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Explore incredible objects from Stephen Hawking’s office at the Science Museum

  • Marking what would have been Professor Stephen Hawking’s 80th birthday, the Science Museum Group has announced a new display, Stephen Hawking at Work, exploring the working life of the world-renowned theoretical physicist;
  • Opening on 10 February at the Science Museum, the display will include notable items from Hawking’s office, where much of his research on theoretical physics took place;
  • Highlight objects on display for the first time include a rare copy of Hawking’s PhD thesis, his wheelchair and one of Hawking’s most treasured office possession—a blackboard filled with academic doodles and jokes;
  • Stephen Hawking at Work will go on to tour the Science Museum Group’s museums, opening next at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester in summer 2022.
© Sarah Lee
Professor Stephen Hawking in his office at the University of Cambridge

Stephen Hawking at Work
10 February – 12 June 2022
Free
sciencemuseum.org.uk/stephen-hawking

Today, on what would have been Professor Stephen Hawking’s 80th birthday, the Science Museum Group has announced a new temporary display, Stephen Hawking at Work, which will explore Hawking’s remarkable life as a scientist, science communicator, and as a person who lived with motor neurone disease. Opening on Thursday 10 February at the Science Museum, the display will feature significant objects from Hawking’s office, the extraordinary contents of which were acquired for the nation by the Science Museum Group in May 2021 through the UK Government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme. These important items will provide insights into a scientist who challenged perceptions of theoretical physics with a playful, imaginative and social approach to work.

In Stephen Hawking at Work, visitors can see Hawking’s rare PhD thesis, his spectacles adapted to aid communication and even an invitation to the time travellers’ party Hawking hosted. Visitors across the country will be able to study these fascinating items up close for the first time as the display embarks on a tour of the Science Museum Group’s museums, opening next at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester later this summer. The display is expected to tour the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, the National Railway Museum in York and Locomotion in Shildon, County Durham, during 2023 and 2024. Global audiences will be able to explore hundreds of remarkable items from Hawking’s working life as this significant acquisition is catalogued, photographed and published to the Science Museum Group's popular online collection in 2022.

Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries said: ‘I am thrilled the Science Museum Group, in its exciting new display, will be honouring the birthday of one of the greatest British scientists ever to have lived. 

Our Acceptance in Lieu Scheme exists exactly so that works of national importance can be saved for the nation, and it’s fantastic that these objects will now go on public display across the country to inspire a new generation of thinkers and scientists.’

As a scientist, Hawking took a playful approach to collaboration. This is exemplified through one of Hawking’s most treasured possessions: a doodle-covered blackboard from the Superspace and Supergravity conference in 1980. Delegates covered the blackboard in equations, cartoons and jokes about each other. Hawking had this souvenir framed and hung in his office and now, forty years later, the Science Museum’s conservators have stabilised the chalk dust so it can continue to be enjoyed by those who see it.  

Hawking’s sense of humour is further illustrated by one of his favourite pastimes, making bets with his peers on scientific debates. Perhaps the most famous is the Black Hole Information Paradox bet he made with Kip Thorne and John Preskill and visitors can see the wager Hawking signed with his thumbprint.

The display will also contain one of only five known copies of Hawking’s PhD thesis. This significant thesis examined possible solutions to Einstein’s equations of general relativity to demonstrate that the universe must have originated in a singularity, a single point of infinite density. The thesis also provides an early example of Hawking’s clear writing style when dealing with complex ideas - a style which ultimately enabled him to become a compelling communicator of science.

Black Hole Information Paradox bet and a copy of Hawking's thesis © Science Museum Group
Black Hole Information Paradox bet (left) and One of five known copies of Hawking’s PhD thesis (right)

Sir Ian Blatchford, Director and Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group, said: ‘Stephen Hawking had a lifelong relationship with the Science Museum—from visiting as a child to receiving a museum Fellowship for his contributions to science—so I’m thrilled we are placing objects from his office, a hub of scientific debate and discovery, on display for the first time. These remarkable items will go on to tour the Science Museum Group, enabling visitors across the country to be inspired by and gain insights into one of the greatest scientists of our age.’

From his bestselling books to his unmissable cameos in popular television shows, Hawking used a huge breadth of channels to inspire and advocate for making complex scientific theories accessible to the wider public. On display in Stephen Hawking at Work will be a photograph from the set of Hawking’s guest appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the episode, Hawking—the only person to play themselves in the Star Trek universe—joins a game of poker as a hologram with Lt Commander Data (Brent Spiner), Isaac Newton (John Neville) and Albert Einstein (Jim Norton).

Hawking believed in the importance of debate and discussing topics with others who might disagree. His readiness to engage in discussions and understand the viewpoints of others is symbolised by the insignia given to him in 1986 on becoming a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which will also be on display. The medal is a reminder of Hawking’s ability to inspire communities far beyond the world of theoretical physics.

