I've interviewed so many renowned people over the years that I don't get very impressed any more. So naturally, it's the one man I can't interview who impresses me the most.
Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist and monumental thinker whose mind still takes him to places that his body -- and our bodies -- can never go, into the depths and abstractions of space, was at Caltech a couple of weeks ago, speaking through a voice generator to hundreds inside Beckman Auditorium and hundreds more outside, watching the proceedings on a big screen. [Students had lined up for hours to see him -- 13-year-old Evan Hetland of Valencia told the LA Times that ''it's like seeing the nerd pope!''
And a few of us, the very fortunate, got a private audience with this exceptional man. Hawking has had Lou Gehrig's disease -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the same disease that killed my father -- since he was a young man. The profound limitations to his body are in inverse proportion to the unfettered luminousness of his brain.
Unlike a lot of the Caltech people in that auditorium, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around what Hawking's mind, his abstractions of black holes and quantum matters, has conceived and thought through. I did tell him that I try to read his best-seller, ''A Brief History of Time,'' once a year, and intend to keep doing so until I finally understand it. [I am told that, in his turn, through his great Caltech friend and colleague Kip Thorne, Hawking flirted with me, which is one of those moments you put in your memoirs.]
Hawking's speech at Beckman Auditorium was more personal than scientific; he called it ''My Brief History,'' stories of his English childhood and his Cambridge education, droll and self-deprecatory -- and delivered in the American accents of the speech synthesizer that long ago supplanted his own voice.
Perhaps it's not a paradox that the man whose life has been composed of decades of borrowed time should spend so much of it contemplating the very concept of time itself; As he said at Caltech, the possibility of an early death "makes you realize life is worth living.''
Stephen Hawking and yours truly
-- photo by Michael Shermer