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Science & Technology

Papers and relics testifying to Stephen Hawking's life's work will be displayed in UK archive

The collection includes a wide variety of items, from Hawking's scientific papers to letters he received from popes and presidents.

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The Papal Medal awarded to Professor Stephen Hawking which has been acquired by the Science Museum Group, in London, May 26, 2021.

Credit:

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

London’s Science Museum and the Cambridge University Library announced last week that they have acquired a large collection of items belonging to the late physicist Stephen Hawking.

Among the artifacts: his personalized wheelchairs, landmark papers on theoretical physics, letters from popes and presidents and scripts from his appearance on “The Simpsons.”

Hawking was a groundbreaking theoretical physicist, renowned for his work on black holes. He also wrote popular books on science and appeared on numerous TV shows.

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Hawking was also known for overcoming adversity after being diagnosed with a motor neuron disease at age 22. He was given just a few years to survive but went on to live until the age of 76. He used a wheelchair and speech synthesizers to communicate.

Now, ephemera and artifacts that showcase the breadth of his life will be housed at the Cambridge University Library in the UK. Hawking occupied the office at the university’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics from 2002 until shortly before his death in 2018.

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Highlights will also go on display at the London Science Museum early next year. Officials are hoping to create a touring exhibition in the UK before setting up a permanent display in London.

Jessica Gardner is a librarian at the Cambridge University Library, and she discussed the importance of the collection with The World's Carol Hills.

Carol Hills: How significant is this collection, and what does it mean to you that it will be housed at Cambridge?

Jessica Gardner: Oh, Carol, I'm absolutely thrilled that the Stephen Hawking archive is coming to the university library of Cambridge. You don't get many of these in a career. And this is an absolute career highlight for me. Of course, we already housed the archives of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin. So, this completes the trinity with Stephen Hawking, of three of the Cambridge scientists, perhaps the best-known scientist in the world who changed how we understand our place in the universe. It Is hard to express how much I'm smiling at the moment.

 

I'd love to ask you about some of the more unusual items in the collection, like when he was on "The Simpsons." Tell me about the television scripts you've collected.

That is such a hilarious episode of "The Simpsons," isn't it? The script actually doesn't contain that wonderful line about the doughnut-shaped universe, so we don't know yet. We'd love to find out more if anyone knows whether that was ad-libbed, or put in later, or even if Stephen Hawking introduced the line himself. But the scripts include from "The Simpsons," from "Star Trek," from "Futurama," and of course, Stephen Hawking's personal scripts from "The Theory of Everything," where he was portrayed so wonderfully, beautifully by Eddie Redmayne, with that cheeky smile that people remember Stephen Hawking having himself.

 

What's one of your favorite items from the archive?

There are so many, and so many more to find. But let me pick out one letter just from 1964, and it's actually from his PhD supervisor when he was at Cambridge in the early part of his studies, and he was just 22 at the minute and had been diagnosed, obviously recently, with motor neuron disease. This is from his PhD supervisor to his father, Frank Hawking. And it's one of those letters that it must have been just a joy to receive as a parent. It's a glowing testimonial celebrating the work that Hawking is undertaking as a doctoral student, and its concluding lines, you know, talk about what a pleasure it is to teach him. And it goes on to say, remember this is his professor. It goes on to say, indeed, we've reached a point where he is teaching me, and I think this is why archives matter. They give you the inside track and the turning points, in this case, in his scientific life.

So, Cambridge University will hold Hawking's papers, and I understand the Science Museum in the UK will reconstruct his office for display, including his wheelchairs. Can you tell us about that?

We are absolutely delighted that the science museum will hold the artifacts from his office and they are, as you say, going to re-create that. So, it really is a collection that, when it's displayed in the Science Museum, will help to tell, not only his scientific story, but, you know, how he worked physically and the technological innovations we use, like, now to all the media and phones we use in a very common way. But of course, it was groundbreaking at the time. And so, he would be one of the early adopters testing things and feeding back to companies who are developing those kind of tools.

Will the papers be available online for scholars or the general public to access?

So, our commitment is to make this as widely available as possible. We know that Stephen Hawking was beloved, not just in Cambridge, not just in the UK, but absolutely around the world. And so, that is our commitment. It'll take us a bit of time, and we will fundraise to help with our efforts. But we will bring, as soon as possible, parts of it to the much wider knowledge of the world that sits at your fingertips on your computer. We actually published his PhD thesis online, openly and freely available to our digital library in 2017, and that went on to break the servers of our library because millions around the world wanted to access it. So, we know there's a thirst, and the real pleasure of being the forever home of this archive is that we can begin to open up and share those highlights with everybody around the world.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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