Posted on October 31, 2011 by vicki
Tags: leuven

Last Monday I joined several thousand people in Stadpark lining up for tickets to a fairly rare event. It had nothing to do with music, sport or royalty, but the guy can definitely draw a crowd…

Stephen Hawking was in town for two days, partnering researchers at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven on a project. The talk he was scheduled to give was free to attend, however so many people expressed interest ahead of time that the university decided to issue tickets on a first-come first-served basis.

Hence the queue. There were only 850 tickets available, and each person in line could obtain no more than two. I was planning on lining up a couple of hours before the kiosk opened, but we cycled past on the way home from class earlier in the day and a queue was already beginning to form. So I sat down and made myself comfortable.

Rodney dropped off a sandwich, and later my laptop, so I was able to pass the time fairly quickly. The guy next to me in line had driven over 100km, would return that night and come to the talk the following night with his teenage son. Two days off work and 400km of driving - good father award right there.

There was such a buzz in the crowd that you’d expect a popstar was visiting, not a physicist. Cheering, Mexican waves and countdowns all featured. There were numerous security guards, and policemen with dogs, not sure exactly what they were expecting though. It was all very civilised, with groups of people from the line even escorted for bathroom breaks if required.

Despite there having been several thousand people in line for a few hours already, the organisers waited until the last possible minute to start handing out tickets. I guess they wanted maximum exposure on the various news programs that were represented.

We were herded through past the ticket desk by a disgruntled physics professor who didn’t seem even the slightest bit pleased by the overwhelming interest in science expressed by the numbers, and then directed out into a separate corral. I was in the first fifty, and there were people begging or trying to buy tickets off people as soon as they exited the enclosure.

Tuesday night felt a bit like a VIP experience, walking past the crowds gathered to watch the talk projected live into the park neighbouring the lecture theatre. We had our wristbands checked by security, and entered the almost-full lecture theatre with half an hour still to go.

I’ve read some of his books, and watched a talk or two online, but seeing Hawking in the flesh really made clear the extent of his achievements. He’s a leader in cosmology, but he looks like someone you would see in a nursing home, on their way out. I know the motorneurone disease he was diagnosed with over fifty years ago (and given a prognosis of no more than a few years at the time) affects his body and not his mind, but it makes his accomplishments even more admirable. I’m not sure what I think of some of his views, but I can’t help but respect that intellect and perseverance.

Hawking’s lecture on the Origin of the Universe can be viewed here.

The commentary is in Dutch, but you can see footage of the queue (and our lovely town park) here.