Now digitally accessible to the public through the University of Cambridge, Stephen Hawking’s doctoral thesis laid the foundation for his scientific career.
Within just a few hours of going live to the public in October 2017, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s 1966 doctoral thesis “Properties of Expanding Universes” was accessed 60,000 times, becoming the most viewed document in the University of Cambridge’s Apollo digital repository.
At times, demand was so great that the site crashed. Since October, the dissertation has been viewed nearly 682,000 times, according to the Cambridge research repository.
“Anyone, anywhere in the world should have free, unhindered access to not just my research, but to the research of every great and inquiring mind across the spectrum of human understanding,” said Hawking in a statement released by the university.
The interest in Hawking’s early groundbreaking work is no surprise.
His 1988 popular science book A Brief History of Time was translated into 40 languages, selling more than 9 million copies and holding court on the Sunday Times bestseller list for 237 weeks — longer than any other book.
Hawking’s popularity extends beyond science into pop culture — from a wax figure at Madame Tussauds in London to guest appearances on television series such as The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek: The Next Generation. His life was even chronicled in the film The Theory of Everything.
With the online publication of Hawking’s thesis, Cambridge hopes to encourage its former academics — which include 98 Nobel Prize-winning affiliates — to make their work freely available through the university’s Apollo repository.
“Open access enables research,” said Arthur Smith, deputy head of Cambridge’s Office of Scholarly Communication.
“By eliminating the barriers between people and knowledge, we can realize new breakthroughs in all areas of science, medicine and technology.”
Making a Big Bang
The dissertation on theoretical astronomy and cosmology is no easy read. It asks the questions: How was the universe created and what are the consequences of its expansion?
A then unknown 24-year-old Cambridge postgraduate, Hawking hypothesized that the Big Bang theory was physically possible, showing that the universe began from a single point, expanding into today’s cosmos.
When Hawking’s doctoral work was accepted in 1966, he was already experiencing signs of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which results in the progressive death of the nerves that control muscles. When Hawking was diagnosed with the motor neurone disease at age 21, doctors gave him a life expectancy of just two years.
Now age 76, the physicist has used a wheelchair for more than 50 years. As his disease progressed, his speech and motor skills deteriorated. Since the mid-1980s, he’s been communicating with the aid of a computerized voice system, speaking with his trademark synthesized voice.
Hawking met Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1997 and now relies on Intel engineers to fine tune his customized PCs. His computer system is a critical communication tool — allowing him to speak through his speech synthesizer, type up his breakthrough ideas and even search the web.
Lama Nachman, an Intel Fellow and director of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Lab, plays a key role in ensuring that Hawking can communicate with the world. She continues to tweak the system periodically to provide Hawking with more capabilities as his condition changes.
[Read: Lama Nachman Keeps Stephen Hawking Talking with Assistive Tech]
“There are projects that we do because we love the research and we’re inspired by the research,” said Nachman. “Then there are projects that we do because they feed our souls, and that’s one of those types of projects.”
Still Breaking New Ground
As the director of research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) and founder of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology (CTC) at Cambridge, Hawking continues his groundbreaking work studying black holes and relativity.
With the digital publication of his doctoral thesis, Hawking shared through the university that he believes that each generation stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before them, just as he did as a young Ph.D. student in Cambridge, inspired by the work of Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein.
“I hope to inspire people around the world to look up at the stars and not down at their feet, to wonder about our place in the universe and to try and make sense of the cosmos.”
Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared on the iQ by Intel UK site.