Science heavyweights and Hollywood types mingled last week at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, where the new Stephen Hawking biopic made its Washington debut. “The Theory of Everything,” out now, depicts Hawking’s marriage to his first wife Jane Wilde — and thrusts the world-famous astrophysicist’s ideas back into the spotlight.
Storyline chatted with guests at the D.C. premiere about an issue Hawking recently declared terrestrially pressing: climate change. Here’s how his friends and colleagues interpret his message:
1. Hawking starts with the big questions.
Filmmaker Anthony McCarten, who wrote the biopic’s screenplay, said Hawking stays existentially curious. His scientific breakthroughs started with dramatic inquiries.
“What is this universe?,” McCarten said. “How does it end? What should we do in the meantime? His curiosity knows no bounds. He’s got opinions on everything.”
Hawking made his climate views clear in a 2007 speech to the Royal Society in London: “We are learning how human activities and technologies are affecting climate systems in ways that may forever change life on Earth. As citizens of the world, we have a duty to share that knowledge. We have a duty, as well, to alert the public to the unnecessary risks that we live with every day, and to the perils we foresee if governments and societies do not take action now … to prevent further climate change.”
2. He makes bold statements — and people care.
“He’s encouraging us to take preventative steps now — and take those steps faster,” said British actor Eddie Redmayne, who plays Hawking in the film (and previously starred in “Les Miserables”). “He’s got generations of fans who listen. My younger friends think he’s an icon. My parents’ friends think he’s an icon.”
Hawking recently created a Facebook page, Redmayne said. “His first post was ‘Be curious.’”
3. An early clue came from the cosmos.
“We first learned about climate change by observing Venus,” said American Physical Society spokesperson Michael Lubell, who met Hawking 15 years ago at a lecture in Atlanta. “Venus’ atmosphere, which is 90 times as dense as the earth’s, is made up of mostly carbon dioxide. Even though it’s not the closest planet to the sun, it’s far hotter than any other planet — including Mercury.”
That’s an example of the greenhouse gas effect, Lubell said. “Should we be doing something about it? The answer is absolutely yes.”
4. Earthlings, Hawking says, should take galactic warning seriously.
He described an apocalyptic future in Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2007 environmental documentary The 11th Hour: “We don’t know where global warming will stop,” he said. “But the worst case scenario is that Earth will become like its sister planet Venus with a temperature of 250 [Celsius] and raining sulfuric acid. The human race could not survive in those conditions.”
5. Hawking still asks the big questions.
Dr. David Kaiser, department head of Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T, met Hawking as a graduate student at Harvard. “I share Stephen’s climate concerns quite dearly,” he said. They stem from the desire to explain the heavens, Kaiser said — and, in the process, better understand life on Earth.
“One thing cosmologists like to wonder about: What’s our place in the world? Sometimes we mean the world in the narrow, this world. Sometimes we mean the world in the impossibly infinite. That’s often motivated by the questions: Where are we? Where are we going? What is this thing we’re in — and what’s its future?”