If black holes existed, Hawking had to cover a one-year subscription to Penthouse for Thorne. Hawking eventually made good on his end of the wager and revealed that he had sent Thorne his skin-mag subscription "much to the outrage of Kip's liberated wife."

2. THE POPE DIDN'T ALWAYS SUPPORT THIS WORK

In 2006, Hawking revealed in a lecture that Pope John Paul II had discouraged the scientist from studying the beginning of the universe. According to Hawking, he was attending a cosmology conference at the Vatican when the Pope warned that while studying the universe was an acceptable pursuit, its origins were the work of God and shouldn't be explored.

Hawking took the Pope's grief in stride, though. He joked to his lecture audience that he was glad the Pope hadn't known about the paper Hawking had presented at the conference, which dealt with "“ you guessed it "“ the beginning of the universe. Hawking playfully explained, "I didn't fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo."

3. THERE WAS A STORY BEHIND HIS VOICE

Although Hawking was English, his computerized voice synthesizer made him speak with an American accent. What gives? The voice synthesizer Hawking used, a DECTalk DTC01, was actually a pretty old piece of equipment from 1986. The synthesizer was bulky and fragile, but Hawking had his reasons for not upgrading. He once said, "I keep it because I have not heard a voice I like better and because I have identified with it."

Hawking did briefly consider switching to a different machine that would have given him a French accent but said he decided against it because he thought his wife would divorce him. Hawking's voice box also got a chance to "sing" in 2009 on a A Glorious Dawn, a Jack White-produced vinyl single released as a tribute on what would have been Carl Sagan's 75th birthday.

4. HE RACKED UP A NUMBER OF SCREEN CREDITS.

How many scientists can add "Appeared on hit TV shows" to the bottom of their curriculum vitae? In 1994, Hawking made an appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he played a hologram of himself who was locked in a poker game with holograms of Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton.

In 1999 The Simpsons wanted to use Hawking in the episode "They Saved Lisa's Brain," Hawking agreed not only to allow the producers to use his image but to do his own voicework. Here's Hawking talking about his first appearance in Springfield:

Hawking would go on to do more guest spots on The Simpsons, and he also appeared on Futurama.

5. RICHARD BRANSON HELPED HIM FLOAT

In late 2006, Hawking publicly advocated for human colonization of other planets and declared that his next goal was to go into space. He even joked "Maybe Richard Branson will help me." In 2007, the billionaire entrepreneur made it happen. Branson covered all of the costs for Hawking to go on a flight that made the scientist the first quadriplegic to float in zero gravity. Here's video of the flight and Hawking talking about the experience:

Tonight, the Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks on Earth Day

iStock/dmoralesf
iStock/dmoralesf

Tonight, look up and you might see shooting stars streaking across the sky. On the night of Monday, April 22—Earth Day—and the morning of Tuesday, April 23, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll probably see meteors zooming across the heavens every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know about this meteor shower.

What is the Lyrid meteor shower?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

How to See the Lyrid Meteor Shower

Monday night marks a waning gibbous Moon (just after the full Moon), which will reflect a significant amount of light. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Monday night—when you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour—your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrid meteor shower. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

Other Visible Bodies During the Lyrid meteor shower

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

What to Do if There's Bad Weather During the Lyrid Meteor Shower

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of April 23. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on April 24 and 25, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrid meteor shower will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 5, the Eta Aquarids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

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