A Brush With Greatness – Stephen Hawking and Me?

   Posted by: BJ Johnson in blown glass

Sometimes, surprises can be a very good thing. Many times they're not but this one is very welcome and special, indeed. Late Friday afternoon a message arrived from Donna Stevens, our good friend at the Planetary Society, informing us of their surprise.

Stephen Hawking's Cosmos Award

As many of you are aware, Joy and I create the Planetary Society's Cosmos Award blown glass Saturns to be bestowed upon individuals for their outstanding public presentation of science. Each is produced in collaboration with Rick Sternbach, of Star Trek Production Design fame, who commissions us and also crafts the fine ebonized base over which our delicate glass sculptures float.

This particular one, the third in the series, was presented to Theoretical Physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking at The University of Cambridge, England. Superb, in and of itself, but wait... there's more!

Stephen Hawking Exhibit Entrance

Turns out that The Science Museum in London has mounted an exhibit: Stephen Hawking: A 70th Birthday Celebration.

From The Science Museum:

"The display features objects and papers primarily sourced from his own archives including handwritten notes on work with Roger Penrose, his drawing of the Hawking Radiation mechanism, the annotated script for a 1999 guest appearance on The Simpsons, and the blue suit he wore for a zero-gravity flight in 2007. The display also includes a specially recorded message and a selection of personal photographs from Hawking’s life and career that haven’t been seen before. A rarely-seen 1978 portrait by David Hockney is also featured.

This first ever display of items from the Hawking archive encourages visitors to reflect on the relationship between Hawking’s scientific achievements, particularly the work that established his reputation in the 1960s and ‘70s, and his immense success in popularizing astrophysics. Hawking and his daughter Lucy have been involved in the selection of objects for display."

Stephen Hawking Curiosities Exhibit - The Science Museum, London

Among these items significant to his life is our beautiful Saturn, floating amid the many diagrams, sketches, papers, books, photographs, models and mementos collected over the years. To say that we are honored again is an understatement. The juxtaposition of creativities, his with ours, is staggering. Never in my wildest dreams... (and I have some pretty wild dreams).

Stephen W. Hawking

I had hoped that we would somehow come to meet one day. Dr. Hawking held the Lucasian Chair, a professorship of mathematics once held by Sir Issac Newton, Charles Babbage and P. A. M. Dirac, among only fourteen others since the chair was deeded in 1663. Meeting in person, someone in this esteemed professorship would be sobering, indeed.

Cosmology and philosophy have always been favorites of mine. Some time ago, I had a moment of clarity where many things align, fall into place and one can see farther than before. An understanding of the Universe came that was different and I knew that the only person to discuss this with was Stephen Hawking. It would surely be an interesting conversation. But how? Suddenly, I was presented with the possibility that my time had come. The stars had aligned and we were creating the Cosmos Award for him.

Stephen Hawking Visits His Birthday Exhibit

One cannot plan something like this. It does, however, come under the heading of: "Be careful what you wish for."

The presentation was to be in Pasadena and we would take time to drive there to attend the ceremony. Best to deliver the delicate Saturn than to needlessly risk damage during shipping, when we're not all that far away. It's been a long time between road trips, anyway, and getting out would do us good.

Alas, it was not to be. Just prior to the date, another surprise came; this one not so good. His doctors deemed travel was not advisable, so the ceremony was cancelled. The presentation would be in England instead. A Planetary Society contingent traveled there but we were not among them. We consulted on the crating specifications in which to ship the award to England, to ensure that it would not be damaged and, indeed, it did arrive safely; we just weren't accompanying it. That was the extent of our involvement in making the presentation a success and we are both very happy to have made this small contribution.

Still, it is a sobering thought to step back and realize how fortunate we are to have one of our children in his office where he can experience it each day and then to have it chosen to be in this wonderful exhibit, so that many may see it, too. The exhibit runs until April 9 if you happen to be in the area.

I wish that we could travel there to see it. A side trip to Cambridge would be in my mind constantly.

Events like these are what keeps a creator going. You work along in obscurity and then, Boom!, the light shines brightly but ever so briefly. Sobering to realize that the things we create will be here long after we are gone; cared for by people whom we will never meet. At least they will know that we were here and perhaps wonder about us, as we wonder now about them.

Mysterious, life is.

