I used to live in Pasadena, right by Caltech, and was at the local Ralph’s getting food late one night…
I was walking by the wine aisle and I see the backside of this wheelchair with three college-aged people standing around it and I thought to myself, “That sorta looks like Hawking’s chair.” (I was halfway through my physics degree at the time), but didn’t think it was possible so I kept walking. I caught myself a minute later and thought that it would be dumb to at least not check to see that it wasn’t him, so I did. I walked back and, sure enough, it was Hawking with three grad students. He always had at least one with him, usually PhD student who was working in gravitation. The others were there to help out with “simpler” tasks.
I got super giddy and, literally, ran away to the vegetable aisle shaking with adrenaline. I mean, it’s Stephen f****g Hawking and I’m studying physics, flirting with the idea to go into grad school for Cosmology. That would be like being a film student and seeing Scorcese. I pumped myself up to at least go say hi. I walked back (again) and approached the crew. I introduced myself, explained my background, and said thanks for the inspiration. He just stared at me for what felt like five minutes.
One of his grad students spoke up and said that it takes him a few minutes to craft a response. By this time his ALS had progressed enough that he wasn’t “as quick” as he used to be. I think she said his computer was being controlled by small twitches he would make with his cheek muscle. I didn’t want to wait around for a response, in part due to the general awkwardness of the silence, but mostly because I didn’t want to harass them or fan-out.
Turns out he was in town for research and was giving a talk which was hosted by the LA Times at Caltech a couple weeks later, so I got tickets. When he came on stage to a sold-out crowd everyone went silent. And, I SWEAR TO GOD, there was, at least, 5 minutes of no talking. You could hear a cricket clear its throat. It was just Hawking sitting on stage. Eventually, people started to shift in their seats, obviously uncomfortable with what was going on and out of the speakers comes this, “I am alive, ha ha ha ha.” in that classic Hawking voice. He trolled the whole audience! There was a collective sigh of relief which was immediately followed by laughter.
It made me think that maybe, just maybe, he was trolling me in the wine aisle at Ralphs. I like to think so anyway.