The life and time travel of Stephen Hawking in 10 extraordinary objects
From his PhD thesis to a script for The Simpsons, his most important papers to his earliest wheelchair — a unique collection of artefacts from the estate of the celebrated theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author
Stephen Hawking once mischievously responded to someone who asked if he had the equations for time travel, ‘I do not… If I had, I would win the National Lottery every week’. Nevertheless, his remarkable scientific career showed his ability to make extraordinary intellectual leaps across time and space, establishing a body of work which, in the words of his scientific colleague Max Tegmark, ‘is going to be guiding our research for years to come’.
Hawking always saw his work in terms of the continuity with the great scientists of the past, and Christie’s is honoured to present a selection of lots from his estate alongside manuscripts, letters and offprints of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, the scientists to whom he arguably felt the greatest affinity.
After a remarkable 55-year battle against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Stephen Hawking died on 14 March 2018. For physicists, 14 March is no ordinary date: it is not only international Pi Day (because in month/day format it forms the first three digits of the mathematical constant π – 3/14) – but also Albert Einstein’s birthday. You would almost think he had planned it: perhaps Hawking did know how to play tricks with time after all.
1. Hawking’s PhD thesis
When Cambridge University made Hawking’s 1965 PhD thesis, ’Properties of Expanding Universes’, available online in 2017, demand was so great that it crashed the website.
After the crushing news of his diagnosis with ALS in his first post-graduate year at Cambridge, Hawking was initially given only two years to live, and all but abandoned his studies. His renewed work on his thesis, coinciding with his marriage to Jane Wilde, was effectively his declaration of confidence in the future.
Writing was already becoming more difficult for Hawking at this date, so it was Jane who typed up the thesis and painstakingly added the many mathematical equations by hand. The present photostatic copy, one of only five known to exist, is signed by Hawking and includes an equation added in his own hand.
2. ‘Singularities and the geometry of space-time'
1966 was a year of successes for Hawking: his PhD was approved, he was awarded a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, and he won one of the most prestigious university awards, the Adams Prize, with this essay.
The essay focuses on what was to be his abiding preoccupation: how the laws of physics operate in and around black holes, and the way in which the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics intersect to explain these behaviours. This was also to be the subject of Hawking’s final paper, ‘Blake Hole Entropy and Soft Hair’, published in October 2018, six months after his death.
3. ‘Black hole explosions?’
Stephen Hawking is, above all, associated with the physics of black holes. In this article in Nature in March 1974, he announced that contrary to all previous scientific consensus, black holes would release blackbody radiation, now known as Hawking Radiation.
4. ‘Fundamental Breakdown of Physics in Gravitational Collapse’
In this important 1975 paper, Hawking pointed out the startling paradox that according to general relativity information could be lost in black holes, in violation of the basic principles of quantum mechanics. This ‘information paradox’ preoccupied him for the rest of his life, and was the subject of his final, posthumous paper.
5. ‘Wave function of the universe’
One of Hawking’s most famous papers, ‘Wave function of the universe’, describes what became known as the ‘no-boundary proposal’. Hawking and his co-author James Hartle argued that the universe has no boundary in time in much the same way that the Earth has no edge: time simply loses meaning before the Big Bang, in the same way that you can’t get any farther south than the South Pole.
‘I sat there a long time,’ reported Hawking of his reception for Time Travellers at Cambridge University, ‘but no one came’
6. A Brief History of Time
It was in 1983 that Hawking first suggested the idea of a popular work on cosmology, which would explain modern physics and astronomy in non-specialist terms to a popular readership. In the event, the book took five years to complete, not least because of the warning from his editor that for every equation in the book, the readership would be halved (in the end it includes only one: E = mc2).
The book has since sold more than 10 million copies, and in many ways set the parameters for public perceptions of science. This edition is ‘signed’ with a thumbprint.
7. Stephen Hawking’s invitation to time travellers
With his characteristic ability to combine a scientific experiment with a celebration, Hawking threw a lavish party on 28 June 2009 for the benefit of time travellers, with the invitation, logically enough, being issued after the party had been held (‘No RSVP required’). If any time travellers did ever see the invitation, they didn’t show up. ‘I sat there a long time,’ reported Hawking, ‘but no one came’.
8. Script for The Simpsons, ‘Elementary School Musical’
Stephen Hawking made four appearances in The Simpsons over a period of 10 years, something he joked made him more famous than anything he had done in science. A small plastic model of his yellow Simpsons incarnation had pride of place in his house. This particular episode was aired on 26 September, 2010.
9. A collection of Hawking’s medals and awards
Since 1975 when he was awarded the Eddington Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society, Hawking has been highly decorated for his outstanding contributions to science. The large amount of gold present in his medal collection necessitated it being stored in a bank vault.
When our Christie’s specialist first inspected the impressive and extensive collection — from which these seven have been specially selected — he was rather surprised to find a Chicago Blackhawks ice hockey puck in amongst them. Upon asking Professor Hawking why it was there, it was explained that he had always wanted to drop the puck at a face-off, and the Blackhawks gave him the opportunity.
Given its shape, size, and personal importance, the bank vault seemed the most appropriate place to keep it.
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10. Hawking’s earliest surviving wheelchair
Hawking initially resisted the idea of using a wheelchair in the late 1960s; by the late 1970s, he was using motorised models like the present example, and was even renowned for being a rather wild driver.
By the late 1980s he was at the height of his fame, and given his extensive travels to conferences and public events, as well as the scope of his intellectual explorations of space-time, this is arguably both literally and metaphorically the most-travelled wheelchair in history. The proceeds from the sale of this wheelchair will be donated to the Motor Neurone Disease Association and The Stephen Hawking Foundation.