For further reading:

Seriously Cool Dept: Our Cosmos Award sculpture in the series, between the Singularity Paper & Stephen in his office. Click the image to get a high-rez view that you can pan around on. It's so big, it'll appear to be just blank but that's only the upper left corner. Scroll down and right a ways. We nearly fell off our chairs but I bet many folks miss this.

Joy and I both wish to convey our thanks and appreciation to the wonderful people at The Planetary Society for including us in their adventure.

Have you had a brush with greatness? Please let us know your thoughts by sharing in a comment.

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6 Responses to A Brush With Greatness – Stephen Hawking and Me?


    I've been pretty lucky to have worked with and known a variety of Nobel Laureates; that's what happens when you work in the Physics Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Back in my younger years before I got into R&D contracting, I worked with and took classes from Owen Chamberlain and Emilio Segre, both now deceased. Owen and his crew, discoverers of the anti-proton, along with Clyde Weigand, were great human beings and yes, even helped me with math and physics homework in the early 1970s. They had also happened to work on the Manhattan Project during WW II.

    I have several stories but I think the best involves my son, Ross, who in junior high school had to choose his first research project and term paper. His topic, "Why We Should Not Have Dropped the Atomic Bomb" was controversial at best. The requirements of the project included the mandatory paper, an accompanying oral report, a first person interview and a show and tell element. (One would think that he would have chosen something a tad easier.)

    After reading books and taking tons of notes came the tough parts-who to interview and a physical item for the show and tell portion of the report. Owen had long since retired and was quite disabled by Parkinson's Disease but we called upon him and went to his home and recorded a first person interview of his involvement in the Manhattan project, his participation in the developing the bomb, his watching the first test drop with Clyde Weigand (the BEST homework helper of all time) and finally his letters to President Truman trying to convince him not to use the weapon of mass destruction.

    Additionally, through my ,mom, Alice Rodriguez, with many old Berkeley contacts, John and Janet Sage heard about Ross’s working on this report and mailed him a baggie of trinitite, the product of the first atomic blast. And to top it off, it was analyzed by friends at Berkeley Lab who were able to show its content including the melted pieces of tower that held the bomb prior to it vaporizing everything. (That’s another story!)

    I’m sure the teacher was amazed that this thirteen year old kid came up with living Manhattan project participants, Nobel laureates and actual trinitite as part of his report.

    Over the years as more research projects were requested by teachers, the report became longer, more detailed and more sophisticated. Multiple English and science classes have been amazed. This “ever green” report lasted through my son’s freshman year in college when it received its final “A” grade.

    January 23, 2012 at 3:13 am

      Being around, and working with, great people has a way of rubbing off. Their influence pervades perhaps more than we may realize at the time and bears fruit later on.

      Now, that's my kind of student! Would that we could inspire more like him. You must be very proud and thankful. I'd wager that he would have done a different report, had he not been exposed to the circle that you worked in; and we all would have been lesser for it.

      Is that Trinitite still radioactive? Can he read by his own light now?

      January 23, 2012 at 7:43 pm

        The trinitite was slightly active. It sat on our kitchen table for a while before it went to be analyzed. Because it still had a low level of activity the folks at LBNL kept the baggie BUT encased the largest and best piece in a beautiful cylinder of Lucite with a dark base for its display. We still have it and the great memories.

        Part two of the story is that I had it analyzed by a couple of fellows who "owed me one" after I supplied a "sample" to them after an accidental tritium release at the Lab and I happened to be the only one in the area that was potentially exposed. All was well in the end but the "sample" I gave proved that the human exposure was minimal even though it was a reportable incident.

        January 26, 2012 at 8:14 am

    p.s. I'm also the proud owner of a Saturn similar to Dr. Hawking's. It is hanging in our guest room above our telescope.

    January 23, 2012 at 3:27 am

      We're both delighted that you enjoy it and thank you for helping us when we needed it. We used some different techniques in making it, primarily to cut the weight and increase the translucency. The Cosmos Awards are actually a different design. We ensure that the Cosmos Awards remain unique; as the original of the design should. Still, Saturn is Saturn. We put our best into everything that we do, so each has its own special qualities.

      January 23, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    [...] BJ's blog post about: Our Blown Glass Saturn sculpture being included in the London Science Museum's exhibit of Stephen Hawking's Curiosities and Curios. Tags: [...]

    March 3, 2012 at 6:26 pm
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