Stephen Hawking expressed concern about global warming Wednesday, even as he charmed and provoked a group of Chinese students.
Before an audience of 500 at a seminar in Beijing, the celebrity cosmologist said, "I like Chinese culture, Chinese food and above all Chinese women. They are beautiful." The audience of mostly university students and professors and a smattering of journalists laughed and applauded.
Asked about the environment, Hawking — who suffers from a degenerative disease, uses a wheelchair and speaks through a computerized voice synthesizer — said he was "very worried about global warming." He said he was afraid Earth "might end up like Venus, at 250 degrees centigrade [482 degrees Fahrenheit] and raining sulfuric acid."
The comment is a pointed one for China — which is the second-largest emitter of the greenhouse gases that are blamed for global warming, after the United States. Experts warn that if emissions aren't reduced the world's glaciers could melt, threatening cities and triggering droughts and other environmental disasters.
An occasional visitor to China, Hawking was in Beijing to attend a conference on string theory, an area of physics that attempts to explain and model the universe.
Hawking's ability to explain abstruse scientific concepts to laymen has given him a worldwide following. In China, whose communist government regularly preaches that scientific prowess is crucial to the country's future power, Hawking has near-superstar status.
When he was wheeled onstage 20 minutes into the event, the audience rushed forward, taking pictures with their mobile phones.
Many stood and craned to see him better throughout the talk, and one man in the fifth row watched Hawking through binoculars.
Xu Fanrong, a 23-year-old student at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physics in Beijing, praised Hawking's pithy and humorous remarks during the 90-minute public event. He said Hawking's appearance could help inspire more young Chinese to study physics.
"Our country needs science," said Xu. "No basic science means no basic technology and no economic development."
Other speakers at the seminar included Edward Witten, winner of the Fields Medal in mathematics in 1990; David J. Gross, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for physics; and Harvard University physics professor Andy Strominger.
Despite the stellar academic credentials of his fellow speakers, Hawking stole the show, fielding questions about his life as well as science. Asked by one Chinese student how he would describe himself, Hawking said: "Optimistic, romantic and stubborn."
"In the world there's only one like him. I very much respect his personality and strong spirit," said Liu Fei, 24-year-old doctoral candidate at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physics.
Hawking told the students that although he was very limited physically by his disability, his mind was "free to explore back to the origins of the universe and into black holes."