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Eighteen-year-old engineering student Marianna Sykopetritou said that seeing Hawking would be “a once-in-a-lifetime” experience. She said that the event had a page-and-a-half-long waiting list.

In his recorded message, Hawking said explaining the universe to the wider public was a duty, and that the issue had far more than just theoretical interest.

“If you understand how the universe operates,” he said, “you control it in a way.”