back to article Telly boffin Professor Heinz Wolff has died

Professor Heinz Wolff, the bonkers-haired boffin who brought delight and joy to millions of BBC viewers in the 1970s and 1980s, has died aged 89. The German-born professor, who arrived in the UK aged 11 along with his Jewish family on the day that the Second World War broke out, was best known for his BBC 2 series The Great …

  1. james_smith

    Is it my dodgy memory, or didn't he once appear on an edition of "Take Hart" with a Heath Robinson style machine that turned eggs into cubes?

    1. MyffyW Silver badge

      Prof Wolff and the Great Egg Race are the reasons I took apart various knackered household appliances and tried to cobble together improvised machines. I never got very far, but inspired a love of engineering that has lasted into well preserved middle age.

    2. Zot

      Perhaps you're thinking of Wilf Lunn?

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilf_Lunn

      1. james_smith

        @Zot: "Perhaps you're thinking of Wilf Lunn?"

        That's the fella. Must remember:

        Wilf Lunn - crazy moustache

        Heinz Wolff - crazy hair

  2. andy 103

    Ali G

    The only thing I remember this guy for was that he appeared in an episode of Ali G, where he was asked about "what is infinity?" and if there was anything smaller than "a sand".

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fWSILCCYns

    He must have a memorable face though because I haven't seen that for about 15 years and instantly recognised him!

    RIP.

  3. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
    Boffin

    A Sad Day :(

    Another of my childhood (and indeed adulthood) heroes gone, and as many have said one of the inspirations in getting people (including me) into science and engineering.

    Had the honour of meeting him a few years ago at a "family fun" event where he gave a lecture/demonstration on various science bits, including supergluing a hot-dog onto his hand as an extra finger. We must have talked for 10-15 minutes afterwards (he was there for ages talking to everyone and anyone who wanted a chat), and he was one of the most humble, warm, engaging and enthusiastic speakers on the subject I've ever met.

    Farewell Professor, and thank you...

  4. graeme leggett

    Great Egg Race

    BBC archive has a dozen episodes from 1979 (Brian Cant presenting) to 1984 available to view.

    One could argue that the programme is at the start of the evolution that gave us Scrapheap Challenge, Robot Wars and the like.

    Interesting that in first series BBC Radio stations were competing in the Egg carrying part. I'm guessing they were engineers and the like.

    1. Rilian

      Re: Great Egg Race

      It appears they've all been taken offline (I'm looking at the 'BBC Archives' pages now). The episode descriptions are there, but the video files themselves have been removed. Are they around anywhere else?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: but the video files [...] have been removed. Are they around anywhere else?

        ... cue the sudden appearance of a souvenir/ in-memorium DVD box set....

        1. Richard Parkin

          Re: but the video files [...] have been removed. Are they around anywhere else?

          Maybe not that, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pvf6Xl9hQE

      2. Chris G Silver badge

        Re: Great Egg Race

        Just put in 'The Great egg Race' on you tube, quite a few there.

        RIP to a charming, funny and very clever man with a love of life and knowledge.

        I am fairly sure he was the model for the Tefal egghead ads in the '80s.

        1. Chris G Silver badge

          Re: Great Egg Race

          Here's one to watch, one of the teams is three guys from ICL.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pvf6Xl9hQE

      3. Chris King Silver badge

        Re: Great Egg Race

        A lot of the "archived" BBC pages won't work with a modern version of Flash - the same thing happened with the "Classic" Doctor Who pages. Even worse, older stuff was RealVideo/RealAudio and that all died when they scrapped their RealPlayer servers (that broke most of their Cult TV sub-site).

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Great Egg Race

        I see them in Edge and IE on a Win 10 tablet.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Great Egg Race

          "I see them in Edge and IE on a Win 10 tablet."

          That's maybe because your Edge is waiting for a complete OS upgrade in order to upgrade to a newer version.

  5. Tom 7 Silver badge

    A definite genius of a man.

    Though one of my dads colleagues went to UCL with him and apparently he had perfect english then which meant I could never watch him on the telly with dad around or he would remind me of this every time.

    He has to be congratulated for cultivating the mad German professor role which I think inspired thousands of others.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A definite genius of a man.

      I did find myself thinking the other day that given he came to UK in 1939 at age 11 his accent was so pronounced. A useful part of the presentational performance, I guess

      1. Niall Mac Caughey
        Holmes

        Re: A definite genius of a man.

