UC physicists' memories of Stephen Hawking

15 March 2018

World-renowned cosmologist and theoretical physics pioneer Stephen Hawking has died in the UK aged 76. University of Canterbury physicists who knew him respond to the news.

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    Canterbury Distinguished Professor Roy Kerr and his wife Margaret with Stephen Hawking in his home in May 2017. Photo supplied by Roy Kerr.

World-renowned cosmologist and theoretical physics pioneer Stephen Hawking has died in the UK aged 76. University of Canterbury physicists who knew him respond to the news.

Canterbury Distinguished Professor Roy Kerr, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Stephen Hawking. Such an Incredible strength of spirit and character.

I first met him when he was around 25. At that time he walked with difficulty and his diagnosis was poor and he was given  only  a few more years to live.

50 years later he was still working with help and retained his quirky sense of humour.

My wife and I had dinner with him at his home in May last year and came away marvelling at his sheer positivity.

He was never a victim.

His most notable contribution to science was the conjecture that black holes evaporate.

The world will miss Stephen Hawking and I am very sad to hear of his passing.”

Professor David Wiltshire, Theoretical Physicist, University of Canterbury, comments: 

“Stephen was the most courageous person I have known. He had to face his own mortality far, far longer than most of us. Today’s news could have easily happened decades ago. But Stephen had an uncanny ability of stubbornly defying expectations — in science as well as in life.

“Thirty-three years ago I was one of the students who took turns to keep him company in Addenbrookes Hospital. It was the time he came very close to death from pneumonia. We read Sherlock Holmes stories to him to keep his spirits up. That was just after he had lost his voice to a trachaeotomy. Every word had to be spelled by us pointing to letters on a board and watching his eye responses. It was frustrating and he was depressed. But as always, he hung on and never gave up.

"Happily, shortly after that Stephen acquired his famous computer voice, giving voice to the sense of humour which had long entertained his colleagues. By the time the drafts of 'A Brief History of Time' were coming off the printer in the computer room where we typed up our research papers, Stephen was already famous — but not yet the icon of popular culture he was to become. The computer voice enabled that: he reached a huge audience as a lecturer as well as a popular author. The rest is history.

“Stephen was a first-rate physicist who made fundamental contributions to the questions we are still grappling with at the absolute frontiers of human knowledge. What is the nature of space, time, energy and matter? How did the Universe originate and evolve? What happens when space and time end in black holes?

“These questions are challenging enough without the extra physical challenges that Stephen had to live with on account of his disability. No doubt the ever imminent nature of his own mortality sharpened the intensity with which Stephen sought answers to the big questions, discovering such gems as Hawking radiation on the way. For those of us who still live to struggle with the foundational questions, Stephen’s life was a gift and an inspiration.”

(Posted in Expert Reactions on Science Media Centre.)

For further information please contact:

Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3631 | Mobile: +64 275 030 168margaret.agnew@canterbury.ac.nz
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