Celebrated astrophysicist Stephen Hawking gave a lecture — the topic was “Quantum Black Holes,” naturally — at Monday’s conference. Folt delivered opening remarks before Hawking’s speech, according to an announcement from UNC Global.
The conference was “the brainchild” of Laura Mersini-Houghton, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, department chairman Chris Clemens said.
“Mersini-Houghton ... spends her summers in Cambridge, studying cosmology in the same group that Stephen Hawking works in,” Clemens said.
Black holes are a main point of discussion at the conference, which runs through Saturday, Clemens said. Mersini-Houghton, who is still in Stockholm and could not be reached for comment, wrote a controversial paper on the subject in 2014.
“In physics, generally what one does is if there’s a disagreement, you get everyone in the room and you have a workshop and try to work out what’s really going on,” he said.
Mersini-Houghton started planning the conference in May, Clemens said. He estimated she has known Hawking for at least five years.
“She was compelling enough in her argument for such a conference to get all the right people to attend and was able to get Stephen Hawking, her friend, to speak publicly, which he doesn’t do that often,” he said.
Folt said she appreciated Hawking’s listening skills and sense of humor.
“I was with him for nearly a day and was deeply moved and impressed by the way he engaged with people, from individuals to crowds of fans,” Folt wrote in an email from Stockholm.
“Even after a busy afternoon, he went to the opera and then dinner and then back to his room to continue working on his lecture.”
Folt presented Hawking with a scarf designed by Alexander Julian in “Glen Carolina” plaid.
“It is made of spun bamboo, a new environmentally friendly luxury yarn that is soft, cool to the touch and warm when it’s cool,” she said.
Folt met another famous physicist, Peter Higgs, in March when she gave him an honorary degree.
Now that she’s added Hawking to her list, the chancellor and former Dartmouth College biology professor said she’s “pretty sure” she has reached “the pinnacle” of meeting astrophysicists.
Clemens said his department will enjoy the “reflected glory” from Mersini-Houghton’s work in organizing the conference.
“The physics department at UNC is undergoing a renewal in basic physics research,” he said.
“We’ve been hiring people who work on fundamental questions like the ones going on at this conference.”