5 Things You Didn't Know About Stephen Hawking

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getty images

Stephen Hawking is undoubtedly one of the world's most recognizable theoretical physicist, but let's take a look at five things you might not know about the longtime Cambridge professor:

1. HE PUT HIS MONEY WHERE HIS MOUTH WAS

When Hawking thought he was right about a scientific theory, he didn't back down, and he wasn't afraid to wager on himself.

Perhaps the most famous of Hawking's bets came in 1997, when he found himself in an argument with fellow theoretical physicists Kip Thorne and John Preskill. Hawking and Thorne contended that the information carried in Hawking radiation in black holes must be "new," a notion that would have required rewriting quantum physics. Preskill, on the other hand, felt that it was the view of black holes that needed rewriting. Since Hawking had likened the fate of information in a black hole to "burning an encyclopedia," the men wagered a set of encyclopedias on the outcome of their argument.

In 2004, Hawking presented a paper that contradicted his previously held beliefs, so he conceded the bet and presented Preskill with a copy of Total Baseball, The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia.

This bet wasn't Hawking's first. In his bestseller A Brief History of Time, he described a similar bet he made with Thorne in 1975. Hawking had long been a believer in the existence of black holes, but he wanted an "insurance policy" that would give him some consolation if his theories turned out to be bunk. The wager: if black holes didn't exist, Thorne had to cough up a four-year subscription to the British satirical magazine Private Eye for Hawking as a consolation prize. If black holes existed, Hawking had to cover a one-year subscription to Penthouse for Thorne. Hawking eventually made good on his end of the wager and revealed that he had sent Thorne his skin-mag subscription "much to the outrage of Kip's liberated wife."

2. THE POPE DIDN'T ALWAYS SUPPORT THIS WORK

In 2006, Hawking revealed in a lecture that Pope John Paul II had discouraged the scientist from studying the beginning of the universe. According to Hawking, he was attending a cosmology conference at the Vatican when the Pope warned that while studying the universe was an acceptable pursuit, its origins were the work of God and shouldn't be explored.

Hawking took the Pope's grief in stride, though. He joked to his lecture audience that he was glad the Pope hadn't known about the paper Hawking had presented at the conference, which dealt with "“ you guessed it "“ the beginning of the universe. Hawking playfully explained, "I didn't fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo."

3. THERE WAS A STORY BEHIND HIS VOICE

Although Hawking was English, his computerized voice synthesizer made him speak with an American accent. What gives? The voice synthesizer Hawking used, a DECTalk DTC01, was actually a pretty old piece of equipment from 1986. The synthesizer was bulky and fragile, but Hawking had his reasons for not upgrading. He once said, "I keep it because I have not heard a voice I like better and because I have identified with it."

Hawking did briefly consider switching to a different machine that would have given him a French accent but said he decided against it because he thought his wife would divorce him. Hawking's voice box also got a chance to "sing" in 2009 on a A Glorious Dawn, a Jack White-produced vinyl single released as a tribute on what would have been Carl Sagan's 75th birthday.

4. HE RACKED UP A NUMBER OF SCREEN CREDITS.

How many scientists can add "Appeared on hit TV shows" to the bottom of their curriculum vitae? In 1994, Hawking made an appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he played a hologram of himself who was locked in a poker game with holograms of Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton.

In 1999 The Simpsons wanted to use Hawking in the episode "They Saved Lisa's Brain," Hawking agreed not only to allow the producers to use his image but to do his own voicework. Here's Hawking talking about his first appearance in Springfield:

Hawking would go on to do more guest spots on The Simpsons, and he also appeared on Futurama.

5. RICHARD BRANSON HELPED HIM FLOAT

In late 2006, Hawking publicly advocated for human colonization of other planets and declared that his next goal was to go into space. He even joked "Maybe Richard Branson will help me." In 2007, the billionaire entrepreneur made it happen. Branson covered all of the costs for Hawking to go on a flight that made the scientist the first quadriplegic to float in zero gravity. Here's video of the flight and Hawking talking about the experience:

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Winter is Coming: Why Some People Seem to Feel Colder Than Others

Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
shironosov/iStock via Getty Images

For a few weeks a year, as winter turns into spring, or summer gives way to fall, people in heavy coats coexist with those in sandals and shorts. Similarly, in an office where the thermostat is set at 74°F, some workers will be comfortable in short sleeves, while others will be wearing sweaters and scarves.

