Without a doubt, the best thing about working on a TV show about fanboys is the opportunity to be a fanboy. The anticipation that you’re headed into work with Leonard Nimoy or Steve Wozniak or Buzz Aldrin or Adam West is the kind of thing that makes you wish you could send a letter back to your teenage self. “It gets nerdier,” it would say.
But no amount of Batmen or Vulcans or real-life astronauts is adequate preparation for Stephen Hawking, who died March 14, at 76. There’s nothing remotely on par with walking into a library at Caltech and meeting the man a “Big Bang” writer much funnier than me called “the wheelchair dude who invented time.”
After we finished shooting Hawking’s scene [for the 2012, Season 5 episode “The Hawking Excitation”], we were invited to join him for lunch at Caltech’s Athenaeum Club (“Einstein was a member,” says Sheldon). At a table in the corner, the grad student who assisted Hawking helped him situate himself, while Kip Thorne recommended items off the menu. (Thorne would later win the Nobel Prize — for physics, not food reviews. But he was spot on with both.)
If you’ve seen footage of Professor Hawking speaking, it’s not immediately apparent how he controlled his voice synthesizer. It was operated by a whisker-size mouse control that rested on top of his cheek. By using some of the last muscles he had control over, he would trigger the mouse to scroll through letters and words — a tedious process that might take 20 minutes to assemble a sentence. He had assembled such a sentence a few moments before to describe his acting experience. “That was fun,” he had said.
So it was startling during the lunch that Hawking offered spontaneous interjections into the conversation. Even more peculiar was the nature of the comments. “Maybe,” he said in response to nothing. “Tomorrow,” he opined. And nobody seemed to react. Catching my confusion, Hawking’s assistant explained that when he chewed, his cheek bumped into his mouse, causing his voice synthesizer to offer random comments. So we went on with lunch. Surreal small talk about space and the universe and food, interrupted from time to time by non sequiturs from the man who figured out how black holes work. And I thought of something funny to say to him. And I didn’t say it. Because he was Stephen Hawking.
And then I had a second meal with Stephen Hawking. A group of us was invited to his birthday party at Caltech. We got to attend a Hawking lecture — he redelivered his classic talk on the origin of the universe (the physics equivalent of Dylan performing “Blonde on Blonde” live). And then we had dinner. There were 20 tables, and I wound up at Hawking’s. Next to him. Someone mentioned that he had spent a lot of time with Queen Elizabeth, and I asked him what she was like. He set to composing a response (which he delivered at the end of the meal: “She’s a funny old bird.”)
But while we ate, the random words returned. “Probably,” said Hawking’s voice synthesizer. “Uh-huh,” it added. Emboldened by the wine and the dirty double entendres in Hawking’s lecture, I turned to him. “You know, Professor Hawking,” I said, “you should have them load mealtime vocabulary into your voice synthesizer. That way, if you trigger it accidentally, it will say things like ‘This is delicious,’ and ‘I must have the recipe.’”
And a smile crept across his face. And mine. Hawking was imprisoned in his body by the ravages of a cruel disease; I’ve spent my life trapped by crippling shyness. The only way I’ve found out of my confinement is jokes. And I told one to Stephen Hawking. Months later I found myself on a phone call with his assistant. He was calling to get some DVDs of the episode. Before he hung up, he added, “By the way, Professor Hawking asked us to work on the eating vocabulary — he thought it was a hysterical idea.”
I don’t know if they ever got it working.