WATERLOO — Toronto may have Hollywood stars in town for its international film festival, but we’ve got Stephen Hawking.
The most famous theoretical physicist on the planet is creating a buzz around Waterloo this week, as he enjoys another research visit with colleagues at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
But while the scientist, who is confined to a wheelchair, has been showing up at local restaurants, this is hardly a vacation. He’s here to continue his ongoing work to describe what happened at the beginning of the universe.
And this time, he’s brought along long-term collaborators Prof. Jim Hartle, an American physicist, and Prof. Thomas Hertog of Belgium for high-powered brainstorming sessions that may put some of that research into warp drive.
“Physics research is best done in person. I guess they’re hoping for new brain waves when they’re able to all work in the same place,” said Perimeter Institute director Neil Turok. “They’re hoping research can proceed much faster, thanks to being together.”
But even physicists need to eat. On Sunday night, the 70-year-old author of A Brief History of Time and pop culture icon showed up at the Wildcraft restaurant on King Street, dining on the duck and mashed potatoes.
Hawking seemed in a celebratory mood. He ordered a bottle of wine — a pinot noir from Niagara’s Le Clos Jordanne — and was teased by friends about wanting a margarita. On his way out, he joked with the restaurant’s staff about judging an upcoming bartending competition.
“Once I realized who it was, I was floored,” said Dustin Caudle, the waiter who served Hawking and his guests. “You just want to ask him so many questions … He was a really good guy and he had a great sense of humour.”
Diagnosed with the degenerative disorder Lou Gehrig’s disease when he was 21, Hawking is almost entirely paralyzed, but communicates using an electronic voice synthesizer. His aides helped him order from the menu.
Soon, other customers noticed the famous guest and started approaching him for photos, which he graciously obliged.
“We just looked over and there he was. They didn’t make a big scene. It was really cool,” said Melissa Jaroscz, a business student at Wilfrid Laurier University who was sitting a few tables over at a birthday dinner for her mother.
“I tweeted about it, and a couple people replied, ‘There’s no way. Stephen Hawking is not in Waterloo.’”
Perimeter didn’t make an announcement about the physicist’s visit, and there are no public appearances planned for him. While here, he also plans to visit the new Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum Nano Centre in Waterloo, officially opening next week.
But it’s been hard for a man who is so recognizable to stay low-profile. After his appearance at Wildcraft, cyclists saw him getting out of a van outside Perimeter Monday and Tuesday morning, and tweeted about it.
Still, the physicist “loves the atmosphere here,” said Turok, and doesn’t mind the attention when he goes out.
Hawking, a distinguished research chair at Perimeter with a $30-million wing named after him, returns to England on Sept. 24 after a two-week visit. It’s the second time he’s been to Waterloo in recent years, thanks in large part to his friendship with Turok, who was once a colleague at Cambridge University.
Back in the 1990s, the pair proposed that the universe began from virtually nothing, creating the idea of an “instanton” that is the birthplace of everything. They’ve even bet each other that it’s possible to see gravitational waves that echo the expansion of the universe.
While here, Hawking will collaborate with some of Perimeter’s brightest minds who are trying to solve some of the most puzzling mysteries of the universe. On Wednesday, he met with a young Italian researcher who has come up with a new way of analyzing black holes — a subject Hawking wrote the book on.
His presence at Perimeter has an immediate impact on the institute, said Turok, whose own work to explain theoretical physics to the masses helped the CBC choose him for their upcoming 2012 Massey Lectures.
“Even a few days’ visit can be critical, causing research to progress faster. … The minute he come into the institute, everyone thinks ‘Oh my God, this is a serious place, we’d better all raise our game,’ ” Turok said.
“There’s an indirect impact simply through the example he sets as a great scientist and a brilliant and creative personality.”
This weekend, Hawking will fly to Sudbury to tour SNOLAB, a laboratory more than two kilometres below ground where scientists are studying things like dark matter, one of the building blocks of the universe.
“He’s a rock star of the particle physics world. We’re super excited for his visit,” said Samantha Kuula, a spokesperson for the Sudbury lab.
Hawking was to come to Waterloo last summer for the opening of the Stephen Hawking Centre, but illness cancelled those plans. This is the first time he’s seen the finished version of the centre named after him.
When he’s healthy, Hawking doesn’t slow down. Last month, he helped kick off the 2012 London Paralympics with a role in the opening ceremonies.
His fans in Waterloo, meanwhile, are just hoping they’ll catch a glimpse of the man before he returns to Cambridge University.
That includes the staff at Masala Bay, a fine dining Indian restaurant where Hawking has eaten at twice in a previous visit, enjoying the buffet and spicy Rogan Josh and shrimp dishes. His picture still hangs on the wall.
“We were very, very honoured to have him,” said co-owner Jenny Bhargava. “I’d be thrilled if he comes back again.”