How a special man encourages us all to be curious
The recent Starmus Festival in Tenerife was a huge success but what about the untold stories behind it and the organisers?
Suddenly, the giant concert hall is ignited by a guttural roar from the crowd.
The bearded student from Madrid sitting in the row behind me, screams dea-feningly: “We love you Stephen, we love you.”
The multitude bay their approval and stand, like a giant wave, to welcome the man that is affectionately called “The Boss.”
Professor Stephen William Hawking, aged 72, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cos-mology at the University of Cambridge, had dropped by to listen to some music.
Not just any kind of music, you understand, but sounds conjured up by two learned masters of the musical universe, Doctor Brian May, astrophysicist and lead member of Queen and the wizard of the electronic keyboard, Rick Wakeman.
But for the moment, all eyes are focussed on this slightly built, bespectacled figure cradled in a wheelchair surrounded by his ever-faithful team of helpers.
I, another 90 International journalists and 800 delegates, had spent a week sharing time and space with the professor and the galaxy of moonwalkers and assembled astrological talent at the Starmus Festival at the Abama Ritz Carlton hotel.
Now, in this interlude, I was to meet urbane Ashley Oulton, the festival’s general manager, for an insight into their very special guest.
Ashley has lived on the island for 11 years and is a conference organiser, copywriter and marketing consultant running technology events in the UK from Tenerife.
“Starmus was the first event I have managed in Tenerife” ,he told me. “Although, I have spent many happy hours listening to my good friend Garik Israelian excitedly telling me about his plans to hold an event in Tenerife that would combine astronomy, space, art and music.
“He also said he wanted to invite Apollo Astronauts to speak – the rest is history.”
Ashley explained that despite Stephen Hawking’s illness – a motor neurone disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – the professor still has an impish sense of humour.
“Most people with ALS die in two or three years of diagnosis. Stephen has lived for 50. He is almost entirely paralysed and communicates through a speech-generating device which he controls with movements of his cheek muscles.
“Consequently, with a rate of about one word every two minutes it is quite difficult to hold a conversation with him.
“The first thing I learned was to ask him a question he could answer with a “yes” or “no”, as that speeds up the process.
“However, he has a wonderful sense of humour and is capable of surprising you with an amusing comment at any time.
“He also uses his eyes very effectively to communicate approval or disapproval,” he observed.
Due to the possibility of overuse of his cheek muscles to communicate causing locked-in syndrome, the professor is presently collaborating with researchers on systems to translate his brain patterns or facial expressions into switch activations.
Ashley revealed:” Stephen likes to eat everything and the only restriction is it must be gluten free. It has to be chopped into tiny pieces to enable one of his carers to feed him.
“He very much enjoyed tucking into the burger and chips at the Hard Rock Cafe but had to leave the bun as it is contained gluten.”
And Ashley recalls the public reaction when it was announced the professor, who had heard of Starmus through his friend Brian May, was coming to the festival.
“The phones and website went crazy and we received over 200 registrations from local Canarians in the space of two weeks, which was an incredible testament to Stephen´s international popularity:
Despite spending time with the professor leading up to the festival, Ashley says most of his opinions of Stephen were derived from understanding the different personalities of his carers, who come from many different backgrounds.
“Their professionalism and attention to detail was always apparent 24/7 and it was very clear they really enjoyed their work, whether liaising with the local hospital to have Stephen’s blood checked or accompanying him on stage to give his presentations at the Festival.”
His charismatic popularity was to manifest itself again at Hard Rock Cafe.
Says Ashley:”We were walking towards the entrance when we head frantic shouts from the street.
“A motorcycle policeman was shouting and gesturing, so we all stopped. My first thoughts were Stephen’s mini bus had been parked incorrectly.
“The policeman came running over trying to desperately get Stephen’s attention and as it turned out all he wanted was to have his photograph taken with him.
On his return to the UK the professor joined a very earthly community, Facebook, where he told the 1.3 million likes, how much he had enjoyed Tenerife, the festival and how he hoped to be invited back again.
His welcome post read prophetically: “I have always wondered what makes the universe exist.
“Time and space may forever be a mystery, but that has not stopped my pursuit.
” Our connections to one another have grown infinitely and now that I have the chance, I’m eager to share this journey with you.
“Be curious, I know I will forever be…”
Meantime, back at the Magma concert, we all savoured the joyous, one brief moment in time we were able to share quality time with a space prophet.
By Ken Bennet