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Stephen Hawking remembered: 'I guess I have fallen off the edge of the world'

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The late Stephen Hawking famously said the world was running out of space and needed to look for other worlds. But few Australians know that he helped launch the $100 million Parkes telescope project to listen for signs of ET and hopefully discover a civilisation a few convenient light years away.

Hawking has died in Cambridge, England, aged 76, his family told the media on Wednesday.

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Professor Stephen Hawking dies age 76

After his degenerative muscle disorder was diagnosed, the British theoretical physicist defied medical opinion by living five decades longer than expected.

Professor Brad Tucker, a research fellow at Mount Stromlo Observatory, said Hawking "didn't just speak or think things, he did it, whether it was complex calculations or helping others".

One of the biggest questions facing scientists is whether there is extraterrestrial life, a question that may be answered by Breakthrough Listen, the 10-year, $100-million astronomical search for intelligent life funded by Internet investor Yuri Milner's foundation and backed by Hawking.

Breakthough's call to action, signed by Hawking, starts, "Are we alone?"

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It is using NSW's Parkes telescope to search for extraterrestial life. Breakthrough tweeted that it was deeply saddened by Hawking's death: He was "one of the great scientists of our age ... and cherished partner in Breakthrough Listen/Starshot. His indomitable curiosity, courage set the highest bar for us all."

Professor Tucker, an astrophysicist and a cosmologist at the Australian National University, said Hawking had pushed everyone to challenge the status quo and pursue the complex questions, while pushing the bounds of humanity and knowledge.

Professor Tucker was among many Australian scientists to celebrate Hawking's contribution to science, and to humour and humanity. To today's cosmologists and astrophysicists, Hawking was a rock star cosmologist, an inspiration, a childhood hero, an A-list star, a genius and a great communicator.

Very few individuals were in the same league as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie – men and women who are legends in science and also icons for humanity - but Hawking was one of them, said Australia's chief scientist, Dr Alan Finkel.

Hawking’s genius had secured his legacy amongst his colleagues. "But his courage, compassion and conviction are the qualities that place him amongst the greats of any age," Dr Finkel said.

University of NSW quantum physicist and 2018 Australian of the Year Professor Michelle Simmons described Hawking as an extraordinary man who prevailed against all odds.

"Physics will miss him greatly,” she said.

Professor Alan Duffy, lead scientist of the Royal Australian Institution of Australia, said Hawking's illness made his achievements near superhuman, with an ability to manipulate Einstein's equations in his mind when he could no longer hold a pen.

Like many other scientists, Professor Duffy, a research fellow in the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, said Hawking was an inspiration as a scientist and as 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," he said.

To Nobel Prize winner Professor Brian Schmidt, Hawking was his inspiration.

“As a child he was someone who was up there as a scientific idol. Someone who was able to connect the absolute cutting edge of science to a 15 year old boy. So I think that on that front it helped shape my career," Schmidt said.

“Later in life I learned to study his work and he brought together quantum mechanics and gravity, the big outstanding issues still in physics, still not resolved, but he is the person who has taken the biggest and best steps.

“Being able to think, here on earth, about objects on the other side of the universe or even at the beginning of time. That power of humanity being such a tiny spec to go and understand things so big. His ability to express that in a way that I found compelling as a young boy is what really hooked me," said Schmidt, an astronomer at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University, formerly known as Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories.

Hawking's humour was nearly as legendary as his black holes.

"He was a very funny guy," said Professor Matthew Colless, the director of ANU's research school of astronomy and astrophysics, who was taught gravitational physics at Cambridge University during the 1980s by Hawking.

One day Hawking's wheelchair rolled off the dais while he was giving a lecture.

"All the time, he was tapping away," Professor Colless said.

When Hawking started talking again via his computerised voice, he said: "I guess I have fallen off the edge of the world."

Professor Colless narrowly avoided running over Hawking in his wheelchair, but Sydney University Professor of physics, Peter Tuthill, wasn't so lucky.

"For myself and many scientists, I am sure this is one of those pieces of news that becomes a fiducial anchor point in the stream of memory: remember where you were when the news about Stephen Hawking broke?" he said.

But Professor Tuthill didn't expect his first encounter with him while he was at Cambridge to make headlines.

“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," Professor Tuthill said.

The bicycle wheelchair crash put Professor Tuthill's mate and Hawking in hospital, with his "friend on the front pages for all the wrong reasons".

Much later in his career Professor Tuthill began to appreciate why Hawking was such a titan in physics, but also more broadly in culture and modern society.

"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," he said.

“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."

A masterful communicator

Professor Colless, though, said Hawking had big ideas and the ability to make them interesting and communicate them to others.

"He was incredibly clear and concise," he said, something perhaps forced upon Hawking because each word had to be laboriously tapped out.

Hawking had created the field of modern cosmology, said Professor Colless, and turned it from speculation to something done with enormous precision.

At Mount Stromlo, scientists were studying 2 million galaxies, and measuring the expansion rate of the universe with 1 per cent precision, said Professor Colless, something made possible by Hawking's research.

While Hawking had a huge ego, those who know him said he also loved to joke.

He once said his book, A Brief History of Time, was "probably the least-read, most-bought book ever", Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist and science writer at the California Institute of Technology told National Public Radio in the United States.

Mr Mlodinow collaborated with Hawking on a less technical version of Hawking's first book, called A Briefer History of Time. "As hard as it was for him to communicate, he would sit there sometimes, and would take five or six minutes to be typing something out," he told NPR. "And then when he hit speak, and his system voices his words, it would be a joke."

Hawking's sense of humour extended to his willingness to appear on The Simpsons several times— and Little Britain, Futurama and Star Trek, The Next Generation.

Paul Haese, the president of the Astronomical Society of South Australia, said Hawking had a brilliant mind that would be missed among the amateur astronomical community.

Professor Brian Boyle, deputy vice-chancellor enterprise at the University of NSW, described him as a peerless inspiration to millions who took "global public consciousness of contemporary science and scientists to anew level". "We will always be in his debt," he said.

The 2014 film about his life, The Theory of Everything, was nominated for several Academy Awards, and Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking, won the best-actor Oscar.

As a graduate student in 1963, Hawking learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neuromuscular wasting disease also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was given only a few years to live. The disease reduced his bodily control to the flexing of a finger and voluntary eye movements but left his mental faculties untouched.

He went on to become his generation's leader in exploring gravity and the properties of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits so deep and dense that not even light can escape them.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story said Hawking provided direct financial support to the Parkes listen project. Hawking was on the board of the Breakthrough Starshot project, supported the project publicly and helped launch it but he didn't provide direct financial support. The source of this information mistook this backing for financial support.

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