The questions

I watched Elon Musk’s webcast of his presentation about interplanetary travel a few weeks ago. At the end there were questions from the audience. It’s always a problem at these sorts of events, handing the mic to an unvetted audience member and giving them the opportunity to bask in the limelight of the main presenter.

Sometimes you get great questions and sometimes you just get vanity essays with a little bolt-on question at the end.  Musk’s irritation became palpable as the ‘Q&A’ went on. He was asked to step outside with one ‘questioner’ to see a prototype of an invention. Another started to read a prepared essay until Musk, the irritation breaking in his voice, stopped him. It was really difficult to watch.

I once went to see a talk given by Professor Stephen Hawking who gave a masterclass in how to deal with this. It was, I guess, around 1990. To compose a sentence took quite some time, so the speech itself was pre-prepared.  Given the time involved in entering an answer into his voice synthesiser, there was time at the end for only a few questions.

The talk was entertaining and made my brain itch.

At the end there was lengthy applause.

Then came the questions.

The hands went up, and sure enough, the “chosen one” stood up and embarked on a lengthy CV/monologue, punctuated with asides that did nothing more than serve to demonstrate his own knowledge. There was a question in there somewhere, struggling to escape.

Everything went silent as Hawking got cracking on his response.

A good four minutes went by and then Hawking said:

“Can you repeat the question?”

The audience laughed.

The questioner got up, red-faced, and did his best, with what felt like limited success, to ask the question again.

Again there was a pause of a minute as Hawking prepared his response, and then, thought the silence, came the devastating answer: