Speaking of Stephen Hawking, the sci-fi fan who played poker with Einstein and Newton, and threw a party for time travellers

Gautham Shenoy March 17, 2018 7 min

….and in March of 1993, a release party was held to launch the home video version of Stephen Hawking’s biographical documentary film, A Brief History of Time, the title of the movie being taken from the book that was a gateway drug for so many of us. At the party, Hawking was introduced by none other than Leonard Nimoy. At the party Nimoy, finding out that Hawking was a Trekkie (a life-long fan of Star Trek) did the Mr. Spock-ish logical thing to do. He spoke to Rick Berman, executive producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and a guest appearance was written for Hawking. For, as with anything that Stephen Hawking loved – science fiction or pop culture – they loved him back.

Thus it came to be that in a historic Star Trek episode – Descent, Part 1 – Stephen Hawking played poker with Data, Einstein, and Newton on the Enterprise (watch the sequence here). Brent Spinner, who played Data, calls the event the high point of his days on Star Trek. To date, this remains the only instance of a person playing himself or herself, on Star Trek, ever. Hawking spoke about the experience, recalling, “I enjoyed my poker game with Einstein and Newton on the starship Enterprise. But I didn’t collect my winnings, on account of a red alert”, in just one instance of many where his wit shone through. While touring the set of Star Trek: TNG during the filming, Hawking is said to have paused on seeing the Enterprise’s warp engine, and said tongue-in-cheek, “I’m working on that!”.

Left: Stephen Hawking (back to camera) playing poker with Newton, Data, and Einstein in a historic episode of Star Trek. Right: Hawking in the recording studio for Masters of Science Fiction.

And speaking of warp cores, Stephen Hawking has a faster-than-light propulsion system named after him: the Hawking Drive that is used by the starships in the Hyperion Cantos tetralogy, by one of the modern masters of science fiction, Dan Simmons.

Speaking of which, Masters of Science Fiction was also the name of the anthology series that Stephen Hawking hosted, introducing off-screen the episodes each of which was written by a well-regarded science fiction author, aired in certain countries as Stephen Hawking’s Sci-Fi Masters. It was due to these and many such appearances that made Stephen Hawking became as much a pop-culture icon as a well-known scientist. Pop culture brings to that phenomenon, the popular series in which he appeared many memorable times, The Simpsons, not least the episode where he has been patiently listening to Homer’s theory of a doughnut-shaped universe before concluding that the theory is certainly ‘intriguing’. Hawking once said that “…as many people know me through The Simpsons as for my science”. In fact, for a time many people thought Stephen Hawking was a character created for The Simpsons by Matt Groening.

Left: The smartest person in the universe having a beer with Stephen Hawking. Right: The Simpsons Stephen Hawking action figure (with Intelli-tronic Voice Activation)

Speaking of whom, Matt Groening’s other animated series, the futuristic sci-fi comedy, Futurama also saw Stephen Hawking make quite a few appearances, most notably as a member of the Vice Presidential Action Rangers, a group of ‘top nerds’ tasked with guarding the space-time continuum.

Speaking of the space-time continuum, how can one not talk about time travel? Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity laid the groundwork for the possibility of time travel, and it was something that Stephen Hawking believed could be theoretically possible. But, ever the scientist, Stephen Hawking made a plan – or rather conducted an experiment – to (dis)prove that time travellers exist, by throwing a party for them, complete with a special invitation, balloons, hors-d’oeuvres and champagne (Krug, mind you), in the hope that a ‘future Ms Universe would step through the door’. But there was a twist.

Left: Stephen Hawking at the party he threw for time travellers, waiting for them to show up. Right: A faithful adaptation of the invitation for the time traveller’s party created as a poster by artist Peter Dean (in collaboration with Stephen Hawking).

The invitations for the party – which called it a ‘reception for Time Travellers’ – were sent only after the event was over. Here’s a short video about this elegant experiment! The theory, Stephen Hawking explained, was that only someone from the future would be able to attend. Hoping to catch the attention of future time travellers, Hawking published the invitation later in his mini-series, Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, to advertise the party.

And speaking of Stephen Hawking and advertising, in 1994 his voice and words were featured in a British Telecom advertisement about keeping the world talking. If his voice as a chart-topper sounds familiar this is where it is from. Because one of the of the people who cried to this commercial was a gentleman called David Gilmour, who at that time happened to be in a band called Pink Floyd. Describing the commercial as ‘the most powerful piece of television advertising that I’ve ever seen in my life’, Gilmour decided to use Hawking’s voice for Keep Talking – in what is perhaps the best Pink Floyd album in the post Syd Barrett/Roger Waters era – Division Bell. The song was famously covered by the British rock band Anathema, in a live performance that featured Stephen Hawking on stage, and speaking (performing?). Keep Talking was a #1 hit for Pink Floyd, and The Division Bell would reach number one in the USA and UK.

Two of Stephen Hawking’s appearances on Futurama.

Speaking of The Division Bell, it was not until the last minute – so to speak – that the album name was decided. The working titles were, or those being considered included – amongst many – Down to Earth, and Pow Wow. The person who finally suggested the name for the album, The Division Bell, was a science fiction writer called Douglas Adams, the author of a mostly harmless trilogy (in five parts) called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which had started life as a radio series in 1978. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of this cult broadcast, BBC Radio 4 decided to bring it back – with a new series called Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase, first broadcast early this month on 8th March. The Guide Mark II in this new series had a new voice – that of a long-time H2G2 fan. Yes, Stephen Hawking! In the sequence – which you can listen here – Hawking announces himself as “the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… Mark II.” Trillian says that he sounds awfully like a certain famous scientist, and just as she’s about to say a name, ‘the Guide Mk-II’ cuts her off, saying, “Others knew me in different forms. I have been quite popular in my time. Some even read my books.” This would be his last performance in this world. But there’s still a world in which Professor Hawking still lives. In Earth-616, the prime world of the Marvel comics universe, Stephen Hawking is still alive, having made his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man in 2012 as a character “created” by Dan Slott and Stefano Caselli.

Speaking of creators, there was one aspect of his work that Stephen Hawking wished would be more understood. In an interview with John Oliver (yes, the very same one where he delivered that superb burn to Oliver), Stephen Hawking said, “Imaginary time…It’s the one bit of my work that science fiction writers haven’t used…”. (Sci-fi authors, here’s a challenge for you!)

Kip Thorne, Stephen Hawking, and the director of the documentary film, Hawking: A Brief History of Mine, at the film’s screening.

Speaking of science fiction writers, Stephen Hawking has himself co-written a sci-fi story for film, along with his long-time friend, fellow physicist Kip Thorne, and Lynda Obst. And as Kip Thorne told me in a quick chat, the treatment note for the movie is ready, and it may be coming out in about 3 years. When I pressed for more details about the subject, all he told me was that it will involve a “different physics”. Would that be ‘Imaginary Time’? Time will tell. And when the movie – that I eagerly await – finally does come out, it will not be the first that Stephen Hawking’s name and story has been up on the big screen, starting with the first biographical documentary film about Hawking that came out in 1991.

Speaking of which, the movie was received well enough to warrant a special VHS home video version, and in March of 1993…

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