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Stephen Hawking visits the University of Leicester

L - R: Professor Martin Barstow, Professor Stephen Hawking and Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess.

World famous scientist makes history at University of Leicester

A report on the historic lecture by Professor Stephen Hawking, the University's biggest to date.

Issued on 9 June

World famous scientist Stephen Hawking made history at the University of Leicester giving its biggest ever lecture, attended by over 1000 people, during the University’s 50th anniversary year.

Professor Hawking, who is an honorary graduate of the University of Leicester, gave his lecture, The Origin of the Universe, in the new 500-seater lecture theatre within the David Wilson Library complex. This marked a significant milestone for the University as it was the first external lecture to be delivered in this venue in the presence of David Wilson himself. The hour-long lecture, followed by questions, was also relayed from the Library lecture theatre to three other lecture theatres in the Ken Edwards Building.

Prior to the lecture, Professor Hawking had lunch on campus with members of the University before visiting the Department of Physics and Astronomy where the Head of Department, Professor Martin Barstow, provided an overview of the work of this world-renowned department. During this visit Professor Hawking was shown a scale model of the Swift satellite with which the University is involved and a radiometer flown on the Envisat mission to monitor sea surface temperatures.

In addition to discussions with members of the academic staff, Professor Hawking also had the opportunity to meet with students who, like himself, had undertaken a zero gravity flight. Doctoral student Daniel Brandt described the experiment he and fellow students had undertaken while playing a video from the event. Daniel said: “It is fantastic to meet the most famous modern physicist and one of the greatest minds of all time. Almost anything we can do in theoretical physics or cosmology is somehow connected to the work of Stephen Hawking - it is a real privilege to have met with him.”

Professor Hawking also visited the Scanning Probe Microscope Facility, operated by the Condensed Matter Physics group as part of the Advanced Microscopy Centre, and met with Chris Binns, Professor of Nanotechnology. His final appointment in this area was in the Physics Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, where he heard about new small group teaching methods designed to replace more traditional lecturing approaches.

During his time at Leicester Professor Hawking also toured The Richard Attenborough Centre, the University’s arts centre. The RAC runs an extensive range of short creative learning courses, workshops and arts events, open to all members of the community. Acting Director Gillian Garratt introduced him to members of the Centre’s Staff-Student Committee and showed him preparations for the Centre’s new art exhibition by Kyra Clegg: Hides and Habitats which was due to open on 31 May. As well as being entertained by children taking part in a West African drumming workshop with musician Julie Wright, Professor Hawking was presented with a print of a meteorite by RACentre student and keen astronomer Graham Ensor as a memento of his visit.

Professor Hawking’s visit has resulted in much comment from staff, students and the wider community and was enjoyed by many. Professor Martin Barstow commented: “It has been a privilege to host a visit to the Department of Physics and Astronomy by one of the world’s most distinguished scientists. We share common interests in space exploration and Professor Hawking has stated his support for human spaceflight, an area we are pursuing at Leicester with the appointment of former astronaut Jeff Hoffman to teach our students.” Acting Director of the RAC, Gillian Garratt, said “It was a great honour to welcome Professor Hawking to The Richard Attenborough Centre and introduce him to just a few of the many ways we break down the barriers so that everyone, regardless of whether they do or don’t have a disability, can get involved in the arts.”

In his illustrated lecture, Professor Hawking provided an overview of different theories relating to the origins of the universe. These included African folklore, Soviet ideas, theological beliefs as well as those put forward by philosophers and scientists. He presented views of the Universe existing forever, of God being a ‘prime mover’ in its origins before going on to discuss the theory of relativity and the discovery that the universe is expanding. This, he said, was one of the most important intellectual discoveries of any century.

Professor Hawking also put forward his own theories and highlighted important milestones in research that had taken our understanding forward. But he reminded the audience that there also remain many questions in the pursuit of knowledge of the origin of the Universe.

The evening also included a talk by Professor Hawking’s current Graduate Assistant, Sam Blackburn, and former Graduate Assistant, Dr Simon Gill, who is now a Senior Lecturer in the Mechanics and Materials Research Group in the Department of Engineering at Leicester. They gave the audience interesting insight into the technology behind Professor Hawking’s wheelchair, voice recognition software and Dr Gill recounted some of the trips he had been on around the world with Professor Hawking.

Thanking Professor Hawking for his inspirational lecture, Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess recollected how one of the questions he had been asked in the past concerned what academics ‘actually did’ at the University. Professor Burgess said: “What we are engaged with in the University is thinking about fundamental problems. One of the things we can draw from this lecture is the fact that academics pose questions for themselves and then set about trying to answer them in order to give plausible explanations of the physical and social world. They do that in order to have a better understanding of the world.

“I am sure our understanding has been advanced this evening and many of us who are outside the immediate subject area can see ways in which we can think about these fundamental problems more easily.

“I am sure you will find that this evening lingers in the memory for many years to come.”

Mouse-over image for captions.

Professor Hawking tours the University campus with Professor Martin Barstow (left) and Professor Robert Hillman (centre). Professor Hawking tours the University campus.

Professor Hawking passes the University's astronomical clock during his tour. Professor Hawking tours the University campus. Professor Hawking with University staff, including Dr Derek Raine (far left), Professor Barstow (left) and Dr Tracey Parker.

Professor Martin Barstow and Professor Hawking examining the model of the SWIFT satellite in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Professor Martin Barstow welcomes Professor Hawking to the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Professor Chris Binns describes some of the research being undertaken in the department.

Professor Chris Binns describes some of the research being undertaken in the department. Professor Hawking examines the work of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Professor Hawking examines the work of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

During his visit, Professor Hawking toured the Richard Attenborough Centre. During his visit, Professor Hawking toured the Richard Attenborough Centre. A drumming workshop took place during Professor Hawking's tour of the Richard Attenborough Centre.

During his visit, Professor Hawking toured the Richard Attenborough Centre. During his visit, Professor Hawking toured the Richard Attenborough Centre. During his visit, Professor Hawking toured the Richard Attenborough Centre.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess introduces Stephen Hawking's lecture. The lecture, 'The Origin of the Universe', begins. All 500 seats of the David Wilson Library Lecture Theatre were taken for the lecture.

Professor Hawking delivers his lecture.

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