Big Bang for Bill Clinton

John Carlin sits in as Stephen Hawking explains the universe's future to the President
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THE SPECIAL Relationship is on a roll. A month ago Tony Blair was guest of honour at the White House. On Friday night it was Stephen Hawking's turn.

One rattled his sabre at Iraq and defended his friend the President from those who say he has no control over his carnal impulses. The other warned of planetary annihilation or a descent into barbarism.

In each case Bill and Hillary gushed, grateful, no matter the message, that in time of crisis the Brits could be relied upon to come through. Professor Hawking's contribution was perhaps the more consoling, for he provided the First Couple with a reminder that in the context of space, time, the universe and infinity, their political troubles amounted to little more than a fleeting collision of atomic particles. At the end of the day, Monica Lewinsky could not compete with the Big Bang.

The Cambridge mathematician and author of A Brief History of Time appeared on a stage in the East Room of the White House to deliver a lecture on the prospects for scientific and human evolution in the next millennium. Before an assembly of American scientists and scholars, and flanked by Mr and Mrs Clinton, who took turns to adopt pensive Rodin poses, Prof Hawking addressed himself to a live audience of millions on cable, the BBC and the World Wide Web.

This being America, he delivered some showbiz. Being Prof Hawking, he peppered his abstruse theories of physics with pleasingly illuminating analogies from the visible world.

Employing his familiar prop, the state-of-the-art wheelchair, he orchestrated the spectacle from his on-board computer, starting off with a scene beamed on a big screen behind him from an appearance he once made in an episode of Star Trek. He played a participant in a four-way poker game with Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton and Star Trek's pale-faced resident android. Hawking won.

Speaking in a metallic American accent through a computerised synthesiser, Dr Hawking asked his audience to visualise the possible destruction of the planet in terms of the opening scenes of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator. But he said he was an optimist and believed that the future was not so gloomy, alarmingly altered as the world would inevitably be.

Hundreds of years from now, people would be fundamentally different from the way they are now. The human race and DNA would increase rapidly in complexity, spurred by the inevitable developments in science, technology and genetic engineering.

"Unless we have a totalitarian order, someone will design an improved human," he said. He stressed that he was not passing judgement, merely making a prediction on the basis of fact. "I am just saying that it is likely to happen in the next millennium, whether we want it or not."

No less likely was the evolution of computers and the challenges they would pose to the human brain. "At the moment," he said, "computers have speed but no intelligence." According to Moore's Law, however, their speed and complexity double every 18 months. Eventually, he said, computers' complexity will be similar to that of the human brain. They would be able to function in an intelligent way.

Sobering as Prof Hawking's message was, he elicited laughter and applause from his eminent listeners as he explained concepts impenetrable to the secular listener ("closed loops of particles", "super partnerspecies") in terms of President Clinton's struggles to achieve a balanced budget and of the mathematical probability that one day the hapless Chicago Cubs would win baseball's World Series.

Prof Hawking's otherwise limp, twisted body registered the delight of the audience by cracking his facial muscles, time and again, into a broad grin.

Following the 35-minute lecture the theoretician fielded a series of questions from his audience and, by e-mail, from Internet users everywhere. In a vision of the future no one would have imagined when Prof Haw-king was born in 1942, one of the live participants was Andrew Thomas, a US astronaut paying his respects by satellite from the Russian space station Mir.

Melvyn Bragg on science, Section 2, page 5