…and that’s all he would say on the subject of God during last night’s lecture at the Royal Albert Hall (chaired by the dreadful Jim Al-Khalili). @ianvisits has already described the actual experience of listening to Hawking speak.

Talking about his latest book, The Grand Design, and his early life, Hawking was a surprisingly engaging, charming and humorous speaker. I would recommend anyone with even the slightest interest in science to see him lecture. There has been media controversy since The Grand Design‘s publicatication, principally around Hawking’s claims that God did not create the universe. From the BBC’s coverage:

Citing the 1992 discovery of a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun, he said: “That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass – far less remarkable, and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.”

He adds: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Disappointingly for us mere mortals, Hawking chose not to expand this statement beyond clarifying that he was not making a ‘God is dead’-style claim; more indicating that God was simply a name for existing laws and phenomena. [I think…].

Not being a cosmologist, I was rather lost when Hawking went through the finer points of black holes, singularities and space-time. Fascinating for scientists and non-scientists alike however was hearing how his interests and mind developed. Born in Oxford to intellectual parents, he was unable to read until the age of 8, though he loved building systems with his trainsets and was later given the nickname ‘Einstein’ at school. He moved to and remained in North London (Highgate, Hendon and St. Albans) through his childhood and adolescence, losing the battle with his father to specialise in mathematics at the age of 17. This was the last formal tuition in maths he would receive. He would go on to be Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge.

Hawking told the audience that during his undergrad days at Oxford, his lax habits resulted in a borderline degree classification between a 2,1 and a first. Up in front of the board, he told examiners that he would remain in Oxford if he got a 2,1, and go to Cambridge if he got a first. “They gave me a first,” he said.

Citing the field as ‘ripe for development’, Hawking focused his efforts on gravitational physics while at Cambridge. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease soon after – and credits the illness with giving him the drive needed to make his work exceptional: “When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realise that life is worth living, and that there are lots of things you want to do.” (There was a long hush at this point).

In The Grand Design, Hawking claims to have found the unifying theory which Einstein and all subsequent physicists have been seeking. This should have been the most riveting part of the lecture, yet I found it the least convincing. Perhaps that’s why Hawking chose to distribute the book at the end of his lecture, rather than explain it to a lay audience in ten minutes. If true, however, the discovery of M Theory will end a search which has been going on for 2,000 years.

Asked whether he foresaw a time when man would know everything there is to know about the physical universe, Hawking simply replied, ‘I hope not’.

Before going to the Hawking lecture, I saw this from XKCD. Though amusing, I think the point it makes is a good one – it’s good to encourage intelligence, dangerous to revere it.