        Interestingly, it may not have been a performance - at least not entirely.

        I noticed this many years ago when I met a public figure who had grown up in France. Although he had been English-speaking all his adult life, I commented that his French accent was hard to understand. I was told by a bystander that this reversion to one's birth accent with advancing years was a known phenomenon. I have searched (briefly) but haven't found any reference to this.

        Anyone else encountered this?

        1. TWB

          Re: A definite genius of a man.

          @Niall Mac Caughey

          Anyone else encountered this? - yes, when I were a lad of 8 or 9, a new family from Yorkshire moved into my village in Oxfordshire. I made friends with the boys but it always seemed really odd to me that the youngest never seemed to lose his Yorkshire dialect and accent - he was only 7 or 8!....

        2. AlanT

          Re: A definite genius of a man.

          Yes, with my grandfather. Growing up I remember him as an extremely well spoken man, and his Aberdeen roots were very much in the background. The last time I saw him was a few months before his final illness, and he'd mentally slowed. And was again speaking the Doric of his youth.

  6. Dunstan Vavasour

    Sorry, but...

    ...I'm afraid my first thought was "I didn't know he was still alive".

    1. CT

      Re: Sorry, but...

      Or to put it more kindly, "wow, he had a good innings"

  7. Anomynous Curd
    Pint

    Proper Boffin

    1. Pedigree-Pete
      Thumb Up

      Proff Heinz and others.

      Magnus Pyke anyone? Both influencal in my journey into my corner of engineering. PP

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Goodbye

    and thank you for helping to make science fun.

    1. Outski
      Pint

      Re: Goodbye, and thank you

      I absolutely loved the Great Egg Race as a boy, and Professor Wolff's infectious energy was a large part of that.

      Even though my later studies focused on the wacky art of theology & religion in general (know thine enemy), I always remembered how he showed how much fun science and its application can be.

      Difficult to choose an appropriate icon, but this one, I guess, as I raise a glass

      1. VinceH Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: Goodbye, and thank you

        "I absolutely loved the Great Egg Race as a boy, and Professor Wolff's infectious energy was a large part of that."

        Ditto - though I only ever saw the odd episode once in a while. (The problem was my step dad thought it was stupid, so if he was in it wasn't on.)

  9. luioghluh2351234
    Pint

    farwell to a hero

    An inspirations in getting me into science and engineering.

    Just wanted to say thank you to a great man

  10. Toltec

    His energy cannot be lost

    it is just somewhat less organised.

    RIP Prof

  11. x 7

    He was one of the judges when I took part (as part of a team) in the BBC "Young Scientist of the Year" competition back in the 1970s. He and Sir George Porter (one of the other judges) are probably the two nicest people I've ever met.

    Heinz claimed he had a cupboard full of teddy bears in his office at Brunel......he said he psychoanalysed them to see which had "friendly" faces and which were "evil". I guess he must have had a lot of fun waving teddies at babies to see which ones caused smiles and which ones caused tears. Ever since I've had a mental image of him with an office stuffed full of stuffed animals. I don't know how true to life that is, but it seems a nice way to remember him.

    1. x 7

      teddy bears

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/saturdaylive/2006/10/professor_heinz_wolff.html

      "Despite being one the country's leading scientific experts, Professor Heinz Wolff reveals that his true passion lies in his collection of teddy bears. Yes it's true...........

      "But Prof Wolff is also an expert in the facial expressions of toy bears, and believes that much can be revealed from the positioning of their glass eyes and embroidered noses."

      I'd have loved to see that collection. I wonder what will happen to them?

    2. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Young Scientist of the Year

      If anyone was serious about getting young people into STEM subjects, this would be back on the TV. I used to watch it regularly when I was a youth, and we had several of the yearbooks around the house. In fact, it is YSotY that I associate Heinz Wolff with, not "The Great Egg Race", because you could see his enthusiasm and support for the contestants.

      1. x 7

        Re: Young Scientist of the Year

        All the judges I met on there were truly dedicated and enthusiastic. They believed in education and saw the programme as a way to interest kids in science and technology.

        George Porter appears to have been the driving force: he gave us a personally guided tour of the Royal Institution and his drive to educate was impossible to resist.

        As I said earlier, Porter, Wolff and the others.......these are the people who should have been in charge of the UK education system, driving toward meaningful teaching off STEM subjects

  12. Sam Therapy
    Pint

    RIP

    Great fun to watch, extrememly funny guy.

    Rest now, your work is done.

