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Science Deadline: Tributes to Stephen Hawking flow

Science Deadline: Tributes to Stephen Hawking flow, lead exposure endangers hearts, 'heat ' tobacco under fire, and the SMC is hiring

Stephen Hawking, remembered
World-famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking died in his UK home at the age of 76 on Wednesday.

Canterbury Distinguished Professor Roy Kerr and his wife Margaret with Stephen Hawking last year.

Diagnosed with neurodegenerative disease ALS at just 22, Hawking became as famous for his computer-generated voice as he was for his ideas about space and time.

Outpourings of grief and praise for his achievements sped around the world as physicists and celebrities alike paid tribute to the unique scientist.

Closer to home, Kiwi scientists who worked with Stephen have been reminiscing about his quirky sense of humour and huge contribution to science.

Canterbury Distinguished Professor Roy Kerr, a contemporary of Hawking’s whose research on black holes made it into A Brief History of Time, told the SMC that Hawking “was never a victim” and that he had “such an incredible strength of spirit and character”.

Prof Richard Easther from the University of Auckland told The Project on Wednesday, “as a physicist, he’s one of the greats... he’s changed the way that we understand the universe.” He went on to say that Hawking’s greatest achievements had been to connect quantum mechanics, gravity and thermodynamics – three of the deeper sets of ideas in physics.

In the 1980s, Prof David Wiltshire from the University of Canterbury was one of Hawking’s students at the University of Cambridge. He told Morning Report that “before the professional nursing staff were there… students would help him eating his lunch and taking him to the toilet, so you got to know the bloke pretty well".

“You can find a lot of weird people at Cambridge... but Hawking really could connect with his students and with the public in ways that some academics find very hard.”

Wiltshire told the SMC that during his time at Cambridge, Stephen “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 tracheotomy.”

Prof Shaun Hendy, Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, wrote on “He will be remembered as a remarkable thinker and an extraordinary public figure who changed our attitudes to disability.” Hawking’s work on uniting how both quantum mechanics and general relativity affect black holes was revolutionary – and led to his discovery that “black holes must eventually evaporate via a process that is now known as Hawking radiation.”

The SMC gathered reactions from experts to Hawking's death.

"I’m always thinking our wandering albatross should be New Zealand’s polar bear.

"We’re seeing trouble, and they’re beautiful and interesting enough that we should focus on them as a canary in a goldmine."

Department of Conservation's Kath Walker
in a feature article about Antipodes Island.

The SMC is hiring
The Science Media Centre is looking for a media advisor to join our dynamic Wellington-based team of four.
We are looking for an experienced journalist or science communicator to join our team, working to improve and expand coverage of science-related issues across all types of media in New Zealand.
We work in a fast-paced environment, immersed in a wide range of science research and responding quickly to breaking news stories – be they emerging technologies, natural disasters or medical research discoveries. You’ll need to be able to quickly get your head around a topic and proactively identify angles and contacts that will be useful for New Zealand media.
You’ll ideally bring good networks of contacts in the New Zealand media and research sectors so you can hit the ground running. Firsthand experience of broadcast and digital media is a plus. To succeed in the role, you’ll need to be a self-starter who enjoys working collaboratively and who is able to adapt to best support the needs of journalists and scientists we work with.
Excellent writing skills are essential. Managing online content is an important part of the role. A full job description is available here. Applications close Wednesday, 4 April.

Policy news & developments

Innovation partnership: Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods has launched the Innovative Partnership programme, which aims to attract international innovators and firms to New Zealand.

Parks review on hold: The New Zealand Conservation Authority has put its proposed review of the general policy for National Parks on hold while it focuses on supporting and advising the new Government.

Exotic mozzie found: A surveillance programme has found larvae from the exotic mosquito Culex sitiens near the Kaipara Harbour. The species is known to transmit diseases such as the Ross River virus.

Submissions on 'new' organisms: The EPA is seeking submissions on a proposal to remove the 'new organism' status on a number of species including a beetle, ladybird and wasp that have established in New Zealand.

Stoat found on pest-free island: DOC traps on Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf caught a stoat, which may have swum to the island or stowed away on a vessel.

Submissions on climate guidelines: Climate Change Minister James Shaw has called for public submissions on priorities for New Zealand at international climate change negotiations.

Low lead exposure still risky
In the US, historical lead exposure has been linked to a quarter of a million early deaths from heart disease each year, according to a new study.

Researchers monitored the lead levels in more than 14,000 Americans over 20 years and found that even low-level lead exposure (between 1-5 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood) increased the risk of premature death.

They say the study calls into question the assumption that there are ‘safe levels’ of lead exposure and suggests that low-level environmental lead exposure is a leading risk factor for premature death in the USA, particularly from cardiovascular disease.

For those in the study, a large proportion of lead exposure would have been from air pollution, older styles of house paint, and issues with leaded piping in some areas. It’s plausible that New Zealanders from the same generation are also at risk, according to Nick Wilson, a Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago — with leaded petrol being the biggest source of lead for New Zealanders.

Wilson told Jesse Mulligan on RNZ: “New Zealand used have very high lead levels in petrol and we were quite slow as a country to phase down those levels."

“In 1972, Japan rapidly removed lead from petrol, but it wasn’t until 1996 that the New Zealand government finally removed lead from petrol.”

Duke University Professor Terrie Moffitt — who discovered a linkbetween low IQ scores and childhood exposure to lead in New Zealand cities in the 1970s and 1980s — told the SMC that: “it can be difficult for American studies like this one to isolate lead as an active ingredient in disease because Americans with the highest levels of lead in their blood tend to be poorer, less educated, heavy smokers, and eat an unhealthy diet. These factors all increase heart disease.”

Moffitt says that the older generation in New Zealand who are now entering the “peak age of risk for heart disease” are unaware their health may be still be affected today by lead they were exposed to as children, before the laws changed.

The SMC gathered expert comment on the study.

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