Stephen Hawking’s office and archive gifted to UK to settle tax bill

Scientist’s treasure trove and personal objects to go to Science Museum and Cambridge University Library

A vast treasure trove of papers and personal objects belonging to Stephen Hawking, from dizzying black hole theories to scripts for the Simpsons, have been acquired for the nation.

It was announced on Thursday that Hawking’s archive and the contents of his university office have been acquired through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, which allows families to offset tax.

The acquisition includes letters from popes and presidents, his personalised wheelchairs, Hawking’s original PhD thesis – titled Properties of an Expanding Universe, to Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time – and his favourite portrait by the artist Fred Cuming.

The contents of Hawking’s office will go to the Science Museum, settling £1.4m tax. His archive will go to Cambridge University Library, settling £2.8m tax.

Hawking was one of the world’s best known and most brilliant scientists whose 1988 work on the origins of the universe, A Brief History of Time, sold “about one copy for every 750 man, woman and child in the world”.

He was diagnosed aged 21 as suffering from motor neurone disease. He was given two years to live but survived another 55 years until his death in 2018.

The contents of his office, which he occupied at Cambridge’s department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics from 2002 until shortly before his death in 2018, include his personal reference books, blackboards, coffee maker, medals and Star Trek mementoes.

There are copies of bets he placed with other scientists. One from 1974 saw him betting one year’s subscription to Penthouse against four years to Private Eye that a black hole would not be found in the Cygnus constellation. He lost, but given it was his theory, he also won.

Hawking used a wheelchair from the 1960s and a voice synthesiser from 1986. The museum acquisition includes six of his wheelchairs as well as his innovative communications equipment. They allow the museum to show how the technologies he used evolved from finger-operated clickers to moving his cheek to trigger an infrared sensor on his spectacles.

More left-field objects include the coxing jacket he wore as an undergraduate and refused to have washed after he was thrown into the river wearing it.

The museum said the office joined a very small group of preserved spaces of scientific interest, a list which also includes James Watt’s attic workshop.

Hawking’s papers join those of his idol Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin at Cambridge university library bringing, it said, “together three of the most important scientific archives in history under one roof”. It will become freely accessible “to the scientists of tomorrow”.

The archive includes a blizzard of correspondence including a sweet letter, written when he was six and full of spelling mistakes and crossings out, which reads: “Dear Father, here is a story. Once upon a time some pirates were loading treasure on to a ship. Stephen xoxoxoxo.”

Hawking’s daughter, Lucy, said she did a lot of work with primary schoolchildren “and one thing I always explain to them is that when he was young he wasn’t a prodigy, he was a scruffy little boy with bad handwriting. He got terrible school reports. One of his teachers said ‘this boy will never amount to anything’”.

TV scripts include those from his appearances on The Simpsons, such as his first appearance in the episode They Saved Lisa’s Brain which interestingly does not include one of the best lines delivered by Hawking in Moe’s Tavern. “Your theory of the doughnut shaped universe is intriguing Homer. I may have to steal it.”

“Now we have to find out who wrote it,” said Lucy Hawking. “It was probably dad.”

The Science Museum plans to put on a display of its new objects next year and eventually recreate the office.

The museum’s director, Sir Ian Blatchford, said the acquisition had been a dream of the museum’s for some time. “It feels glorious, there is just so much we can do with this collection.”


Mark Brown Arts corespondent

The GuardianTramp

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