Australian scientists recall how one crashed into Stephen Hawking's wheelchair - and another nearly ran him over

Jemal Countess/Getty Images Stephen Hawking in New York City.

The scientific community in Australia paid tribute paid to Stephen Hawking who died aged 76.

Professor Peter Tuthill, at the School of Physics, Sydney University, had his own close own encounter with Stephen Hawking as a Australian graduate student studying in Cambridge.

Tuthill says Hawking was already the biggest of the pantheon of superstars that made places like Cambridge so alluring.

“Riding home late on our bicycles, my mate crashed into Hawking’s wheelchair — which he drove around at some speed in those days and with no lights — on the quiet streets at the ‘backs’ of the river Cam,” says Tuthill who graduated with a Phd from Cambridge in 1995.

This put both of them in hospital and the incident on the front pages.

“It was not until much later in my career after that I began to appreciate just why Hawking was such a titan in physics, but also more broadly in culture and modern society,” sasy Tuthill.

“While his contributions to deep questions in physics were profound, he also contributed to a wide array of extremely important contemporary debates and issues — things such as artificial intelligence, the building of a fair society, pitfalls and problems thrown up by disruptive technologies of tomorrow.

“For a guy with such manifest physical challenges in life, it would be easy to expect them to live behind a screen of fame and to remain absorbed in the theoretical.

“I always felt it a testament to luminosity of his intellect that he was so outwardly engaged in the world, and had such penetrating vision and passion for the wider concerns of society and ethics.”

Professor Matthew Colless, Director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the ANU, when he was a graduate student at Cambridge, had Hawking as a lecturer on gravitational physics and black holes.

“He tended to wheel around the low dais at the front of the room while he delivered his pre-recorded lecture and a graduate student wrote equations on the blackboard,” said Colless.

“One time he rolled too far and his wheelchair tipped over the edge, depositing him on the floor. While everyone rushed to pick him up and dust him off, he was busy tapping on his wheelchair keyboard. When the lecture re-started he announced, in that instantly recognisable voice, ‘I fell off the edge of the world’.

“A few years later, as a junior research fellow at Kings College, I very nearly achieved scientific infamy by running Hawking over as he zoomed out of the college gates and almost under the wheels of my car.

“I hit the brakes but he kept going, and I was left contemplating what my career prospects would have been as the one who killed Stephen Hawking.

“Hawking was a great scientist and an inspirational figure. The universe is better understood and more interesting because he was in it.”

Alan Duffy, a Research Fellow in the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing and Lead Scientist of The Royal Institution of Australia, said Hawking was an inspiration not just a scientist but a communicator of that science.

“His work as a cosmologist and discoveries in black hole physics were legendary. His best-known prediction, named by the community as Hawking Radiation, transformed black holes from inescapable gravitational prisons into objects that instead shrink and fade away over time.

“His writings were inspirational to many scientists and enriched the lives of millions with the latest science and cosmic perspectives.

“He was also wonderfully funny with a fantastic media savviness that propelled him into A-list celebrity stardom as few other scientists before. Through it all, of course, his illness made his achievements near-superhuman. How he manipulated Einstein’s equations in his mind when he could no longer hold a pen I can’t even begin to imagine.”

Dr Nick Tothill, Senior Lecturer for Computational Imaging, Visual Science & Computational Astrophysics at Western Sydney University, said Hawking had the rare knack of asking unusual but illuminating questions such what really happens at the event horizon of a black hole?

“He not only advanced our understanding of the universe and its contents by his discoveries, but by provoking us to think about how the cosmos works,” said Tothill.

“His books for the public seemed to show great respect for his audience, assuming that, even if they didn’t fully understand him, they still would be interested in what a cosmologist had to say about the universe in all its wonder and strangeness.”

Paul Haese, President of the Astronomical Society of South Australia, said: “A brilliant mind who gave so much both physically and conceptually has now left us. He will be missed amongst the amateur astronomical community.”

Dr Brad Tucker, a Research Fellow and Outreach Manager at Mt Stromlo Observatory at the Australian National University, said: “Stephen Hawking not only was a leader in cosmology and astrophysics, but also pushed us all — to challenge ourselves and the unknown. He leaves having inspired many of us and having helped us to tackle the big questions that humans have asked for centuries.”

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