The world’s most famous theoretical physicist appeared on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver this week, as the inaugural guest for “Great Minds: People Who Think Good” — a segment I’m hoping becomes a regular thing, despite the fact that finding guests on Hawking’s level will prove difficult. It also gave Oliver, whose show has already become required Sunday night viewing since its late-April debut, an opportunity to try something different. Speaking with a guest who is not just “one the world’s greatest living minds,” but also a person confined to a wheelchair, who uses a speech-generating device, provided Oliver with a novel challenge: how would he keep the conversation interesting, fast-paced, and funny?
Thankfully, Oliver figured it out, but only because Hawking was so wiling to play along. Hawking’s device, which makes anything he says come across as totally deadpan, helped his answers seem even funnier and perfectly timed. Ultimately, the theoretical physicist showed that his comic sensibilities were well matched with Oliver’s.
Discussing which parts of his work have been misunderstood, Hawking replied that the “well-defined” concept of imaginary time is “the one bit of my work science fiction writers haven’t used… because they don’t understand it.” Although most people probably don’t quite get quantum mechanics, I’m sure more than a few found themselves on Wikipedia trying to better understand the concept.
Oliver also addressed Hawking’s recent article on artificial intelligence, calling AI both one of the great achievements of humankind and the one that could be our undoing. When Oliver asked why he couldn’t just unplug a robot if it was trying to kill him, Hawking told him the story of the first question scientists asked an intelligent computer they had built: “Is there a God?” The computer replied, “There is now,” then a bolt of lightning struck the plug so it couldn’t be turned off.
The interview, while short, was another big moment for Oliver’s young television show. Even though talking with Hawking might not seem as big a deal as some of Oliver’s other stunts — such as getting viewers to flood the Federal Communication Commission website with complaints which subsequently crashed it — it showed just how strong he’s becoming as a host. He didn’t try to use Hawking for cheap or easy gags (not that I assume Hawking would have let him), but he didn’t get too esoteric with him, either. Instead, Oliver and Hawking’s conversation was balanced and funny, albeit short. Any TV host who can ask one of the smartest people in the world if it would be possible in any universe for him to date Charlize Theron in a way that’s funny and relevant to the conversation is worth watching.