  13. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Angel

    No tears

    He was a lot of fun, but at the same time taught people a lot (without them realising it).

    Oh, and nutty to the end.

    -> for him, not me :)

  14. Zippy's Sausage Factory
    Coat

    One day, I had hoped to meet him, look at my watch, listen to it, shake my wrist and then ask,

    "What's the time, Professor Wolff?"

    Another lifetime ambition, thwarted. *sigh*...

    1. veti Silver badge

      He once appeared on 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue', in a game themed on that very pun. I suggest you go and listen to every series (up to around 2005) to find it.

  15. Adam 52 Silver badge

    "who arrived in the UK aged 11 along with his Jewish family on the day that the Second World War broke out"

    ...and, presumably, was put in a concentration camp a year later as part of Churchill's "collar the lot" order.

    1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

      Well I don't think they could be described as concentration camps, even if life in an internment camp would not have been a bundle of fun for an 11 year old. He did go to school in Oxford, so I would be careful about your assumption until you know the facts (I don't)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The best bit is that he and a few others were able to outlive their tormentors and in many cases help in beating them.

      Having more like him on TV would help STEM and also show that immigration is not the monster some portray.

  16. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Joke

    Helen Sharman to become the first Briton in space.

    has anyone told Tim Peake ?

    1. BebopWeBop Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Helen Sharman to become the first Briton in space.

      Difficult to miss him but she did get there first (if one is obsessed with nationality) - preceded by British born NASA astronauts who decided to emigrate to be eligible.

      1. JimmyPage Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Helen Sharman to become the first Briton in space.

        The ever-affable Jim al Khalili feature her on his "The Life Scientific" a while back. She had to learn Russian in order to participate.

        1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
          Headmaster

          Re: Helen Sharman to become the first Briton in space.

          They all do, especially in current times of the Russian rockets being the only way to get up there. Everything's labelled in Russian, so you need to be able to read it to use it, and of course the launch control is in Russia (or at least Russian speaking territory) so speaking it helps too.

          And Michael Foale also beat Tim Peake as the first male Briton to space (just after Sharman did iirc), but he had dual US/UK nationality and flew as an American as a result. Peake was the first "true" Briton to go up there.

  17. DuchessofDukeStreet
    Pint

    I met him once as part of a schools' Great Egg Race event and he was as mad, exuberant, engaging and clever as his television persona, which reinforced my juvenile interest in attacking things with screwdrivers and asking "why?" and "how?".

    My dad, who was responsible for the greater part of that interest, had met him some years earlier when the Professor had been engaged to deliver an evening lecture to an RAF research team. Unfortunately the Professor had become so engrossed in his conversation with a fellow passenger on his train that he'd missed his stop by over an hour and had to be rescued by a combination of guard and station manager (who phoned the lecture organiser to explain) and returned in the correct direction.

    Strangely enough Dad and I had only been talking about him a few weeks ago whilst I was trying to explain the appeal of Robot Wars. Between Prof Wolff and Tomorrow's World, I miss the time when inspiration came from scientists and engineers...and it was mainstream aspiration. Now everyone just wants to make a dotcom fortune instead...

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hero

    As a young boy I saw him once with his wife having dinner in a restaurant. I was itching to go up and say hello, but didn't (that would have been rude!). And now I can never meet him, and all we have now is memories. Which makes me sad. But such great memories!

    Thanks in part to him I've turned out to be a half competent engineer of various sorts, and I'd liked to have been able to say Thank You. So I'll do that here. Cheers, Heinz!

    Just in case I'll ask to be buried with an egg plus a gadget of some sort to transport it as quickly as possible for the greatest possible distance without breaking it...

  19. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    A British friend tells me he also helped judge "Young Scientists of the Year"

    Dr Wolff, not my British friend.

    So he'd been into the whole "STEM outreach" thing for decades.

    RIP Dr Wolff.

    You did have a pretty good run.

    1. x 7

      Re: A British friend tells me he also helped judge "Young Scientists of the Year"

      "So he'd been into the whole "STEM outreach" thing for decades."

      I just refreshed my memory as to who the judges were the year I took part

      Heinz Wolff

      George Porter

      Ian Fells

      Fred Holliday

      Colin Refrew

      Tony Bradshaw

      Jack Meadows

      hard to think of a more illustrious bunch, all dedicated to teaching STEM subjects at school level.

      They're the kind of people who should have been directing UK educational policy. How the hell as a country did we screw it up so badly?

