When Stephen Hawking visited Salt Lake City

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SALT LAKE CITY — World renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who since 1979 has been Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton, died on Wednesday at the age of 76, according to a statement from his children. He died peacefully in his home, his three children said.

The British scientist has a long list of accomplishments and among the stops he made for public lectures, he chose to come to Salt Lake City twice in two years.

In 1998, he published “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes,” which has sold more than 10 million copies and is the second best-selling book of all time in Britain, BBC reported. Decades earlier, Hawking wrote his thesis on black holes that his adviser described as “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics,” according to The New York Times.

“Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world,” Michio Kaku, a City University of New York theoretical physics professor, said to The New York Times.

In 1963, when Hawking had just turned 21, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a condition causes the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles. At the time, doctors said he would be dead in three years or less.

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21,” Hawking said in December 2004 interview with The New York Times. “Everything since then has been a bonus.”

On July 3, 1993, Hawking made a visit to Salt Lake City to view “Fate of the Universe,” a film he helped narrate, at the Hansen Planetarium, now Clark Planetarium. The visit is recounted in Deseret News science writer Joseph Bauman’s news story “Personable physicist delights thousands of Utahns at lecture,” dated July 4, 1993, in which Bauman described Hawking’s speech at Abravanel Hall.

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The 2,801 seats at Abravanel Hall were all filled for Hawking’s visit, wrote Bauman, and anywhere from 5,000 to 12,000 people listened to the speech outside.

In his sold-out speech, Hawking discussed black holes and baby universes, also known as young, small universes, according to Oxford Living Dictionaries.

“‘Baby universes’ may not be much good for space travel,” Hawking told the audience, “but their presence means that we will be able to predict less than we expected, even if we do find the complete unified theory (of how the universe operates).”

Hawking, whose condition required him to speak through a computer using a synthesized voice, was noted to be happy, funny and uplifting. As Bauman wrote, “He controlled his motorized wheelchair, deftly scooting through the crowd … Hawking smiled from time to time, when he made jokes during his talk … He joshed that his synthetic voice has been likened to all sorts of accents: Scandinavian, American and Irish.”

Sky Bauman, 13 at the time, attended the speech and asked Hawking about the possibility of multiple big bangs. After a few minutes, Hawking replied, “There seems to have been only one in the region we can see. But there could be other big bangs in other regions.”

On July 9, 1995, Sky told the Deseret News that meeting the acclaimed physicist was a dream come true.

“It was just fabulous to encounter him finally,” Sky said. “I planned on writing him a letter, but I never really got to that — and it was much better to meet him in person.”

Hawking met with the Allen family, of Holladay, during his 1993 visit, a family that included Britt Allen, an 11-year-old with cerebral palsy who, like Hawking, speaks through a voice synthesizer.

“Once you get past the computer thing, he’s really a neat, warm person,” said Kim Allen, Britt’s mother.

Will South, author of “Andy Warhol Slept Here? Famous and Infamous Visitors to Utah,” described the encounter between this 11-year-old and Hawking: “Their meeting in Salt Lake City in 1993 might be seen simply as a coincidence in a universe full of random occurrences,” South wrote. “It might also be seen as symbolic of the tenacity of the human spirit to transcend physical limitations, to engage the world of which it is part, and to be heard.”

During his trip to Utah, Hawking got a chance to visit the Great Salt Lake, something Hawking apparently dreamed of doing since he was a child.

“He indicated that since he was 12 years old, he wanted to see it,” said Linda Hill, who was Hansen Planetarium’s administrative assistant at the time.

After checking out the Great Salt Lake, Hawking reportedly toured the Kennecott Copper mine, went shopping at Trolley Square for a software program for his son (which he was unable to find), and then went to a theater screening of the just-released “Jurassic Park,” according to the Deseret News.

As Bauman wrote for Deseret News in 1995, “Later, one of Hawking’s nurses told Hill (of the Hansen Planetarium) the visit to Salt Lake City was well-organized ‘and that he enjoyed himself more than he had on any other trip.’”

Hawking visited the Beehive State for a second time on July 17, 1995, according to Clark Planetarium director Seth Jarvis. His second visit was at the University of Utah and drew a crowd of more than 11,000, Jarvis told KSL.com.

Jarvis described Hawking as a “remarkably articulate person” who taught the public “weird lessons” about the universe. The fact that Hawking lived, despite his medical condition, to be 76 is a cause for celebration, Jarvis said.

Though his visits to the state were few and brief, the impressions he made on the Utahns he met were anything but.

“The public really has an appetite for what he had to say about the universe,” Jarvis said, “and that’s very heartening.”

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