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British physicist Stephen Hawking - probably the most famous scientist alive - delighted and astonished thousands of Utahns packing Abravanel Hall for a free lecture Saturday night.

Backers of the event said all 2,801 seats were taken, and about 5,000 others outside couldn't find room to see the lecture. Hawking is in Salt Lake City to view a new show he co-authored and helped to narrate for Hansen Planetarium, Fate of the Universe.Hawking's book on cosmology, "A Brief History of Time," has sold 8 million copies. It is the second-best-selling book ever in Great Britain, after only the Bible.

A professor at Cambridge University - he holds the chair in mathematics once occupied by Sir Isaac Newton - Hawking is admired around the world for his courage.

He continues to formulate powerful theories, despite the fact that for many years he has been almost completely paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease. In a wheelchair and speaking through a computerized voice synthesizer, he displayed charm, energy and wit.

Planetarium officials said that he fulfilled a wish of his since the age of 12, by going to see the Great Salt Lake soon after arrival in Utah on Friday. Then he took staff members to a showing of the dinosaur saga "Jurassic Park" at Trolley Square that night, and at 1 a.m. Saturday, wondered what was next on the agenda.

Before the public lecture, he visited with hundreds of invited guests in the Salt Lake Art Center. At the appearance, he responded to the question of a young member of the Deseret News party.

If there was one big bang (the sudden expansion of matter into the universe), Sky Bauman asked Hawking, why couldn't there have been several big bangs? Hawking took several minutes to answer, moving his fingers on his hand-held device that controls his computer.

"There seems to have been only one in the region we can see," he replied. "But there could be other big bangs in other regions."

He controlled his motorized wheelchair, deftly scooting through the crowd. Later, after introductions by officials of the planetarium and of Geneva Steel - which had underwritten his appearance - he drove quickly on stage at the front of the hall.

Hawking smiled from time to time, when he made jokes during his talk. Apparently it was previously written into the computer, but he seemed to be controlling the process, perhaps selecting which paragraphs to present next.

He joshed that his synthetic voice has been likened to all sorts of accents: Scandinavian, American and Irish.

During the lecture, he outlined the history of scientific thought about black holes, which are the remnants of massive stars that collapsed. They are so dense and concentrated that light can't escape, and the structure of time and space is strongly affected near them.

One of Hawking's most important theories involved his discovery that some particles actually do escape from black holes. This was thought nonsense when he announced it in the early 1970s, but others have studied his calculations and agreed with him.

The seemingly impossible reason for this escape from black holes is that because of quantum mechanics, some particles violate Einstein's rule that nothing can travel faster than light. They do travel faster, and as more and more particles escape, a black hole can essentially evaporate.

The particles that escape are different from ordinary matter, according to this theory.

"The particles go into `baby universes,' which branch out from our universe. These baby universes can then join back up somewhere else."

At one time, science fiction writers postulated that black holes could be used for travel across immense distances of space, by a ship going into one and coming out somewhere else. But Hawking said the astronauts would be pulled into spaghetti by the incredible forces at the horizon of a black hole.

Collections of tiny self-contained universes might affect some factors in our ordinary universe, he said.

" `Baby universes' may not be much good for space travel, but their presence means that we will be able to predict less than we expected, even if we do find the complete unified theory" about the workings of the universe.

On the other hand, the theory of baby universes may help explain why some measured values don't seem to add up as predicted - such as the cosmological constant, he said. The constant involves the expansion or contraction of the universe.

"In the last few years, a lot of people have been working on (theories about) baby universes," Hawking said.

"I doubt if anyone will make their fortune by patenting them as a method of space travel. But they have become a very exciting area of research."

He concluded with, "Thank you for your patience, listening to my computer voice. That is all." Then he wheeled around in his vehicle and scooted offstage, his computer screen glowing blue.