Scientist Heinz Wolff dies, aged 89

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Media captionHeinz Wolff’s show challenged scientists to create weird and wonderful gadgets

Renowned scientist and TV presenter Heinz Wolff has died, aged 89.

The German-born inventor and professor, famed for hosting BBC Two’s long-running science show The Great Egg Race, died of heart failure on 15 December, his family said.

A former advisor to the European Space Agency, he became emeritus professor at London’s Brunel University, working on projects linked to ageing populations.

His son Laurence paid tribute to his humour, curiosity, and enthusiasm.

Speaking to BBC News, Laurence Wolff said his father had “touched so many people through his ingenuity in terms of his inventing… and his great belief in educating about science and technology”.

He had a “natural sense of fun and he knew that was also a way of engaging people… People would stop him in the street… and they would say, ‘you got me into science'”.

Trademark bow tie

A Jewish refugee, Wolff moved to the UK from Berlin at the age of 11 on the day World War Two broke out in September 1939.

After attending school in Oxford, he worked in haematology at the city’s Radcliffe Infirmary, where he invented a machine for counting patients’ blood cells.

He later went on to graduate from University College London with a first-class honours degree in physiology and physics.

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Media captionLaurence Wolff says his father had a sense of humour, curiosity and enthusiasm

Wolff moved into television in 1966, first appearing on the BBC’s Panorama programme with Richard Dimbleby, where he produced a pill that could measure pressure, temperature and acidity.

However, he was best known for hosting BBC Two’s The Great Egg Race from 1977 until 1986 – instantly recognisable for his trademark bow tie and eccentric hairstyle.

The show challenged contestants to invent useful objects with limited resources.

Friends and colleagues also recalled his love of practical jokes, particularly one instance when he arrived at his 80th birthday party on a scooter propelled by fire extinguishers.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Wolff was an emeritus professor at Brunel University

Professor Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor and president of Brunel University, said: “Heinz’s remarkable intellect, ideas and enthusiasm combined to make him the sparkling scientist we will so fondly remember.

“He was a wonderful friend and supporter to staff and to students – and an inspiration to all of us.”

Brunel colleague Professor Ian Sutherland added: “There was nothing he loved more than having a team of people around him, devising completely new ways of doing things.”

Social conscience

Alongside his television appearances, Wolff continued in his efforts to advance human progress through his scientific work.

He was made an honorary member of the European Space Agency in 1975, and his work into how humans could survive hostile space environments led to Dr Helen Sharman becoming the first British astronaut and the 15th woman in space in 1991.

Image caption Wolff balanced his mischievous curiosity with serious scientific research

Laurence Wolff said this space work – known as Project Jupiter – had been greatly valued by his father, who wished to “inspire young people” and use science to “entertain as well as educate”.

He also described how Heinz Wolff’s early interest in science had been stoked by his own father, who had him taking part in chemistry experiments at the age of four.

He added: “The person that people saw when they met him was the person we knew at home. His sense of humour, his curiosity, his enthusiasm. That was our father.”

Wolff was also a strong supporter of local charities throughout his life, including spending more than 25 years as a trustee, and then Life President, of the Hillingdon Partnership Trust.

He was married to his wife Joan until her death in 2014, and is survived by two sons and four grandchildren.

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