WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- There are very few people on this planet who would qualify as living legends, and fewer still who can live up to expectations, but Stephen Hawking sits at or near the top in that rarified company, propelled to prominence by the incredible power of his mind -- and his surprising and disarming sense of humor.
The Smithsonian Institution presented Hawking with its James Smithson Bicentennial Medal on Monday evening. The medal, originally struck in 1965 -- on the 200th anniversary of the birth of the eponymous institution's founder -- has been given to people who have fulfilled the somewhat vague criterion of making "distinguished contributions to the advancement of areas of interest to the Smithsonian." In the past 40 years, that has covered a wide range, from singer Rosemary Clooney to undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau to filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
In Hawking's case, the area of interest is cosmology. More than any other human being in the past half-century -- this coming April marking the 50th anniversary of Albert Einstein's death -- Hawking has expanded our understanding of the universe, both in its probable beginning and its possible destiny.
Hawking is unique, not only a worthy successor to Einstein, but also a fitting one, because the two men share a penchant for deep thought. Hawking's may have been forced -- for nearly 40 years, he has suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which has reduced his physical capacity to only the slightest movements -- but in this age of supercomputers and particle accelerators, his theories have been validated time and time again by experiments.
He is, as a colleague once described him, "a totally cerebral man."
In his eminently readable biography, "Stephen Hawking's Universe," John Boslough described an incident that helped to make Hawking a legend, even among the elite in his field.
"A secretary who worked for him while he was visiting the California Institute of Technology said he once recalled 24 hours later a tiny mistake he had made while dictating -- from memory -- 40 pages of equations," Boslough wrote.
In that respect, Hawking is the Mozart of physicists, able to hold extremely complex formulas entirely within his mind, then present them as fait accomplis, to the continuing astonishment of his colleagues.
Hawking's formulas describe a universe that seems almost too strange:
--Black holes can explode or, given enough time, evaporate away into oblivion.
--Two light beams traveling in opposite directions create a condition between them called an event horizon, which itself becomes a source of energy. This phenomenon is now called Hawking radiation.
--Infinitesimal fluctuations of energy at the quantum scale resulted in variations in the temperature of the cosmic background radiation that now pervades the entire universe.
These examples, and many others, are merely prelude, however. They represent small pieces of a much larger cosmic puzzle Hawking is trying to unravel.
Not given to false modesty, he has set for himself -- as stated in his best-selling book, "A Brief History of Time" -- the goal of "nothing less than a complete understanding of the universe we live in." That quest has taken him ever farther into the frontiers of cosmology, where even the most accomplished physicists feel daunted trying to articulate or even understand the concepts involved.
Such difficulty was in evidence at the Smithsonian ceremony, where a slate of preliminary speakers struggled to explain his ideas in the most basic terms to a polite but restless audience.
Despite the material's high degree of difficulty, the crowd reflected the attitude of the public at large -- worldwide as well as local -- in treating Hawking as a bona fide celebrity. Other physicists may tread the exclusive theoretical territory Hawking explores, but no one approaches his name recognition. Monday night, Hawking illustrated why.
Preceding him was a brief video compilation of three of his appearances on popular American television series. In an episode of "The Simpsons," an animated Hawking pummeled a bully with a robotic boxing glove built into his wheelchair. In "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the real Hawking played poker with actor-depicted Einstein and Isaac Newton, as well as Data, an android and series regular played by Brent Spiner.
Also on the video, Hawking paid a surprise visit -- via video and phone hook-up -- to "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" when he discussed his latest theory with comic actor Jim Carrey, who he called a genius for his portrayal in the movie "Dumb and Dumber."
The audience loved it all, and when Hawking at last appeared onstage, they erupted into a prolonged standing ovation. Hawking responded with brief remarks, delivered in pieces via the computerized voice synthesizer that remains his only way of speaking.
"There have been great changes in cosmology in the last 40 years, to which I have made a modest contribution," he said.
At the beginning of his career, he continued, the cosmological theories of Einstein and others were "regarded as beautiful but unapproachable." Since then, "we have made great advances in observations and theory. It has been a glorious time to be alive."
Acknowledging the enthusiasm of the audience, Hawking added: "People really do want to understand where we came from -- that is why I appeared on 'The Simpsons.'"
More than anyone else so far, Hawking has come closest to explaining it.
In the Stars is a series by UPI examining new discoveries about the cosmos. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org