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Big thoughts deserve a big screen

As a Utah-based IMAX filmmaker, Bruce Neibaur has tackled difficult subjects on the (really) big screen, most notably "Lewis and Clark," "Mysteries of Egypt," "India: Kingdom of the Tiger" and an ongoing project on Islam. But they were nothing compared to his latest challenge: The vast mind of Stephen Hawking.

It's difficult enough just to understand the great English physicist, but try putting his thoughts on the screen in a way that is both interesting and comprehensible for the average moviegoer.

"How am I going to make a movie on that?" Neibaur wondered.

It wasn't an assignment he sought. Someone urged Hawking to do an IMAX film of his work; he was taken to see his first IMAX movie, which happened to be Neibaur's "Mysteries of Egypt." Afterward, Hawking agreed to do an IMAX movie, but with one caveat: He wanted the guy who made "Mysteries" to do his movie.

That was five years ago, and since then Neibaur has had countless meetings with the legendary scientist, including dinners in his home.

"I'm in awe of him and his determination to find answers," says Neibaur.

It's cruelly ironic that Hawking's great mind is trapped in a body that can't speak or move. He has Lou Gehrig's disease. He is able to move his fingers enough to work a computer mouse, which allows him to select words from a computer dictionary and "speak" through a computer-generated voice.

"The first time I met (Hawking)," says Neibaur, "his assistant told me, 'If his eyes glaze over while you're talking to him, don't worry; he's processing the salient points of what you're saying, and he might be thinking over mathematical equations at the same time.' "

Hawking is a celebrity scientist and widely considered the brightest man since Einstein. Once he and his classmates at Oxford were given an entire term to solve several highly complex mathematical problems. His classmates answered two or three of them over the course of the term. Hawking didn't begin working on the problems until the night before the assignment was due, and he completed all of them. That's when classmates say they knew he was a cut above them. Meanwhile, Hawking also found life unchallenging and boring at the time and turned to heavy drinking.

"It was when he contracted Lou Gehrig's disease that he really went to work and stopped drinking heavily," says Neibaur. "It changed his life."

Neibaur says Hawking works from morning until evening, thinking of the big questions. He poses problems for his assistants to work through on large blackboards as he watches to see where the math leads.

"Thinking is his work," says Neibaur. "I think he believes the rest of us are missing some things. The conditions of his life have caused him to enjoy life in a way the rest of us won't. He's around for one more day, and he gets to think and ponder these problems."

Hawking deals largely with the questions of how and why the universe exists. "It starts with the math, but he wants to know what breathes fire into the equation," says Neibaur.

At one point in the script, Hawking is asked why we are here. "I like to think the reason I'm here is to ask these questions," he says.

What's Hawking like? "He's fun," says Neibaur. "He enjoys witty banter. He's not a stodgy scientist by any means. Most physicists are so absorbed in their work, they don't care if people understand their work, but it's a passion of his. In his view, it would be good for you to understand this."

Neibaur's job is to help us understand.

Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. Please e-mail