Stephen Hawking, the world's most recognizable scientist, is at Waterloo's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics for the next six weeks to collaborate on research, but he's also been spotted about town since his arrival on the weekend.
"Stephen is not a shrinking violet and he likes to lead a normal life," said Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute, who worked closely with the famed physicist at Cambridge University.
Prof. Hawking, who at 21 was diagnosed with a motor-neuron condition commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease or ALS, uses a wheelchair and talks with a head-controlled speech synthesizer.
The famed physicist, who can count a cameo appearance on The Simpsons among his many credits, is attracting attention in local parks, farmers' markets and restaurants. He's also been impressed by the warm reception he's getting, Dr. Turok said.
The pair went out to dinner on Saturday, Dr. Hawking's first full day in Canada, and when it came time to pay, discovered their tab had been picked up by a patron who did not leave his name. "That was really a wonderful welcome for Stephen," Dr. Turok said. "This would not happen everywhere."
When the two scientists went to a local park to look at the new wing of the Perimeter Institute named after the famous cosmologist, Dr. Hawking's motorized wheelchair attracted the attention of children playing there. One boy, about six or seven, shouted out: "That's Stephen Hawking," Dr. Turok said. "They ran over and I think he really enjoyed that."
Dr. Hawking, he said, has a "joke line," preprogrammed into his computer that he uses sometimes when people ask if he is the famous scientist.
"I am frequently mistaken for him," is the favourite comeback of the man who spends most of his time contemplating the beginning of the universe.
Since his arrival, Dr. Hawking also has made a trip to the bustling St. Jacob's Market, a must-see attraction just outside town that is known for its Mennonite vendors and local crafts and produce.
"He has a van and he is running around and he will be seen all over the place," Dr. Turok said. "He's got a team of five people to look after him and they drive him around."
What is the main question Dr. Hawking is working on these days?
"His main research focus is the beginning of the universe," said Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute and a close colleague of the Cambridge professor. "He has an approach to it that he's developing. He's interested in presenting it here and collaborating with young researchers and other visitors on developing it further."
But Dr. Turok said there is no predicting what other matters might gain the well-known cosmologist's attention during his stay in Waterloo. "Theoretical physicists can switch focus in a microsecond. We don't work in a preprogrammed way."
Stephen Hawking will deliver a televised lecture later this month, the one public event of his six-week stay in Canada. The lecture will be broadcast on June 20 at 8 p.m. (ET) on TVO. The program will include a short documentary on Dr. Hawking's work at Waterloo, followed by a pre-recorded lecture delivered to an invited audience.
Aside from supporting scholars, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics has embraced a mission of outreach, holding sold-out public lectures and camps for teens, and is working to nurture science in the developing world. Dr. Hawking's lecture is part of that outreach effort.
The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is the brainchild of Research in Motion founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, creator of the BlackBerry, who has given $150-million to support its work. The entrepreneur and philanthropist established Perimeter as an independent centre devoted to the study of fundamental questions in science involving space and time, as well as quantum physics, an area of study that describes the universe as much different from the one we see.
Since it opened in 2001, Perimeter has fast become one of the world's leading centres for the study of theoretical physics. It is home to about 80 researchers, as well as visiting scientists from around the world. Stephen Hawking is one of 20 distinguished research chairs. It also has the largest postdoctoral studies program in the world in theoretical physics and recently began a master's program.