As part of my Master’s degree course, we had a series of guest lectures – most of them by insufferably boring old men whose concept of physics hadn’t advanced past Newton. As you can imagine, when we heard Stephen was coming to lecture there was much anticipation. Truthfully, I think half of the attendees were there to hear the bizarre theories from the horse’s mouth and the other half was to see if the horse was as odd as his reputation suggested. Stories of Stephen’s mental collapse when he was a student were a commonplace warning in the department – the strain he placed on himself led to him crashing out of his second year of studies and spending several months in an institution. He never returned to his formal studies, but did of course continue to follow his own path with Conrad’s help and support.
I was first struck by the thought that he was actually a rather handsome man. Not in Herculean manner, by any stretch of the imagination, but he had a charm and, dare I say it, ‘boyish good looks’. He was incredibly nervous until he actually started to speak about his work – it makes me laugh even now to think of it. When he spoke of his theories all traces of discomfort left him, he seemed to grow in stature, to fill the room. I think the oddest part of that first experience with him was how quickly and succinctly he could make the class understand and even begin to see an inkling of merit in his outlandish concepts, and I for one was absolutely fascinated. I waited for him after class and, rather forwardly of me, asked him if he would join me in a cup of tea and explain further some of the mathematics behind his theories.
I was entranced with this man’s mind.