Science

More than 50 years on: Stephen Hawking’s doctoral thesis finally available online

Stephen Hawking’s dissertation—now accessible to the public via the internet—laid the foundation for his scientific career.

Despite not yet having received a Nobel Prize, Hawking is by far the most world-renowned scientist still alive today. There is a waxwork figure of him at Madame Tussauds, and he has made guest appearances on television series such as “The Big Bang Theory” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. His 1988 popular-science book “A Brief History of Time” has been translated into 40 languages, has sold around ten million copies and was on the Sunday Times bestseller list for 237 weeks – longer than any other book. In short: astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is a superstar.

Now there is some good news for anyone interested in his early work: to mark its “Open Access Week”, the University of Cambridge has made the doctoral thesis of the now 75-year-old available for the first time after more than 50 years via its open-access repository, where you can view and even download it for free. Providing, of course, that the technology will allow you to do so. Within just a few hours of it being made available, the dissertation was accessed 60,000 times. At times, demand was so great that the website became completely overloaded and crashed.

Online Access to doctoral theses to be obligatory at Cambridge

How many of the visitors to the online archive really read and understood the contents of the 134-page thesis entitled “Properties of Expanding Universes”, only the stars know. The dissertation–on theoretical astronomy and cosmology–is no easy read. It concerns the question of how the universe was created and what the consequences of its expansion will be for its future evolution.

Making Hawking’s doctoral thesis accessible to all is likely a result of a trend toward open source publications seen in recent years. In doing so, Cambridge intends to encourage other scientists to make the fruit of their own labour accessible for free on the university’s online archive.

Hawking – a pioneer of freely available knowledge

As Hawking himself explained when the thesis was made accessible, “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.” “Each generation stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before them,” he said, just as he did as a young PhD student, inspired by the work of Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein. He now hopes to inspire people to look up at the stars and not down at their feet, so that they “wonder about our place in the universe and to try make sense of the cosmos”.

When the still-active researcher submitted his dissertation back in 1966 at the age of only 24, the tell-tale signs of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), the incurable disease which affects muscles and nerves, were already clearly noticeable. Hawking has used a wheelchair since the end of the 1960s, and since the 1980s has only been able to communicate with the aid of a computerised voice system. Lama Nachman, a principal engineer at Intel, has played a key role in ensuring that Hawking stays in contact with the outside world. Lastly, the scientist took the opportunity to express his wish, with characteristic British self-deprecation, that no one would be disappointed with the doctoral thesis now that they finally have access to it.

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