Los Angeles, USA

A Chance Encounter with Stephen Hawking

With the death of Stephen Hawking, we recently lost one of the most brilliant scientists I’ve ever met. I really enjoyed his book, “A Brief History of Time”, (although I must admit I’m eagerly waiting for my husband to finish up Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry”.) “Met” may be overstating it a bit, but I did have a wonderful chance encounter.

It was the 1990s, and we were in Old Town Pasadena, (which is close to Cal Tech in case you don’t watch the Big Bang Theory). He was visiting Cal Tech at the time, and wound up at the same place I did – Virtual World. I will admit it. I am a bit of a nerd, although admittedly not much of a video game player. They had two games:  piloting 40 foot megaton warbots on Solaris 7, and Red Planet, which involved racing through the mines of Mars. You went into these large rooms filled with pods. You got into the pod, and were transported to Solaris 7 or Mars, piloting either a robot or a racer. I did the robot. The pods were all networked together, so the other robots you battled were controlled by other players in other pods. This was not a trivial thing to do in the 90s. The graphics were state of the art for the time but primitive by today’s standards.

The lobby itself where you waited for an open pod was science fictiony and steam punky – the kind of place a space pilot might like to hang out.  It was an actual lounge that served food, fancy coffees, and allowed you to hang out, even if you were not playing. I loved it. On the monitors were slickly produced videos that told the story of the game you would be playing and cleverly wove in the basics of how to control your craft. These videos featured a cast of now quite famous actors including: Judge Reinhold, Joan Severance, Nora Dunn, Cheech Marin, and Weird Al Yankovic. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can still watch the same videos we watched with Dr. Hawking: Mars Race or Giant Robots.

While we waited, we noticed a man in a wheelchair and immediately realized that it was Stephen Hawking. I went over to see what he was up to and he was there with his son and an attractive woman I assumed was his then future wife.

At Virtual World they use lots of pilot call signs and tried to play up the adventure aspect. I didn’t have much gaming experience, especially with a joy stick, but I had to admit I was totally in when I sat in the pod and they said, “no pressure, but Stephen Hawking is watching your every move, pilots.” Fun, but let’s say I was no threat to any robot of any sort.

Stephen was great. He was laughing, very engaged with the live games on the video monitors, and clearly having a good time. We left right after him, and seeing the reflectors on the back of his wheelchair still makes me smile to this day.

He lived a rich and full life, despite the debilitation of ALS. Stephen Hawking was diagnosed when he was just 21. He was given 2 years to live. He died at the age of 76, becoming the longest lived ALS sufferer. During that time, he had two different wives, fathered three children, and established a body of scientific accomplishment at the very top of his field. Beyond that, though, he lived life fully and joyfully, and was an inspiration to us all.




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