HONG KONG — World-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said Thursday that the late Pope John Paul II once told scientists they should not study the beginning of the universe because it was the work of God.
Hawking, author of the best-seller "A Brief History of Time," said John Paul made the comments at a cosmology conference at the Vatican. He did not say when the meeting was held.
Hawking quoted the pope as saying, "It's OK to study the universe and where it began. But we should not inquire into the beginning itself because that was the moment of creation and the work of God."
The scientist then joked that he was glad John Paul did not realize that he had presented a paper at the conference suggesting how the universe began.
"I didn't fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo," Hawking said during a sold-out audience at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The church condemned Galileo Galilei in the 17th century for supporting Nicolaus Copernicus' discovery that the earth revolved around the sun. Church teaching at the time placed Earth at the center of the universe. But in 1992, Pope John Paul II issued a declaration saying the church's denunciation of Galileo was an error resulting from "tragic mutual incomprehension."
Hawking is one of the best-known theoretical physicists of his generation. He has done groundbreaking research on black holes and the origins of the universe, and he has proposed that space-time is finite but has no boundaries or edges.
During a question-and-answer session, Hawking was asked about weighty subjects such as the source and nature of gravity. But there were several humorous moments as well.
The wheelchair-bound Hawking, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, communicates with an electronic speech synthesizer. Hawking was asked why his computerized voice has an American accent.
"The voice I use is a very old hardware speech synthesizer made in 1986," he said. "I keep it because I have not heard a voice I like better and because I have identified with it."
He said he once considered using a machine that gave him a French accent, but he did not because his wife would divorce him.
Hawking said he is shopping for a new system because his current hardware is large and fragile, using components that are no longer made. "I have been trying to get a software version, but it seems very difficult," he said.
He urged people with physical disabilities not to give up on their ambitions.
"You can't afford to be disabled in spirit as well as physically," he said. "People won't have time for you."
Hawking ended his lecture saying, "We are getting closer to answering the age-old questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from?"
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