One superstar I did see this week, who has been one of my idols for many years, was Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Physics at Cambridge University.
I've been an admirer of his work for more than 20 years now, and knowing that he comes to California every year or so, I've been looking for the opportunity to attend one of his infrequent public lectures.
This Friday, I was lucky enough to see him lecture at Cal Tech.
It was like a rock concert.
People began standing in line for tickets the day before, pitching tents on the campus lawn outside the box office, and gathering through the night to discuss physics and black holes and molecular interactions.
When the 1,100 tickets finally became available at 9 a.m., they were gone in minutes.
Those who failed to get tickets immediately began standing in line for standby seats.
On the night of the lecture, there were more than 300 people in the line without tickets. Many who didn't get into the auditorium were given tickets to view a live video feed into an adjacent lecture hall. Those who couldn't squeeze into the hall could hear the lecture blasted across the campus on speakers, or go home and view the live webcast.
Anticipation was high inside the Beckman auditorium. Young girls with bouquets of flowers for Hawking milled around expectantly.
Physics undergrads roamed the aisles, begging autographs from several of the Who's Who in Physics stars attending the lecture. Many of them looked a lot older than the young men on their book jackets.
Finally, Prof. Hawking was wheeled in on his wheelchair down the center aisle: a truly extraordinary figure.
One of the most brilliant minds alive on the planet today, he is cruelly trapped within a useless body, which slumps like an understuffed and oversized rag doll in his large and gadget-filled wheelchair.
In a smart grey suit and white shirt with fine blue stripes unbuttoned at the collar, he was smartly dressed, with a mop top-type short haircut that made him look like an escapee from Quadraphenia.
Yet his movement is minimal. He blinks his eyes, his right knee vibrates up and down with an involuntary tremor, and only the slow rise and fall of his stomach indicates that he is still alive.
Because he lost the power of speech many years ago, he writes his lectures painstakingly slowly on his wheelchair-laptop computer, manipulating the cursor with only the slightest movement of his fingers, in which he has barely any movement left.
At the press of a button, his computer then reads Hawking's text in a perfectly modulated, slightly Americanized voice, which sounds a lot like the Daleks that Dr. Who used to battle.
Each sentence of his lecture is therefore preprogrammed into his computer, and Hawking controls the pace of its delivery through his limited hand movement and the cursor. Even this is a difficult feat for him, and sometimes three or more minutes would pass between sentences, as he slowly manipulated the computer.
At times the silence dragged out so long, it was hard to believe that he was not asleep. I wanted desperately to shout "Wake Up!" or run on stage and slap some smelling salts under his nose, just to make sure that he hadn't died on stage as we watched, and nobody was any the wiser. Yet after what seemed like an interminable pause, his computerized voice would start up again.
Once, early on in the lecture, his head slumped forward like a broken doll, and an aide had to walk on stage to readjust his body: an undignified moment as Hawking's head was manhandled and repositioned, and then his whole body picked up and put down, as if the aide was plumping up a particularly large and unwieldy pillow.
It was simultaneously eerie and inspiring: to know that within this frail, almost lifeless carcass, there hummed the thrilling genius of the mind that produced A Short History of Time, and The Universe in a Nutshell, and some of the most seminal work on black holes.
It was a remarkable experience, and I was delighted to be there, and yet there was also an element of disappointment at the scope of Hawking's lecture, which was ambitiously titled 'Godel and the End of Physics.'
I was expecting a lecture, especially one staged at Cal tech, that would be intellectually challenging to me, if not completely over my head. Instead, it seems that Hawking gives his technically overdosed lectures in private to select groups at Cal Tech, while his public addresses are more populist.
As a result, the level of physics involved, and the ideas addressed, were probably of a freshman undergraduate level, and while it was an interesting and often humorous lecture, that covered his topic neatly and succinctly, it was somehow disappointing not to be intellectually challenged by the lecture, nor to feel the awesome power of that incredible mind blowing over you like an intellectual Santa Ana wind.
Nevertheless, a night to remember. -- Peter