Underlying this disagreement are the different ways people perceive cold—and scientists are still trying to understand them.  

Men, Women, and Metabolism

In work settings, men and women often have different opinions about the ideal temperature. A 2019 study found that women performed better in math and verbal tasks at temperatures between 70°F and 80°F, while men did better below 70°F. The researchers proposed that gender-mixed workplaces might boost productivity by setting the thermostat higher than the current norm (which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests should be between 68°F and 76°F).  

The discrepancy has a known physical basis: Women tend to have lower resting metabolic rates than men, due to having smaller bodies and higher fat-to-muscle ratio. According to a 2015 study, indoor climate regulations are based on an “empirical thermal comfort model” developed in the 1960s with the male workers in mind, which may overestimate female metabolic rates by up to 35 percent. To compound the problem, men in business settings might wear suits year-round, while women tend to have more flexibility to wear skirts or sundresses when it's warm outside.

Culture and the Cold

Cultural factors are also involved. European visitors are habitually alarmed by the chilly temperatures in American movie theaters and department stores, while American tourists are flabbergasted at the lack of air conditioning in many European hotels, shops, and offices. The preferred temperature for American workspaces, 70°F, is too cold for Europeans that grew up without the icy blast of air conditioners, Michael Sivak, a transportation researcher formerly at the University of Michigan, told The Washington Post in 2015.

The effects of cultural change on the human ability to withstand extreme temperatures can be dramatic. In the 19th century, 22 percent of women on the Korean island of Jeju were breath-hold divers (haenyeo). Wearing thin cotton bathing suits, haenyeo dove nearly 100 feet to gather shellfish from the sea floor, holding their breath for more than three minutes in each dive. In winter, they stayed in 55°F-57°F water for up to an hour at the time, and then warmed up by the fire for three of four hours before jumping back in.

In the 1970s, haenyeo starting wearing protective wet suits. Studies conducted between the 1960s and the 1980s showed that their tolerance for cold diminished [PDF].

Blame Your Brain

Beyond the effects of cultural practice and body composition, scientists have started to identify the cognitive factors that influence our temperature perception. It turns out that what feels unpleasantly cold versus comfortably chill is partly in our own minds.

One example is the phenomenon described as “cold contagion.” A 2014 study asked participants to view videos of people immersing their hands in visibly warm or cold water. Observers not only rated the hands in cold water as cooler than those in hot water, but their own hands became cooler when watching the cold-water videos. There was no comparable effect for the warm water videos, however. The findings suggest that we may feel colder when surrounded by shivering people at the office than if we're there by ourselves, even when setting the thermostat at the same temperature in both cases.

Other studies highlight the psychological aspects of temperature perception. Experimental participants at the Institute of Biomedical Investigations in Barcelona, Spain, watched their arms become blue, red, or green by means of virtual reality, while the neuroscientist Maria Victoria Sanchez-Vives and her team applied heat to their actual wrists. As the temperature increased, participants felt pain earlier when their virtual skin turned red than when it turned blue or green.

Subjectivity in temperature perception has led to some creative treatments for burn patients. In the 1990s, Hunter Hoffman, David Patterson, and Sam Sharar of the University of Washington developed a virtual-reality game called SnowWorld, which allows patients in hospital burn units to experience virtual immersion in a frozen environment. Amazingly, playing SnowWorld counteracted pain during wound care more effectively than morphine did.

“The perception of temperature is influenced by expectations,” Sanchez-Vives tells Mental Floss. “Putting one’s hand inside a virtual oven is perceived as ‘hot,’ while sticking one’s hand into a virtual bucket filled with iced water is perceived as ‘cold,’ despite being at room temperature in each scenario.”

In other words, if you expect to feel cold walking into the office or out on the street, chances are that you will.