They arrived in limos, luxury cars and even a helicopter - a line of cabinet ministers, a premier, local politicians and several millionaires who packed Waterloo's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics Sunday to hear firsthand what the world's best-known living scientist had to say.
What they witnessed was an hour-long display of determination as much as it was a lecture on science as Stephen Hawking painstakingly worked the computer that gives voice to his thoughts in recounting his research, life and times.
"We don't know why we can do it, but we know how to do it," Prof. Hawking said of efforts to understand the facts that explain the universe. It was a comment that also summed up his own drive to continue his work in the face of a debilitating disease.
Prof. Hawking was first diagnosed with a motor-neuron condition commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS, as a graduate student at Cambridge, and he told his Waterloo audience at first he did not expect to have enough time to finish his PhD.
More than four decades later, he uses a wheelchair and must rely on his cheek muscles to send commands to the computer that works a speech synthesizer.
His talk, before an invitation-only crowd of about 200 and televised later Sunday evening, is his only public appearance during his six-week stay in Waterloo.
The event also was a chance for the Perimeter Institute to show off its accomplishments to a high-powered crowd. Perimeter was created more than a decade ago by BlackBerry founder Michael Lazaridis as an independent centre devoted to the study of fundamental questions in science involving space and time, as well as quantum physics. Prof. Hawking, a close colleague of the centre's director Neil Turok, used his talk to endorse its work.
"I am hoping and expecting great things will happen here," he said. The combination of brilliant people and a free intellectual environment is creating a special place and time where "magical progress can happen."
A beaming Mr. Lazaridis, who has given $150-million to Perimeter over the years, said such progress always takes more time and money than people expect. Still, he said, the accomplishments at Perimeter, which now has the world's largest postdoctoral program in theoretical physics and a growing community of leading scholars, shows the importance of investing in science, even during difficult economic times. "It is so tempting to cut back on things you don't understand," he said. "This shows not only what we can do in Canada, but in Waterloo."
Prof. Turok said Perimeter is going for one goal only - a major breakthrough in human understanding of the laws of physics. "I believe we will be judged on the success of one individual and we don't know who that will be," he said. Such a person, he said, has the potential to be another Stephen Hawking.
In his lecture, Prof. Hawking recounted how he by chance ended up studying under cosmologist Dennis Sciama and began to consider a question that has occupied much of his time since - the beginning of the universe.
He also spoke of his important work on black holes and his formula that proved they have emissions - "I would like [the formula]to be on my tombstone," he said.
"He is my hero," said Allison Carter, one of two Grade 11 students that won a seat at the lecture in a science video contest. "He is discovering the answers to the questions we all ask."