HONG KONG (AP) -- Famed physicist Stephen Hawking said Thursday that Pope John Paul II tried to discourage him and other scientists attending a cosmology conference at the Vatican from trying to figure out how the universe began.
The British scientist joked he was lucky the pope didn't realize he had already presented a paper at the gathering suggesting how the universe was created.
"I didn't fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo," Hawking said in a lecture to a sold-out audience at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. John Paul died in 2005; Hawking did not say when the Vatican meeting was held.
Galileo ran afoul of the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century for supporting Copernicus' discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun. The church insisted the Earth was at the center of the universe.
In 1992, John Paul issued a declaration saying the church's denunciation of Galileo was an error resulting from "tragic mutual incomprehension."
Hawking said the pope told the scientists, "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 physicist, author of the best seller "A Brief History of Time," added that John Paul believed "God chose how the universe began for reasons we could not understand."
John Paul insisted faith and science could coexist. In 1996, in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he said that Darwin's theories were sound as long as they took into account that creation was the work of God and that Darwin's theory of evolution was "more than a hypothesis."
But Hawking questioned whether an almighty power was needed to create the universe.
"Does it require a creator to decree how the universe began? Or is the initial state of the universe determined by a law of science?" he asked.
Hawking's groundbreaking research on black holes and the origins of the universe has made him one of the best-known theoretical physicists of his generation. He proposes that space and time have no beginning and no end.
The scientist uses a wheelchair and suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurological disorder. But he said people shouldn't let physical disabilities limit 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 must communicate using an electronic speech synthesizer, and he was asked why he used a voice with an American accent.
"The voice I use is a very old hardware speech synthesizer made in 1986," Hawking said. "I keep it because I have not heard a voice I like better and because I have identified with it."
But the 64-year-old Hawking said he's shopping for a new system because the hardware is large and fragile. He also said it uses components that are no longer made.
"I have been trying to get a software version, but it seems very difficult," he said. "One version has a French accent. I said if I used it, my wife would divorce me."
The moderator at the lecture told the audience that at a recent dinner, she asked Hawking about his ambitions. He said he wanted to know how the universe began, what happens inside black holes and how can humans survive the next 100 years, she said.
But, she added, he said had one more great ambition: "I would also like to understand women."
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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