Ten days before Stephen Hawking’s death, Neil DeGrasse Tyson sat down with the world-famous physicist for an interview on Tyson’s StarTalk podcast. “I picked his legendary brain,” says Tyson in his introduction, “on everything, from the big bang to the origins of the universe.” He starts off, however, with some softballs. Hawking’s favorite food? He likes oysters. Favorite drink? Pimms.
Your appreciation for Tyson’s earnestly awkward small talk may vary. He’s prone to making himself laugh, which doesn’t elicit laughs from Hawking, whose communication was, of course, extraordinarily constrained. And yet, when it came to matters most of consequence to him, he was eloquent, witty, profound into his final days.
Though we cannot detect any tonal inflection in Hawking’s computer voice, we know him as a sensitive, compassionate person as well as a brilliant mind. It doesn’t sound like he’s bragging when—in answer to Tyson’s question about his favorite equation (at 4:10)—he replies, “the equation I discovered relating the entropy of black hole to the area of its horizon.” "How many people," Tyson replies, chuckling, "get to say that their favorite equation is one they came up with? That’s badass.”
Cutaway segments with Tyson, theoretical physicist Janna Levin, and comedian Matt Kirshen surround the short interview, with Levin offering her professional expertise as a cosmologist to explain Hawking’s ideas in lay terms. His favorite equation, she says, demonstrates that black holes actually radiate energy, returning information, though in a highly disordered form, that was previously thought lost forever.
At 8:05, hear Hawking’s answer to the question of what he would ask Isaac Newton if he could go back in time. Whether we understand his reply or not, we learn how “badass” it is in the cutaway commentary (which begins to seem a little ESPN-like, with Levin as the seasoned player on the panel). Rather than asking Newton a question Hawking himself didn’t know the answer to, which Newton likely couldn’t answer either, Hawking would ask him to solve a problem at the limit of Newton’s own studies, thereby testing the Enlightenment giant’s abilities.
Offered ad-free in Hawking’s memory, the podcast interview also tackles the question of whether it might ever be possible to actually travel back in time, at 24:00 (the answer may disappoint you). Michio Kaku joins the panel in the studio to clarify and sticks around for the remainder of the discussion. The panel also answers fan-submitted questions, and Bill Nye makes an appearance at 42:16. Hawking’s interview makes up a comparatively small portion of the show.
His answers, by necessity, were very brief and to the point. His final theories, by contrast, are mind-expandingly vast, opening us up to the secrets of black holes and the existence of the multiverse. While Hawking's theoretical work may have been too speculative for the Nobel committee, who need hard evidence to make a call, his legacy as “one of our greatest minds, of our generation, of the century, or maybe, ever,” as Tyson says, seems secure.