Steel case for voice synthesizer box used by Stephen Hawking and detail view © Science Museum Group
Steel case for voice synthesizer box used by Stephen Hawking (left) close-up of synthesizer box (right)

Stephen Hawking at Work also explores Hawking’s experience of motor neurone disease. Initially given a two-year prognosis when diagnosed, Hawking lived with the disease for more than five decades. From the late 1960s he used a wheelchair and from 1986 Hawking used a voice synthesiser after an emergency tracheotomy meant he could no longer speak. On display will be the latest generation of wheelchair used by Hawking: the Permobil F3 model. Jonathan Wood, Hawking’s graduate assistant, noted it was far more than just a wheelchair - it was also his voice, how he communicated his ideas to the world, his ventilation support and his mobile office.

Hawking’s innovative communication systems demonstrate how technology was adapted to accommodate changing needs over the course of his life. Visitors will see Hawking’s earliest voice synthesiser, adapted to hang on the back of his wheelchair and his spectacles which had an analogue cheek sensor to control his voice software.

 

ENDS

Notes to Editors

For more information, please contact Chloë Abley in the Press Office on 020 7942 4886 or Chloe.Abley@ScienceMuseum.ac.uk. You can download high-res images for the announcement here.

Following a landmark Acceptance in Lieu agreement between Cambridge University Library, the Science Museum Group and the UK Government in May 2021, the entire contents of Hawking’s office have been preserved as part of the Science Museum Group Collection, with Hawking’s vast archive of scientific and personal papers remaining at Cambridge University Library.

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.

The remarkable contents of Hawking’s office—including his personal reference library, innovative wheelchairs and communications equipment, medals, memorabilia and even the office furniture—are now cared for by the Science Museum Group. Audiences across the globe will soon be able to explore these significant items as they are catalogued, photographed and published to the Science Museum Group's popular online collection during 2022. Further information this significant acquisition can be found here.  

Visitor information

The Science Museum is open Wednesday - Sunday from 10.00 until 18.00. During school holidays the museum is open seven days a week.

Stephen Hawking at Work
10 February – 12 June 2022
Science Museum, London
Free
sciencemuseum.org.uk/stephen-hawking

About the Science Museum

The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group, the world’s leading group of science museums that share a world-class collection providing an enduring record of scientific, technological and medical achievements from across the globe. Over the last century the Science Museum, the home of human ingenuity, has grown in scale and scope, inspiring visitors with exhibitions covering topics as diverse as robots, code-breaking, cosmonauts and superbugs. 2020 marked a decade of transformation for the museum with the opening of the largest medical galleries in the world – Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries and Science City 1550–1800: The Linbury Gallery – the story of how London became a hub of discovery during 1550-1800. The Science Museum was named a winner of the prestigious Art Fund Museum of the Year prize for 2020. www.sciencemuseum.org.uk Twitter: @sciencemuseum

About the Science Museum Group

The Science Museum Group is the world’s leading group of science museums, welcoming over five million visitors each year to five sites: the Science Museum in London; the National Railway Museum in York; the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester; the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford; and Locomotion in Shildon. We share the stories of innovations and people that shaped our world and are transforming the future, constantly reinterpreting our astonishingly diverse collection of 7.3 million items spanning science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Standout objects include the record-breaking locomotive Flying Scotsman, Richard Arkwright’s textile machinery, Alan Turing’s Pilot ACE computer and the earliest surviving recording of British television. Our mission is to inspire futures - igniting curiosity among people of all ages and backgrounds. Each year, our museums attract more than 600,000 visits by education groups, while our touring exhibition programme brings our creativity and scholarship to audiences across the globe. More information can be found at sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk.   

The contents of Stephen Hawking’s office and his archive, accepted from the Estate of Stephen Hawking, settled £1.4 million and £2.8 million of tax respectively.

The Acceptance in Lieu scheme is administered by the Arts Council. The Acceptance in Lieu Panel, chaired by Edward Harley OBE, advises on whether property offered in lieu is of suitable importance and offered at a value which is fair to both nation and taxpayer. AIL allows those who have a bill to Inheritance Tax to pay the tax by transferring important cultural, scientific or historic objects to the nation. Material accepted under the scheme is allocated to public collections and is available for all. In the last decade this important government initiative has brought over £461m worth of treasures into public ownership for the enjoyment of all – see more at: www.artscouncil.org.uk/tax-incentives/acceptance-lieu#section-1

About Discover South Kensington

Discover South Kensington brings together the Science Museum and other leading cultural and educational organisations to promote innovation and learning. South Kensington is the home of science, arts and inspiration. Discovery is at the core of what happens here and there is so much to explore every day. discoversouthken.com