Wheelchair-bound theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who speaks through an electronic speech synthesizer, has acquired a cult status among Chinese youngsters much like that of Tom Cruise.
The British scientist wowed the audience when he delivered a lecture Monday in China's Great Hall of the People.
Rows of cameramen fired a volley of flashes at Hawking in a media frenzy usually reserved for major political figures or pop stars, although his hosts had warned earlier that bright lights could harm his sight.
The 64-year-old was invited by his longtime friend Shing-Tung Yau, a Harvard mathematician and Fields Medalist, to Beijing to speak at the International Conference on String Theory 2006.
"Can you hear me?" Dr. Hawking began his discourse with his standard question for such occasions, the metallic voice fed through an amplifier installed in his wheelchair.
Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) before getting his PhD in 1965, Hawking has been confined to a wheelchair since. He lost function of his three last working fingers two years ago and can now only coomunicate by moving his eyelids.
He controls his computerized voice system using a blink-activated infrared system embedded in his glasses. To change each section of his prepared text, he blinks an eye, slightly scrunching up his cheek in the process.
Accompanied by five nurses, Hawking was aided by a man who helped scroll through PowerPoint slides, which were detailed and full of cartoon pictures.
Seemingly snoozing in his black wheelchair, Dr. Hawking, in a stripped dark shirt, related his thoughts on the enigma of the origins of the universe.
Was the universe eternal? Or did it have a beginning? A key turning point came in the 1920s when American astronomer Edwin Hubble observed other galaxies and concluded that the universe was expanding. "Hubble's finding was one of the most important intellectual discoveries of the 20th century, or any century," Dr. Hawking said.
"Many scientists were still unhappy with the universe having a beginning because it seemed to imply that physics broke down," Hawking said. "One would have to invoke an outside agency, which for convenience one can call God, to determine how the universe began."
He described how the General Theory of Relativity of Albert Einstein and the discovery of the expansion of the universe provoked conceptual changes, which meant that the idea of an ever-existing, ever-lasting universe was no longer tenable.
The theorem which he and Dr. Roger Penrose developed in 1970 said that the General Theory of Relativity explained how the universe and time itself might begin in the big bang and that time would come to an end in black holes.
"One can get rid of the problem of time having a beginning in a similar way in which we got rid of the edge of the world," Dr. Hawking said. Looking for the beginning of the universe was like looking for any place south of the South Pole, he said.
"As one moves north, the circles of constant latitude, representing the size of the universe, would expand," he said.
"To ask what happened before the beginning of the universe would become a meaningless question because there is nothing south of the South Pole."
In his view, the beginning of the universe would be governed by the laws of science: the creation of the universe would be down to spontaneous quantum creation.
The image which Hawking drew of the beginnings of the universe was that of bubbles appearing and bursting, corresponding to mini universes that expand and collapse.
"Only those which grew to a certain size would be safe from re-collapse and would continue to expand at an ever increasing rate," Dr. Hawking said.
"Cosmology is a very exciting and active subject. We are getting closer to answering the age-old questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from?" Dr. Hawking said.
Dr. Hawking rose to international fame after the publication of his best-seller, A Brief History of Time.
On his website, Dr. Hawking encourages other disabled people to study theoretical physics.
Some Chinese amateur scientists took the opportunity to indulge their own theories. With thick handwritten manuscripts, a middle-aged retired soldier stood in the aisle of the conference hall and touted his evidence proving the General Theory of Relativity totally wrong.
To many college students, Hawking is a star. Organizers of the conference gave away 6,000 tickets to Beijing college students holding valid IDs.
"Frankly speaking, I didn't quite understand his lecture," said Zhang Tao, a freshman at Beijing Institute of Technology. "I come here to see Hawking as he is my personal hero."
The appeal of Hawking largely comes from his ability to be a great thinker despite his physical challenges. Like Zhang and dozens of his classmates, many students from high schools and universities attended the conference to get a glimpse of the great man in person.
"I feel uncomfortable when seeing him mobbed by so many people taking pictures," said college student Zhou Cheng, who had his own copy of A Brief History of Time.
Prof. Yau said he hoped the appearance of Dr. Hawking would inspire an interest in the physical sciences among young people.
"It's okay if many of them are unable to understand Hawking's theories,because he will still inspire young minds," Yau said.