By DENNIS OVERBYE
Published: June 20, 2006
BEIJING, June 19 — Like an otherworldly emperor, Stephen Hawking rolled his wheelchair onto the stage of the Great Hall of the People on Monday, bringing with him the royalty of science and making China, for this week at least, the center of the cosmos.
Miranda Mimi Kuo for The New York Times
Slouching in profile, draped in black and moving no more than an eyelid to send his words to a mesmerized audience of 6,000, Dr. Hawking ruminated on the origin of the universe as the headliner of an international physics conference.
"We are close to answering an age-old question," he concluded. "Why are we here? Where did we come from?"
But as weighty as his speech was, his mere presence was a powerful symbol of what China is and would like to be.
China wants to stand up scientifically, as it is beginning to economically, and it is pouring money and talent into the sciences, particularly physics. Jie Zhang, director general of basic sciences for the Chinese academy, said his budget had been increasing 17 percent a year for the last few years as China tried to ramp up research spending to about 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product. By comparison, the United States spends slightly less than 2 percent, according to the National Science Foundation.
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