Stephen Hawking, Parsifal and Space-Time

Stephen Hawking is 75! Indomitable doesn’t come close to describing his life.

He became a research fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge shortly before I joined as an undergraduate. By then he had already outlived the prognosis of his first diagnosis, in 1963. This is a promo video of Caius choir’s birthday tribute; the full piece is here. I remember him coming into Hall, walking shakily and supported by two colleagues, but it was not long before he was a familiar sight crossing the Backs in his iconic wheelchair.

Much later, in November 2013, I was a Grail Knight in Stephen Langridge’s new production of Wagner’s Parsifal at the Royal Opera. Sharing a coffee before the dress rehearsal Langridge mentioned that opera guide publisher Gary Kahn was bringing Stephen Hawking to the show. In the second interval I scanned the auditorium and located him and his small entourage in the Royal Circle preparing for Act 3 (he’d stayed the course – Langridge thought he would only do one act).

I seized the moment, introduced myself, and Gary told me to have a chat (i.e. monologue). I’m sure Prof Hawking twinkled at my tale of being a Grail Knight and Caius contemporary, so I went on to explain EQ as succinctly as possible, and included a joke about Raum und Zeit (Space and Time)*. Another twinkle or two, so just enough detail, but in the circumstances not too much…

I followed up with an email to Gary to capitalise further:

  • If you visit the prototype website for EQ at equalunderthesun.org, the opening image is the famous Earthrise – the first picture of a whole Earth from space, Christmas Eve, 1968. The first idea of EQ is to offer actual planet days – the equinoxes – as Earth Days. There is an irrefutable logic in this: using planet events to do something planetary. Apart from practical actions, we can use equinoxes as moments to “zoom out” into space, to see our home as boundary-less, and to broaden our sense of time and space: “Du sieh’st…zum Raum wird hier die Zeit”*.
  • The second idea is also logic-based: we are equal under the sun at equinox because there are twelve hours of night and day everywhere on Earth. This is a terrific ‘hook’ on which to attach the notion of one-world interdependence (space) and stewardship of the future (time). It seems to me that to understand our differences and our shared destiny is really a matter of developing our sense of empathy, or compassion – Mitleid*.
  • I also told Prof Hawking that the logo is at the heart of EQ, with its Golden Section (1:1.618) geometry, so that on the one hand it can be homemade; on the other, embedded in it are maths, philosophy, culture, and nature. Above all, it is a clear, simple logo.

I finished off: ‘Finally, to complete the record of our conversation, the Grail Knight you met was once a choral exhibitioner and a lone Geographer at Caius, 1967-70, a year after Stephen became a Fellow. Cosmic music and cosmic geography…it all links up!’

Unfortunately, this was when the filming of The Theory of Everything was in full swing, followed by its promotion, and that was that. Time to try to revive that moment… (I have just had a great C25 success with endorsement from another National Treasure…though in Prof Hawking’s case, ‘national’ doesn’t quite cut it; Cosmic Treasure?)

*Parsifal, Wagner’s last opera, is a long haul. The first musical phrase takes a couple of minutes to complete its arc; time and space – and Mitleid (compassion) – are major themes. The quote (‘you see, here space becomes time’) comes an hour into Act 1, when the scene is transformed. You can see why the piece appeals to Prof Hawking…

 

One thought on “Stephen Hawking, Parsifal and Space-Time

  1. Gabriel Gottlieb says:

    An amazing encounter! I wish you’d got a reply. Gary Kahn spoke about Wagner at a dinner my mum hosted recently as a prize for a fundraising raffle organised by the National Opera Studio, and my mum and I subsequently met him at ROH during the Ring Cycle. He mentioned that he’d had plans to get Stephen Hawking along before – plans that obviously couldn’t come to fruition after his death. SH also wrote the Foreword to GK’s book on the ROH’s recently revived production of the Ring Cycle, and I was pleased to read that he thought Götterdämmerung the finest of all Wagner’s operas – an opinion which I agree with but have never seen heard elsewhere. It’s an amazing thing when a genius from one discipline so admires a genius from another. You feel that somehow they must be right too!

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