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Meeting the God-Emperor of Physics, Prof. Stephen Hawking

The God Emperor of Physics, sitting in his Golden Throne

It's a curious job being a teacher. On the one hand, your day to day life couldn't be more routine. On the other, you occasionally get to go and do genuinely amazing things.

On Monday, I took a few students to go and meet the God-Emperor of Physics himself, Professor Stephen Hawking.

The news dropped last term, before Christmas, and actually before I started writing the blog (which has been updated every day for the past few months... I have the Relentless Writer USR). My department head was running through the building trying to find a Physics teacher, and as I was working late (as per usual... I have the Relentless Teacher USR as well) I was the first Physics teacher she found.

We got a once in a lifetime chance to go and see Prof. Stephen Hawking getting an award up in London.

And I got put in charge.

Working late sometimes pays off!

I immediately set up a competition to see which students could go. We had the chance of sending ten students plus me to the Guild Hall in London for the ceremony. The Guild Hall is the ceremonial center of the City of London, an odd sort of mini-city in London itself. It's run by really old companies, and is essentially the financial hub of the UK, if not the world. When people talk about the City of London on the news, they usually mean this.

The competition was an essay on the importance of Physics. Okay, it lacked creativity, but it got the job done. An hour after the head master had announced the competition in assembly, I already had five essays.

Yesterday, after a few panicked months of trying to get this trip to go perfectly, my students and I finally managed to go.

If you ever get a chance to visit the Guild Hall in London, you really should go. It's exactly as you'd imagine the Illuminati head quarters. Very serious people in suits walking purposefully around, and some with ornate gold chains around their necks. There are also people walking around in peculiar looking robes, completely comfortable looking in their medieval attire.

Paintings adorn the walls, some as big as minibuses or vans. There is one there, the size of a small swimming pool, that took seventy years to paint.

If you drop the lighting down to grim dark, it could well be Imperial Palace on Terra.

And then the man himself. Professor Stephen Hawking.

I simply don't have the words to describe the reverence he is held in for the students that accompanied me. They were a mix of very intelligent and older students to young but outstripping the others in passion. These kids had all worked for their chance to be there. They had earned their spot, had struggled to find time to pour their effort and fire into an essay, and all to be in the same room as this man.

And we got to hear him speak.

As part of the ceremony for the award he received, Prof. Hawing was asked three questions. They were fairly lukewarm questions, and well suited to the pop-science genre that he sells so well to the public. Whilst he is a phenomenal Physicist, make no mistake; his greatest gift is communicating these ideas to the public.

It's remarkable how still he is when he speaks. During the ceremony his speech computer was switched off, and I was privileged (and quick enough!) to get my students and myself sat behind the seats reserved for Prof. Hawking's friends and family. Mostly older people, they had little respect for the grandeur of the event, treating it as a good day out and giggling over some of the words said.

I sincerely hope my students were paying as much attention to them as the stage, as I learned a great deal about the God-Emperor of Physics himself from the people that knew him.

And when Prof. Hawking spoke, you could feel the intensity of how people listened. Every phrase he utters is punctuated by a barely audible electronic beep, as he selects his words from his speech computer. And in the long pauses between his robotic tones, there is the heavy silence of people waiting in anticipation for what he has to say.

He answered the questions given him in great style, most likely pre-prepared answers, as questions had been sent in months before.

The first question was on the topic of AI, and how dangerous it could be the future of humanity. Clearly, Prof. Hawking was a fan of 40K, as he accurately described the dangers forewarned by the Adeptus Mechanicus on Artificial Intelligence. He talks about how there must be international regulation on the creation of AI, and ends his speech on this question by stating, "We must not allow AI to design itself."

As a man who relies on a machine to communicate with the world, I think he must be all too aware of the importance of keeping humans in control of technology.

The second question was on his party for time travelers. In 2009 he organised and held a party for time travelers, and to ensure the validity of any guests that would come, did not send the invitations out until after the party. He was sad to say that no one came to his party.

The third question he was asked was on the topic of space flight. He began by discussing the great strides we were making in this field, and mused that we would have space tourists in the future. He also said that he could imagine tiny drone ships pushed to distant stars on beams of lasers.

And the ceremony was done, with a short lunch reception after. The kids managed to get themselves selfies with the man himself, and I busied myself taking pictures for the school marketing department. Such is the way of a good teacher. In case you're wondering, I smudged out the faces of the people around Prof. Hawking for child protection issues (and have deleted the original image). The only other face I kept there was the Lord Mayor of the City of London.

When the God Emperor of Physics was wheeled away on his Golden Throne, we were able to have a chat with one of Stephen's colleagues. After a few glasses of wine he was very chatty, and the students bombarded him with some really tough questions about theoretical Physics. It got to the point where we were gently being shoved out of the Guild Hall by the organizers, and in any case, we needed to run to catch our ride back to school.

It's hard to explain what you do as a teacher. On one week, your entire focus is getting students to the heats for the Warhammer School's League. The next you're bundling students off to London to see Stephen Hawking. On the one hand you chat to other teachers about the best way to get students to learn 7th Edition. On the other, you're viciously negotiating to get a few more minutes time with a world renowned physicist.

I've met two great scientists in the very short time I've been a teacher. I can now claim to have met Sir Robert Winston, who was so neatly ringed by my students he couldn't escape their questions, and Professor Stephen Hawking. Both times I've only ever been in the role of facilitator, keeping my own fan boyism down to a minimum, so the students get their brush with fame.

But damn... it's hard not to giggle with glee every time I think about how close I got to the Golden Throne.

Until next time.

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