5 Things You Didn't Know About Stephen Hawking

getty images
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:

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.