Stephen Hawking’s three visits to China

Stephen Hawking has passed away at the age of 76. The top scientist has memorable stories in China.

In November 2017, at the Tencent WE Conference, Hawking gave a remote video speech showcasing his outstanding contributions towards the latest achievements in space exploration. This was Hawking’s last speech in China. Before that, he had visited China three times and climbed the Great Wall twice.

Hawking’s first Weibo post

Every time he came to China, he set off a “Hawking fever”. On April 12, 2016, Hawking opened a Weibo account and exceeded three million followers in just two days.

On June 5, 2016, Hawking sent a warm message to Chinese college candidates the day before China’s annual college entrance examination. “As many of you prepare to take the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, I want to wish you, the next generation of scientific minds, success in your academic endeavors. This culmination of your hard work marks just the beginning of your very bright futures.

Hawking sent a warm message to Chinese college candidates

Growing up, my parents placed a high value on education and I am grateful for the limitless opportunities provided by my studies. Whether you aim to be a doctor, teacher, scientist, musician, engineer, or a writer — be fearless in the pursuit of your aspirations. You are the next generation of big thinkers and thought leaders that will shape the future for generations to come. – SH”

Hawking’s last Weibo message was sent on Nov. 24, 2017: “I am pleased to present a video response to an excellent question from Mr. Wang Junkai. It has granted me insight into Chinese millennials on their thoughts and curiosities regarding the future. It is this curiosity and confidence I hope to see grow as you pursue science and other creative ideas, and which will be celebrated in the Tencent Next Idea Innovation Contest. Let’s look to the future together. – SH”

First visit to China in 1985

Hawking’s speech was given in English and then translated into Chinese.

On April 28, 1985, the then 43-year-old Hawking visited China for the first time. He first went to the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui Province, where he gave two speeches, one on the theory of black hole formation and one on the unidirectional flow of time.

Lihuan Zhu, a then junior at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), wrote an article in 2002 recalling the details of Hawking’s visit to China. According to the article, USTC students at the time could not believe that such a legendary figure as Hawking came to their school. Hawking first debuted in the Water Lecture Hall, which accommodated more than 300 people and was eventually packed. The article said that “those who came late had to stand in the aisle, and even the two sides of the podium, and finally even the doorway was filled with people.”

The article also said, “At that time, the whole campus went wild!” According to a Liberation Daily report from 2002, a professor named Wang in the physics department of USTC recalled, “It is an honor for USTC students to be able to listen to the legend’s speech.”

Hawking‘s first Great Wall Tour

After visiting Hefei, Hawking went to Beijing and gave a speech at Beijing Normal University. Later, Hawking also climbed the Great Wall. The Liberation Daily reported that before coming to China, Hawking joked that his ambiguous pronunciation need two translations. Finally, his speech was first translated into English and then into Chinese.

Second visit to China in 2002

Obstacles in visiting the Great Wall involved special cable car modifications.

In August 2002, Hawking visited China again. This time, he was unable to use his voice to discuss the mysteries of the universe because pneumonia had impaired his trachea. Therefore, he relied on a wheelchair language synthesizer to communicate with people.

The purpose for this visit was to participate in a string theory conference. The first half of the meeting was held in Hangzhou from Aug. 12 to 15. On Aug. 15, Hawking also gave a public speech titled “Brane New World” in Hangzhou. On that day, 3,000 students gathered in Zhejiang University to experience the fascination of physics with the visionary who coined and shared concept of a “brane world”, a term created to describe the “membrane” that the universe is living on, which is explained in his book, “Universe in a Nutshell”.

While the theme of Hawking’s speech was centered around his academic views, not everyone could clearly comprehend it. Although the complex speech lasted until nearly one p.m., more than 3,000 people remained in the packed venue until the end, Xinhua reported. People warmly thanked Hawking for his tireless efforts to promote the popularization of science with five minutes of applause.

After the events in Hangzhou, Hawking visited Beijing for about a week and once again briefed the public on his Brane New World theory on the evolution of celestial bodies.

On Aug. 21, 2002, Stephen Hawking, the world’s most prominent scientist in general relativity and the cosmics, visited the Great Wall at Badaling, Beijing.

On Aug. 21, 2002, Hawking climbed the Great Wall again after 17 years. According to the Beijing Times report, the Badaling Management Office specially modified the cable car to accommodate Hawking.

The Beijing Morning Post reported that Hawking’s experience at the Great Wall was full of twists and turns. The original arrangement designated people to take Hawking up the Great Wall in a wheelchair. Upon seeing the world wonder, Mrs. Hawking thought the steep mountain was not safe and rejected this plan. When their transportation was preparing to take them away, Hawking was reluctant to leave and insisted on going to the Great Wall. Finally, he was fixed on the cable car to ascend Badaling.

After reaching the summit, Hawking asked the staff to maintain a certain distance from him so that he could experience the Great Wall in solitude. Having been left alone for a long time, he eventually but reluctantly agreed to leave after persuasion from the staff.

Third visit to China in 2006

Eat Beijing roast duck, visit the Temple of Heaven, and explain the origin of universe.

Hawking’s third visit to China was in June 2006. Hawking began his six-day visit to Hong Kong and China on June 12, when he chaired a public lecture on the origins of the universe at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Hawking then traveled to Beijing to attend the International String Theory Conference and deliver a report in the Great Hall of People.

Due to Hawking’s physical condition, he was particularly concerned about the special care of his basic necessities. As he a fan of duck meat, he tasted the infamous Beijing roast duck dish. According to the Beijing Times, Hawking also visited the Temple of Heaven, an ancient Chinese royal garden of worship. He also visited the Circular Mound Altar, a site embodying ancient Chinese philosophy of harmony between heaven and man.

Stephen Hawking visits the Temple of Heaven in Beijing in 2006. Photo AFP

On June 19, Hawking still enjoyed the star-level treatment during his presentation in the Great Hall of People. “Can you hear me?” Hawking began his 45-minute speech with his signature greeting. What the audience heard was actually the metal-textured sound produced by Professor Hawking’s computer-controlled speech synthesizer.

In his speech, Hawking said that the origin of the universe as he imagined was a bit like a “bubble” in boiling water. He said, “The picture Jim Hartle and I developed of the spontaneous quantum creation of the universe would be a bit like the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water.”

The idea is that the most probable origins of the universe are like boiling bubbles. Many small bubbles appear and disappear. These correspond to mini universes that expand but collapse again while still of insignificant size. They are possible alternative universes but they are not of much interest since they do not last long enough to develop galaxies and stars, let alone intelligent life. Some of the small bubbles, however, grow to a certain size at which they are protected from collapsing. They continue to expand at an ever increasing rate, and form the bubbles we see. They correspond to universes that start off expanding at an ever increasing rate. This is called inflation, much like the way prices go up every year.

This article originally appeared in Netease and was translated by Pandaily.