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May 30, 2008

Toil and Trouble

Wsfshepard052908_2 "Toil and Trouble" was brought to you by The Moth, an organization that headlines storytellers -- professional and not -- performing without a net. Tonight's theme, in accordance with the WSF was "Experiments that Went Wrong." But although it featured Lucy Hawking -- Stephen's daughter -- cosmologist Michael Turner and physicist Jim Gates, there was more introspection than science. And there was also Sam Shepard.

Michael Turner began with, "It was 1981, and I had really long hair." The now-bald scientist went on to explain that he had been hand-picked by Stephen Hawking to join an elite group of physicists to spend the summer figuring out how the universe began. "It would be great it if [my theory] worked," he continued, "but for tenure, all it had to be was clever." He gave the crowd a bit too much credit when explaining how graininess of the quantum world lead to lumps in the universe, but he was such an engaging storyteller that we went along with it anyway. (P.S. His equations didn't work, but it was a summer of a lot of personal growth.)

Next up was writer Nathan Englander, who explained his reasons for leaving the confines of New York's Upper West Side for Israel: it seemed like a good idea at the time. "I was moving to Jerusalem to make peace," he explained. And though Englander was greeted at the airport by a local who declared, "It's not too late to go back to Manhattan," he quickly settled into his adopted homeland. But while he was growing comfortable, Israel was falling apart. A series of bombings lead Englander back to New York, where he signed a lease on his new apartment a week before 9/11.

Lucy Hawking reminisced about her earliest days in California, where the family lived while her father taught at Caltech: it was a time of sunshine, avocados, and a dad who, though in a wheelchair, was still mobile and able to talk. Years later she returned to California with him -- and an entourage of doctors and nurses -- hoping to reclaim "a simpler time without sickness, fame and the entourage." A great night of salsa dancing at JLo's restaurant was the closest they could come, which lead Hawking to conclude, "physics can't tell you what holds families together."

Jim Gates and Sam Shepard were the last two speakers. Gates explained the journey he went to figure out his identity as an African-American, something that was rudely brought to his attention as a child when his family moved to Florida and he had to attend a segregated school. And it followed him from the hallowed halls of MIT all the way to Iceland, where a group of backpackers jumped at the sight of a black man coming their way in the mountains.

Shepard told a painful story of how his stunt double on "The Right Stuff," Choo-Choo, was thrown into a cactus by the horse Shepard insisted he use. Guilt-ridden, Shepard visited him in the hospital, where Choo-Choo told him, "He might be a good ropin' horse, but he can't dodge a cactus for s**t."

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