      1. Clive Harris

        Re: Young Scientists of the Year

        Hey, that brings back some old memories. Were you on "Young Scientists" the same year I was (1975)? I still remember my meetings with Heinz Wolff, Sir George Porter (Nobel prize and don't you forget it!), Patrick Lowther, Paddy Feeney and a few others whose names I've forgotten, up at Pebble Mill.

        I think I've still got that "YS" tie somewhere, the one material thing I got out of the show (apparently the union insisted we got those or otherwise the BBC would have been forced to pay us). I wore the tie for years until people kept asking me why I'd joined the Young Socialists.

        We won our first round and then got knocked out in the finals by a couple of girls who'd discovered an interesting quirk in a common chemical reaction (which impressed Sir George immensely)

        I'm afraid I also assumed that Heinz had "passed on" years ago, but I do remember him as a really nice bloke, who was very nice to us school kids and who played a big part at the start of our scientific careers.

        1. x 7

          Re: Young Scientists of the Year

          A bit later - 1977

          Never got the tie though...rules must have changed by then

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A British friend tells me he also helped judge "Young Scientists of the Year"

        What's the point in allowing second rate journalists to present science and nature programs? True scientists and engineers are much better, more entertaining and educational.

        Science is great and speaks for itself, it isn't meant to be dumbed down politically correct show business. It is fascinating and frustrating which is why Heinz Wolff was so good at it.

  20. CentralCoasty
    Happy

    Am glad the Reg picked up on this - was a bit disappointed to have to read this first in the "main stream" news first.

    Isn't it amazing - that when it comes down to it our role-models in life consist(ed) of a bunch of men with very strange/bad hair-do's. Show's that its what's between the ears that really counts.

  21. JJKing Bronze badge

    What a loss.

    Never knew of the guy and have not seen any of the TV episodes he appeared in but there are teachers and there are educators. This gentleman from what I can gather was an educator. We need loads more people like him to inspire and enthuse the young minds.

    1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: What a loss.

      Not just educator, but entertainer with it.

      He (and a few others of that generation such as Johnny Ball and Magnus Pyke) had the quality to make science a show as well, either fun or at least captivating, so you ended up almost learning stuff without noticing it as you were so wrapped up in the spectacle of it all.

      Certainly an eccentric too, which definitely helped the showman side of things. But your sentiment about needing loads more of them these days is definitely spot on.

  22. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
    Happy

    ...you'll find me in the building named after me

    He seemed very happy to have had one of the campus buildings named after him – to the point of basing his office inside it.

    There is a comment to his obituary in The Guardian by Keir Thorpe...

    "The one memorable phrase that stays with me was 'I'm Heinz Wolff, you'll find me in the building named after me' with a whimsical tone, which both showed how valued he was and also how delightfully self-deprecating."

    https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/dec/17/heinz-wolff-obituary#comment-109837030

  23. Pat Harkin

    I met him once in the late 90s.

    I wanted to talk about The Great Egg Race but as soon as he found out I was a doctor, he just wanted to talk about his new implantable defibrillator, of which he was immensely proud! So we talked my shop rather than his - but I enjoyed it greatly and still remember it clearly.

    A great communicator. Sadly missed.

    1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

      Re: I met him once in the late 90s.

      Didn't he end up being a recipient of one of the implantable defibrillators that he invented?

      1. Nigel...

        Re: I met him once in the late 90s.

        He was a recipient, but he was not the inventor. The inventor was Michel Mirowski

    2. Nigel...

      Re: I met him once in the late 90s.

      I met him when he had it implanted! I was the app support engineer from the company and chatted to him for a few mins before the anaesthetist caused him to stop talking. He said to me "So tell me Mr..., if I lean over the fence and punch my neighbour in the face, can I blame the device?" !

  24. Mooseman Bronze badge

    RIP Mr Wolff

    I met him once many years ago when I was doing lighting for a science and technology awards show on board the SS Great Britain, we filled the hold with smoke and dry ice and fired lasers through it. He waxed lyrical about the properties of the light and talked knowledgably about everything. A really nice bloke too, from my brief meeting with him.

  25. john.w

    I was studying electrical engineering at Brunel when he join the university. He gave a interesting lecture about the perception of aids for the old and disabled. He compared our acceptance of help for the very young or simple tasks like drilling a hole in a wall but rejection of simple aids at the end of our lives. It provide very useful when I needed to persuade my father that he should start using a walking stick and grab rails. A great loss.

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