The last time Stephen Hawking was ever uncertain about his fame was before a lecture in Cambridge, in the winter of 1988. Even then, really, he should have been in no doubt. In previous years, he’d been profiled by Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine, and the BBC had run shows about his work. Then, that past April, his book on cosmology, A Brief History of Time, had been published to instant and staggering success. Bookstores ran out. People wore T-shirts printed with the words STEPHEN HAWKING FAN CLUB. Still, as one of his students drove him to the lecture, Hawking was tetchy. “I’m worried that nobody will show up.”
They reached the lecture hall. The student recalled to the journalist Charles Seife:
You roll from the back door into the guts of the building, which doesn’t have too many stairs, and we arrived in the room and it was packed. Packed with people. People sitting on the stairs, probably breaking all the rules for safety. And suddenly Stephen has this big grin—that smile. That tells you that even he didn’t expect to catch that fire.
This tale, told in Seife’s new book, Hawking Hawking, expresses several things at once. It visits Hawking just as he is transitioning into a rare planetary superstardom—one touched off by A Brief History of Time, which is now thought to have sold at least 10 million copies. It captures Hawking’s thirst for that kind of recognition—or, at the very least, his unalloyed delight at securing it. More than anything else, the story underscores the sheer improbability of this entire affair. People had poured into an auditorium to hear an immobile man with a computerized voice speak about bewildering theories in physics—a prospect so audacious and remote, at most other times, that Hawking himself was unprepared for it.