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My starstruck meeting with Stephen Hawking

By Allan Preston

A Northern Ireland businessman has spoken of his friendship with the late visionary physicist Stephen Hawking.

The inspirational scientist, famed for his work on black holes, died peacefully early yesterday morning, aged 76.

He passed away more than half a century after he was given just two years to live, following a diagnosis with motor neurone disease.

Chris Hughes booked Professor Hawking to address a Web Summit conference in Lisbon in November for one of his last public speaking events.

Days before, the 30-year-old from Belfast travelled to meet him at Cambridge University.

"I was on my way to his office and I was incredibly nervous, I came out of the lift and there he was," he recalled.

"The first thing about him is that he was a lot bigger in real life. I felt like I was watching a film to have someone of that iconic stature in front of you.

"He had a typical professor's office with papers everywhere and pictures on the wall. Only his pictures weren't ordinary, it was him with Popes and Presidents, on movie sets and as a cartoon character in The Simpsons."

Mr Hughes said it was "mind blowing" to see Mr Hawking's achievements first hand.

"I think there was also a very early photo of him and Albert Einstein. He was very young at the time," he added.

"Apart from his obvious issue with motor neurone disease, he struck me as a man of great vibrancy.

"His eyes were constantly moving and he was very responsive to his team. He had a great complexion and despite being in his 70s he didn't look tired in any way."

Conversation was initially slow, with the delay of his instantly recognisable voice synthesiser, explained Mr Hughes.

"People have said it before but he was so humorous," he recalled.

"That was maybe how he kept himself in a state that he could survive so long. His staff and his team were just like his family, bantering away with each other.

"I remember when we first had a picture together, his staff got him to wear a brightly-coloured bobble hat."

He added: "He was also very good at putting people at ease, I felt like a 12-year-old fan when I first met him and was full of nerves."

A fast friendship developed as the arrangements were made for Professor Hawking's keynote speech in Lisbon.

"We kept in touch and built up a professional trust. We'd obviously hoped he would participate at Web Summit again," Mr Hughes added.

"I sent him a Christmas card and he told me how he would do several retreats every year to get away from work and be able to relax.

"He was an esteemed academic and I was in awe of him."

Tributes poured in yesterday from scientists, politicians and actors.

Astronomer Royal Lord Rees described his life as a "triumph", while others said his death "has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake".

Mr Hughes added: "Obviously it's a very sad event, he meant so much to so many people.

"We run a technology and innovation conference so our community really saw him as an iconic figure. There's a genuine sense of grief he's gone.

"Professor Hawking was the number one speaker we could ever have hoped to get. For him, though, it was very much about when the time was right for the message, he didn't just turn up to give his opinions on things.

"He spoke on research, facts and data. We get some of the most famous people in the world speaking at our conferences and you get used to it, but there was just something different about working with Professor Hawking.

"Everyone knows him from their childhood, he's been a part of everyone's life for so long."

Prof Hawking's career looked like being cruelly cut short in 1964 while he was still studying for his PhD at Cambridge University. At the age of 22 he was diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease and given just a few years to live.

His illness left him in a wheelchair and dependent on a computerised voice system for communication. Yet, defying all expectations, he went on to become a towering figure in the world of physics, a bestselling author, a father of three and a TV celebrity.

His book A Brief History of Time, published in 1988 - in which he explained the Big Bang and black holes in simple terms - was an unlikely hit, selling more than 10 million copies.

In a statement, his children Lucy, Robert and Tim said: "He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years."

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