Stephen Hawking's office and archive saved for the nation

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Stephen Hawking's office and archive saved for the nation
Tortoiseshell spectacles with analogue sensor © Science Museum Group.

CAMBRIDGE.- In a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition for the nation, a treasure trove of archive papers and personal objects belonging to the late Professor Stephen Hawking – from personalised wheelchairs and scientific bets signed with Hawking's thumbprint to his seminal papers on theoretical physics and his scripts from The Simpsons – have been acquired by two leading UK cultural institutions.

Following a landmark Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) agreement between Cambridge University Library, the Science Museum Group and the UK Government, Hawking’s vast archive of scientific and personal papers will remain in Cambridge at the University Library. The entire contents of Hawking’s office will be preserved as part of the Science Museum Group Collection, with selected highlights going on display at the Science Museum in 2022.

Professor Hawking’s Cambridge archive contains letters dating from 1944-2008, a first draft of A Brief History of Time, film and tv scripts and autograph scientific manuscripts from the early phase of his brilliant career.

Also included is a large collection of photographs, papers and correspondence showing how, from his home in Cambridge, he communicated with Popes, US Presidents and leading scientists of the age, including Nobel Prize winners Kip Thorne and Roger Penrose. Most strikingly, Cambridge’s acquisition of the 10,000 page archive means Professor Hawking’s papers now join those of his idol Sir Isaac Newton, and those of Charles Darwin, bringing together three of the most important scientific archives in history under one roof at Cambridge University Library, where they will be freely accessible to the scientists of tomorrow. As Hawking said when his PhD thesis was digitised and made freely available by the University Library in 2017: ‘Each generation stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before them, just as I did as a young PhD student in Cambridge.’

The remarkable contents of Hawking’s office – including his personal reference library, innovative wheelchairs and communications equipment, medals, memorabilia and even the office furniture – will join the Science Museum Group Collection, helping inspire future generations to, as Hawking once said at the Science Museum, ‘look up at the stars… and wonder about what makes the universe exist’.

Professor Hawking’s office, which he occupied at the University of Cambridge's Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics from 2002 until shortly before his death, provides a striking illustration of the collaborative working style of theoretical physics, Hawking’s scientific celebrity and the solutions which enabled Hawking to work while living with motor neurone disease. Selected highlights from Hawking’s office will go on public view for the first time in a new display at the Science Museum in early 2022. Later next year, global audiences will be able to explore hundreds of remarkable items from Hawking’s working life when this significant acquisition is catalogued, photographed and published to the Science Museum Group's popular online collection.

Announcing the acquisition, Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage said: “Stephen Hawking’s incredible discoveries made an unforgettable impact on the world. The Science Museum and Cambridge University Library are fitting homes for his lifetime of work on the frontier of modern science. Thanks to the generosity of his family, this extraordinary collection can now be displayed to the public where it will inspire curious minds for years to come.”

Stephen Hawking was one of the most renowned scientists of the last century. Beloved by millions across the world for his contributions to science and to popularising science, Hawking’s legacy transcends both scientific and popular culture. His significant achievements are all the more impressive given his decades-long battle with motor neurone disease, which was diagnosed while Hawking was a PhD student at Cambridge University. He was later appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a title also held by Newton), a position he held for three decades. Hawking had a lifelong relationship with the Science Museum, which celebrated his 70th birthday through a popular special exhibit. Hawking had regularly visited the museum since childhood, received a Fellowship for his contributions to science and fondly described the museum as one of his favourite places.

Hawking’s extensive Cambridge archive will be cared for and made available to current and future generations of scientists, continuing his ground-breaking work in theoretical physics and providing future biographers and science historians with an extraordinary gateway and insight into Hawking’s life and work. The University of Cambridge is launching a major fundraising drive to complete the painstaking work of conserving and cataloguing the archive, and to ensure that members of the public are given the same opportunity to engage with the archive through a programme of exhibitions, events and digitisation in the Cambridge Digital Library, where Hawking’s work will be featured side by side alongside Newton and Darwin.

The work to make Professor Hawking’s Cambridge archives available to all follows in the footsteps of the now famous 2017 digitisation of his PhD thesis, which crashed the University Library’s servers following unprecedented global demand to view and download his 1965 Cambridge doctoral research. At the time, Professor Hawking said: ‘Anyone, anywhere in the world should have free, unhindered access to not just my research, but to the research of every great and enquiring mind across the spectrum of human understanding.’

The acquisition of Hawking’s office by the Science Museum Group provides a rare opportunity to preserve an important space of science and technology. While rooms of decorative or artistic interest are often kept for posterity, spaces of science are rarely saved. Hawking’s office, which also represents a unique opportunity to capture the abstract discipline of theoretical physics in material form, joins a very small group of preserved spaces of scientific importance, such as James Watt’s workshop at the Science Museum. By preserving the office and its contents, the public will be able to explore key aspects of Hawking’s life and career as a world-class theoretical physicist, popular communicator of science and as an individual who lived with motor neurone disease for more than five decades.

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