“Greetings to my friends in China! It has been too long!” exclaimed Stephen Hawking on April 12, in the first posting on his Sina Weibo account. It has in fact been 10 years since the celebrated Cambridge physicist was last in contact, giving a speech to an exclusive audience of 500 in Beijing. Four years prior to that, he spoke in Hangzhou, where tickets for the 2,000-seat auditorium sold out in five minutes. But subscriptions to his weibo have surpassed even that enthusiasm.
Within an hour of his first post, Hawking had gained 260,000 followers and a staggering 45,000 replies. After five hours his fan base had grown to over a million, and now sits at more than three times that.
When Hawking made his second post a day later, the response was no less energetic, generating over 405,000 comments, most of which are simply overjoyed that he posted again (it seems many fans had thought he would just open an account and then never use it). Hawking is well-known in China thanks to his association with space exploration, a topic of great local interest.
The most popular comment under this post summarised the significance of the occasion: “I still remember when I was back at school and questioned, ‘If Stephen Hawking was your online friend and you had one question you could ask, what would it be?’ At that time everyone had such whimsical ideas. Now years later, Hawking really is our friend.” Over 54,000 people ‘shared’ this sentiment on weibo.
And some netizens have indeed taken to quizzing the esteemed physicist. Some asked the important questions (“Mr. Hawking, hello. I want to know, do aliens really exist?”), while others had more personal interests (“Honourable Professor Hawking, please, I’m 180cm and 75kg: when will I find a girlfriend?”), and one kept it broad (“So…how’s the universe been recently?”).
Hawking won’t have time to reply to some of the more inane queries posed by his Chinese fans. But there were some who feared the reputational impact on the nation’s image of idiotic questions. The most popular comment underneath his first post was liked 92,119 times and read: “Those commenting please pay attention to quality; every sentence influences another person’s impression of China.” But netizens shouldn’t worry too much; Hawking made it clear he was fond of China during his last visit in 2006 when he told a reporter: “I like Chinese culture, Chinese food and above all Chinese women. They are beautiful.”
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