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A window into Hawking’s mind

THE WASHINGTON POST – An exhibition will give visitors rare insight into the workings of the mind and office surroundings of renowned British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

A copy of Hawking’s PhD thesis, his wheelchair and specially adapted glasses will go on display for the first time, along with one of his most treasured office possessions – a blackboard filled with academic doodles and jokes.

The ‘Stephen Hawking at Work’ free exhibition opened at the Science Museum in Britain’s capital recently, displaying notable items from his office, where much of his research took place.

Hawking, who lived with a debilitating motor neuron disease for decades, helped bring advanced science into popular culture and met with world leaders, becoming a household name internationally before he died in 2018 at age 76.

Hawking’s daughter, Lucy, said it was “wonderful to see my father’s working environment recreated”.

“It was such a unique and fascinating environment, and I am delighted his office has been recreated in order to inspire scientists of the future,” she said in a statement.

One of Stephen Hawking’s most treasured office possessions – a blackboard filled with academic doodles and jokes. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The blackboard in the exhibit illustrates Hawking’s playful sense of humour and was used during a ‘Superspace and Supergravity’ conference in 1980. Delegates covered it in equations, cartoons and jokes about one another. Hawking had the souvenir framed and hung in his office.

Because even small vibrations could cause the blackboard to lose chalk, Juan-Andres Leon, curator of Stephen Hawking’s Office, said in an email, “the museum applied a starch-based material to stabilise the chalk dust and enclosed it in a frame.”

The Science Museum said the items “provide insights into a scientist who challenged perceptions of theoretical physics with a playful, imaginative and social approach to work.”

The Cambridge University professor probed the greatest mysteries of the cosmos and became a globally celebrated symbol of the power of the human mind.

Hawking had suffered since the age of 21 from a degenerative disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, that left him unable to move nearly any of his muscles or speak. Initially given two years to live, a diagnosis that threw him into a profound depression, he completed his doctorate and rose to the position of Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge – the same post held by Isaac Newton 300 years earlier.

His life was the basis of the award-winning movie The Theory of Everything in 2014, with Eddie Redmayne playing the young Hawking alongside Felicity Jones as his first wife, Jane. Hawking also played himself on TV programmes, speaking with the aid of a voice synthesiser controlled by his fingers on a keyboard. He was featured in shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons, the latter featuring Hawking telling the show’s lazy animated patriarch: “Your theory of a doughnut-shaped universe is interesting, Homer. I may have to steal it.”

Hawking spent much of his career searching for a way to reconcile Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum physics and produce a “theory of everything.” His scientific achievements included breakthroughs in understanding the extreme conditions of black holes, objects so dense that not even light can escape their gravity.

Although he never won a Nobel Prize, he wrote an international bestseller, A Brief History of Time (1988), that delved into the origin and ultimate fate of the universe, deliberately setting out to provide a mass-market primer on an often incomprehensible subject.

Britain’s Culture Minister, Nadine Dorries, welcomed the exhibition and called it an “exciting new display… honouring one of the greatest British scientists ever to have lived.” She added that she hoped the items would “inspire a new generation of thinkers and scientists.”

The exhibition also contains one of only five known copies of Hawking’s PhD thesis, which examined possible solutions to Einstein’s equations of general relativity to demonstrate that the universe must have originated in a singularity, or single point of infinite density.

After London, the exhibition will go on tour to other cities in the United Kingdom including Manchester, Bradford and York.

Global audiences will be able to explore the items from Hawking’s working life in an online collection later this year, the museum said.


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