A little-known fact about Stephen Hawking is he's a bit of a daredevil, according to SNOLAB communications officer Samantha Kuula.
The world-famous theoretical physicist, who is confined to a wheelchair and communicates using a computer voice synthesizer because of a motor neurone disease related to ALS, visited the local underground research facility during the afternoon and evening of Sept. 15.
“He's on a ventilator, so we're very careful about travelling underground,” Kuula said. “Apparently we weren't travelling fast enough, because he did tell us halfway that he wanted to go faster. They did that. They sped it up for him a little bit. His nurse says he's a little bit of a daredevil.”
Hawking is in Canada for a few weeks, doing work at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, and wanted to visit SNOLAB, which has been expanded over the last few years, while in the country, she said.
He arrived at SNOLAB's above-ground building at around 12:30 p.m., and had lunch with a group of about 60 people, including the facility's team of scientists, senior Vale officials, Laurentian University representatives and local politicians.
After lunch, everyone went underground. Hawking was transported through Creighton Mine to the SNOLAB facility using a rail car built for him by Vale during his first visit to the facility in 1998.
“Vale took it and had it refurbished for this visit,” Kuula said.
Art McDonald, a Queen's University professor and the director of the original SNO project, led Hawking on a tour of the laboratory.
“From what I caught from parts of the conversation, he seemed quite impressed with our dark matter experiments,” Kuula said.
“He was also quite impressed with the scale of the facility. We stopped at each experiment, and gave the experimenter time to explain the project to Dr. Hawking, and then they did some questions and answers with him.”
Hawking was a “trooper” all day, she said.
“We did set aside some space for him if he did want to take some time for himself just to relax a little bit, but he kept saying no,” Kuula said. “He wanted to be where the students were and the scientists were.”
Because of his disability, it is somewhat difficult to interact with Hawking, Kuula said. His care team puts people at ease, and tells them to just to introduce themselves.
“Yes and no questions are the easiest for him to answer because he can answer those using facial expressions,” she said.
She said he's a very sweet, funny and humble man. Hawking joked with the SNOLAB scientists and guests, posed for photos with anyone who asked and shook hands with everyone before he left the facility, Kuula said.
“By the end it was not Dr. Hawking, it was just Stephen,” she said.
Meeting Hawking is an experience Kuula said she's never going to forget. Her Facebook profile picture currently shows her posing with the scientist, and she already has pictures of his visit printed and displayed in her office.
“Having him here was fantastic,” she said. “I wish everybody in the community would have had an opportunity to meet him. When he's on such a tight time schedule, there was really no way we could have done it any other way.”