Saturday, January 22, 2011

Stephen Hawking and the Physics Showgirl

Last week after returning from a lovely vacation in Hawaii, I got an email from one of my favorite physicists (and fans) Kip Thorne, asking me to fly down to Pasadena to perform at a private party for Stephen Hawking. The party was to be held at a local jazz club for about 20 close friends and family after his public talk at Caltech on Tuesday, January 18th. Just what The Physics Chanteuse likes best: emergency performance requests from and for the ROCK STARS of physics!

Stephen, who is Kip's best friend, spends a month each year at Caltech to work with his relativity buddies, always gives a big public talk. The crowd of hopeful fans some of whom waited all day to see the rock star of physics, stretched in a long line across the Caltech Campus. I felt sorry for them because the VIP seats filled up at least half of the auditorium. I nabbed two seats inside the roped off area in the second row for my self and my sister Bergen. Fans who didn't make it in watched outdoors on the lawn with large screen projections of the talk blasting.

Beckman auditorium was packed with so many super smart people you could feel the collective brain power buzzing like a 60 hertz hum in a Best Buy store. The energy was so intense it felt like the place might collapse in on itself into a black brain hole due to the gravitational force of the collective IQ there. If a bomb had dropped on the place, relativity and quantum gravity theory would be set back for years to come. Stephen was pushed down the red carpet amidst a cheering standing ovation by one of his hot blonde bombshell assistants wearing a little black dress and stiletto heels. In the photo I'm blurred out behind Stephen's right shoulder, clapping.

Stephen gave a biographical talk "A Brief History of My Life," that included tales and photos of his humble origins and how he got into physics. To tell you the truth, I was going through such crazed pre-performance anxiety that I didn't absorb most of the talk. I remember him telling us that he was bored through most of school in his youth, that his home was almost bombed by a V-2 in London in WW2, that his father did not want him to study math, and that he holds a chair at Cambridge in math, though he never had any formal training past high school - he is self taught. I remember his metallic voice confessing that he was grateful for his illness because it forced him to focus on his research. You can read more details about his talk here at the LA Times. Being nervous and anxious, I welcomed the hypnotic distraction provided by the sign language interpreters who had the most fantastic signs for physics phrases such as 'big bang,' 'collapse,' 'imaginary time' and 'no boundary birth' and the like. Caltech has the most kick ass science signers I've ever seen. The elegant hula-bali-kathac-moudra inspired hand jestures dancing to Stephen's harsh mechanical robot voice was mesmerizing and performance art in and of itself.

I thought the best part of the talk was when Kip took the stage and shared some insights into how Stephen communicates and does physics. Kip has known Stephen for over 45 years as both a fellow relativist black hole time warper physicist and best friend. Kip showed us how Stephen uses his eye brows to communicate: raising them means yes; doing nothing means no. He told us that since Stephen lost the use of his hands years ago, and thus the ability to write formulas and equations - the hammer and chisels of a theoretical physicist - he has reinterpreted the algebraic theories into geometrical representations that he sees and solves in his mind. Kip told us that Stephen can solve many problems faster in his mind than others can do with their pencils and paper. Kip's love and respect for his friend was palpable, inspiring. Kip later told me that Stephen is the longest survivor of ALS and that he has outlived his prognosis by some 40 years due to sheer joie la vivre. And perhaps his longevity is in part due to the mega doses of Vitamin B he has taken since being diagnosed, as suggested by his father who was a biologist specializing in parasitic diseases from Africa.

After the talk, Kip and Stephen, along with his sextet of assistants, flew out of auditorium at light speed to the after party location where I was slated to perform. Kip's wife Carolee Winstein, a professor of Neuroscience at USC and a wonderfully kind fun woman, drove me to the venue: RedWhite and Bluezz - a wine and jazz club in Pasadena. We had the back room which was about the size of my living room. Kip, the host, stood on a chair and welcomed the guests and invited everyone to order food and drink. Stephen was lovingly spoon fed by another buxom assistant.

After about an hour of partying, Kip introduced me. It was very casual: I controlled the boom box playing my CD with a remote control while I sang so I could pause and start the songs and adjust the volume. There was no microphone so I just belted the songs which wasn't a problem in the small room. I thanked Stephen and Kip for being my 'muses' (am I worthy? eek gads ;-) and sang three short songs that I wrote with their inspiration: Big Bang, Black Hole Disco, and Lovon Boson. I shimmied and sashayed around the room, around Stephen, trying to keep it sultry but not too sexy, out of respect to Stephen's son and daughter in-law who were present, and out of sheer intimidation. I mean!

During Big Bang, something happened and Stephen's assistants jumped into action, turning on a respirator or some machine and swarming around him. Although Stephen can breathe on his own, he requires assisted respiration several hours per day and while he is sleeping to give his body sufficient oxygen. I looked to Kip for cues and kept on singing and dancing. In such situations, the show must definitely go on. After the third song, I was given an ovation and calls for an encore, so I sang one of my favorite songs, Kip Warp, which is a parody of the song Time Warp from Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was a big hit and a great way to end the show. I gave hugs and kisses to everyone who wanted them and finally relaxed with a glass of Chardonnay and mingled.

One very interesting person I chatted with was Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist who recently co-wrote a book with Stephen, The Grand Design, currently at the top of the NYTimes best sellar's list, about how a 'designer' is not needed for the creation of the Universe. I'm waiting to get a signed copy to read it but even more interesting than that, is the new book he is co-writing with that quantum blasphemer, Depak Chopra! The two will 'debate' in print the claims Chopra makes about quantum phenomena as applied to human consciousness, psychology and paranormal phenomena. That should be a fun read! Len has also written quite a bit for TV including many of my favorite shows such as Next Generation. All dressed in NYC black, the dude is one cool geek!

All in all, it was a fascinating evening filled with a very interesting eclectic group of people: physicists, billionaires, authors, actresses, nurses, lawyers, neuroscientists, torch singers, and party crashers all partying and mingling with and around that super famous miracle man and rock star of science: Stephen Hawking. I've performed for many famous scientists, billionaires and nobel prize winners at all sorts of straight and bizarre gigs and venues all over the world - from CERN where the LHC lives to a medieval castle in Sweden during a IT boar hunt, but this one took the proverbial cake! I think this gig will rank as one of the best I will ever have - an opportunity of a lifetime. 

Of course, one never knows who will need an emergency performance from the Physics Chanteuse next! You? Give me a call! Stay tuned!