Auckland physicist on his lunch with the late Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking died on Wednesday at the age of 76.

The iconic British physicist was revered by those in his field, including a New Zealand physicist who actually met the man himself.

Richard Easther, head of physics at the University of Auckland, met Professor Hawking for lunch several times, which he describes as an "interesting experience".

"In many ways it was like meeting any other colleague for lunch," he told The Project.

"Stephen... would have to form words on a computer, so the conversation would kind of ping between several people and he'd chime in with something that had happened previously.

"You'd move back to that and sort of bounce around."

He says Professor Hawking was renowned not only for his intelligence, but for his infectious personality and sense of humour.

"There was a kind of realness about him, and I think people connected to that as much as anything else."

Mr Easther says the late Hawking was one of the greats in his field, and has a profound impact not just on science but on the entire world.

"He was one of the most brilliant people who's thought about the deep ideas we have about gravity. He changed the way that we understand the universe."

He thinks Professor Hawking's greatest contribution was finding connections between quantum mechanics, gravity and thermodynamics, and how they relate to black holes.

"He was the person who pried the lid off that tin and showed us we should look inside. If you understand that, you really understand everything."

So was there anything Professor Hawking didn't know?

"His great ambition in life was to find a so-called theory of everything - one simple set of equations that you could literally write on a t-shirt that would explain everything in the universe.

"He spent most of his career on the trail of that and so far we're still unable to find it, so that was definitely something that he didn't know and would very much have liked to find out."

Other prominent New Zealand scientists have also paid tribute to the late icon, such as Canterbury University professor Roy Kerr, who described Hawking's "incredible strength of spirit and character".

"I first met him when he was around 25. At that time he walked with difficulty and his diagnosis was poor and he was given only a few more years to live.

"Fifty years later, he was still working with help and retained his quirky sense of humour.

"My wife and I had dinner with him at his home in May last year and came away marvelling at his sheer positivity. He was never a victim."