Britain celebrates Stephen Hawking turning 70

A photo of Stephen Hawking taken last autumn. The physicist was to ill to attend his 70th birthday celebration yesterday in Cambridge.

Yesterday was the 70th birthday of Britain's most famous scientist and one of the world's most remarkable human beings, Stephen Hawking. A conference in his honor was held in Cambridge where he has worked for the last five decades.

It was a unique occasion. It's hard to think of any scientist in this country - or most countries - getting the kind of news coverage Hawking's 70th birthday has received.

It was also an occasion to learn some very interesting things, like the fact that Andromeda will crash into our own galaxy in 4 billion years. I'm still trying to visualize that.

One of the speakers, Saul Perlmutter, this year's Nobel laureate in physics, said the "big bang" should have been called the "big soup." I'm trying to visualize that, as well. It doesn't help answer basic questions of ontology: big soup to me summons an image of someone making stock, slowly, patiently, straining away the globules of chicken fat. Does this mean God is my grandmother?

Hawking himself had to miss the event because of poor health. So he sent a recording of his speech. The most famous physicist of the late 20th century reminisced about his less than promising beginnings. Like the most famous physicist of the early 20th century, Albert Einstein, Hawking was an indifferent student who did not really get cracking in his studies until after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease while working on a PhD at Cambridge. He was given around five years to live.

Hawking reminisced that the urgency came via the encouragement of his first wife. What followed was ground breaking work on black holes and dark energy and eventually world-wide fame via the best-selling book, "A Brief History of Time."

His taped message urged those in attendance, "Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet." Hawking added, "Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious."