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Stephen Hawking’s PhD Thesis Goes Online, Crashing Internet Servers

After less than a day on the internet, it racked up 60,000 downloads

Stephen Hawking with Isaac Newton's annotated copy of Principia Mathematica (Graham CopeKoga/Cambridge University Library)
smithsonian.com

At midnight on Sunday, Cambridge University celebrated Open Access Week by uploading astrophysicist Stephen Hawking’s 1966 PhD thesis online for the general public. By the afternoon, reports Mattha Busby at The Guardian, there were so many requests for the paper on the university’s Open Access Repository, Apollo, that it overwhelmed the servers.

“We have had a huge response to Prof Hawking’s decision to make his PhD thesis publicly available to download, with almost 60,000 downloads in less than 24 hours,” a university spokesperson said. “As a result, visitors to our Open Access site may find that it is performing slower than usual and may at times be temporarily unavailable.”

As Bill Chappell at NPR reports, the library is offering several PDF downloads of the thesis, including a 72 megabyte high-resolution version as well as smaller versions. Before the thesis was put online, the BBC reports that people had to physically go to the Cambridge library and request the 134-page thesis and pay a fee of about $85 dollars to read or copy the work. Despite this, the thesis is the most requested item in the library, receiving 199 requests since May 2016 while the next most-requested item had just 13 readers.

As the BBC reports, when the library asked Hawking if he’d be willing to make his typed thesis publicly accessible he agreed almost immediately. The release is part of a move by Cambridge to make more academic work—much of which is held behind paywalls or, like Hawking’s thesis, squirreled away in libraries—open to the academic community and public, Chappell reports.

As Hawking states in a press release:

“By making my PhD thesis Open Access, 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. Anyone, anywhere in the world should have free, unhindered access to not just my research, but to the research of every great and enquiring mind across the spectrum of human understanding.

Each generation stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before them, just as I did as a young PhD student in Cambridge, inspired by the work of Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein. It’s wonderful to hear how many people have already shown an interest in downloading my thesis – hopefully they won’t be disappointed now that they finally have access to it!”

Cambridge is hoping that releasing Hawking’s thesis will inspire others to follow suit. The University would like to digitize the theses of all their former students, which include 98 Nobel affiliates, though it is having difficulty getting permission for the project.

So why are so many people interested in Hawking’s thesis? As one of the world’s most famous scientists and subject of the 2014 movie The Theory of Everything, there’s a natural interest in his work. But as Beatrice DuPuy at Newsweek reports, other astrophysicists don't consider the thesis to be his best work.

The document, titled “Properties of expanding universes” examines theories of gravity in galaxy formations, the formation of singularities or black holes and gravitational radiation. Astrophysicist Michael Turner at the University of Chicago tells DuPuy the thesis is a mixed bag. The second chapter, about the development of galaxies, has been proved false. The third chapter, which talks about gravitational waves and the fourth, which includes his first stab at singularity theory, however, are impressive, Turner says, presaging Hawking’s later theoretical work.

"It is also fascinating... to see how somebody like that is thinking and writing before they have found their footing,” Harvard physics professor Andrew Storminger, tells DuPuy. “It is a great thesis but not as great as what he did shortly thereafter.”

There is one big risk of putting a document like this online: the grammar police. They've already spotted a typo in the first paragraph—and are surely on a hunt for more. You can download your own copy here.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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