Earlier this week I was emailing with the organiser of a European tech event about the possibility of my being involved, when he asked:
’… do you think we could get Stephen Hawking to have a fireside chat with you at the conference?’
What the actual fuck?
‘Not sure I’d wanna be the disabled guy interviewing the disabled guy,’ I replied.
After a little googling, I then explained that Hawking would likely make for a lousy fireside chat anyway since it takes him several minutes to compile the shortest of replies. Questions would need to be pre-scripted and given to him in advance, and there would be little opportunity for any kind of follow up.
'Just thought I run the idea by you first. I understand,’ wrote back the conference organiser, probably a little miffed that he had done anything wrong.
But, aside from not wanting to play into the ghettoisation of disabled people, Hawking and I have form.
Quite bizarrely, considering that we look (and sound) nothing alike, I’ve been mistaken for the famed academic and author of A Brief History of Time on a number of occasions.
The first time was in 2004 when filming outside Apple HQ for my documentary In Search of the Valley
. There I was sat in my wheelchair on the step in front of the placard that reads ‘1 Infinite Loop’ when my film crew and I attracted the attention of two Apple pilgrims.
'Who is that?’ the lady asked.
'It’s Steve,’ said my producer.
My producer nodded in agreement. By this point the lady had got quite excited: ‘Can you take a picture of me and Steve?’
Sure, no problem.
As we were having our photo taken, the lady started telling me that she had read all of my books. She then went on to say that, while she had enjoyed my most recent book, she still didn’t fully understand my explanation of time.
All of a sudden, a light went on in my head: She thought I was Professor Stephen Hawking.
While my producer and cameraman looked on grinning, I contemplated how long I could keep this up. Then she dropped a bomb: 'In just one sentence, what is time?’
I had to think fast… I’d never read any Hawking, let alone understood it.
'We are on a tight schedule and I don’t have the time to explain time,’ I replied.
The lady looked disappointed and I mumbled something about publishing my response on the Internet one day. Only after another round of photographs, did my cameraman and producer rescue me.
Meanwhile, the most recent case of mistaken identity happened last year at Disrupt London.
I was hanging out in the green room with TechCrunch’s Jon Russell, who I’d only just met, and, similar to 12 years earlier, a person approached us and sheepishly asked: 'Are you Stephen Hawking?’
Not again, I thought, while Jon – who, like me, is very British – looked embarrassed on my behalf.
'I can’t believe that just happened,’ he said after they’d left.
I didn’t want to believe it either.