Stephen Hawking, who died last night at the age of 76, was a giant of theoretical physics, cosmology, and pop culture. Though affected by a degenerative disease that had doctors predicting an early death, Hawking instead lived to research the creation of the universe and its possible end, in the form of black holes. Also a popular writer, he published bestsellers including A Brief History of Time. Those who met him testified to his charisma and sense of humor.
So it was a little unusual that when he threw a party in 2009, not a single guest attended.
A film of the event depicts a dismal cocktail party. Three trays of canapes sit uneaten, and flutes filled with Krug champagne go untouched. Balloons decorate the walls, and a giant banner displays the words “Welcome, Time Travellers.”
As it happened, Hawking’s party was actually an experiment on the possibility of time travel. (Invitations were sent only after the party was over.) Along with many physicists, Hawking had mused about whether going forward and back in time was possible. And what time traveler could resist sipping champagne with Stephen Hawking himself?
By publishing the party invitation in his mini-series Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking, Hawking hoped to lure futuristic time travelers. You are cordially invited to a reception for Time Travellers, the invitation read, along with the the date, time, and coordinates for the event. The theory, Hawking explained, was that only someone from the future would be able to attend.
Unfortunately, no one showed up.
“What a shame,” Hawking said. “I was hoping a future Ms. Universe was going to step through the door.” But Hawking himself later discussed the dangers of time travel. In an Ars Technica interview in 2012, he said that Einstein’s theory of relativity laid the groundwork for the possibility of time travel. But warping space and time could “trigger a bolt of radiation that would destroy the spaceship and maybe the space-time itself.” That might be enough to keep potential partiers away.
And that’s too bad, because Hawking, even as a full-time wheelchair user, loved parties and dancing. As for why he threw a time-traveler party, he explained: “I like simple experiments ... and champagne." By transmitting the invitation, Hawking thought it might catch the eye of a future time traveler—the brain-breaking paradox being that, if it eventually does, then wouldn’t we have seen one or two at the party?
“I’m hoping copies of [the invitation], in one form or another, will survive for many thousands of years,” Hawking said. In which case, the party is on June 28, 2009, and the coordinates are 52° 12’ 21” N, 0° 7’ 4.7" E. If you’re a time traveler and reading this, please don’t keep Mr. Hawking waiting.