Sunday, January 22, 2012

Stephen Hawking's cosmic curios explained

Sarah Lee / The Science Museum via Reuters

Physicist Stephen Hawking is seen in his office at the University of Cambridge in this photo taken for London's Science Museum in December. The picture is part of a series of photographic portraits commissioned by the Science Museum to celebrate Hawking's 70th birthday on Jan. 8. The pictures are part of an exhibit at the musem celebrating Hawking's life and achievements.

By Alan Boyle

The cosmic curios of the world's best-known physicist went on display today at a London science museum, chronicling the amazing 70 years of Stephen Hawking's life. Over the decades,?the quadriplegic genius has?popped up in so many pop-culture settings that some of those curios require a little explanation.

That's what we found when we?ran?a picture of the professor?in his Cambridge office as the first installment of a "Where in the Cosmos"?series on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. There's such a generous assortment of gewgaws that it's a wonder?Hawking gets anything done.

Stephen Hawking sets the tone for a Science Museum exhibit reviewing his life.

It turns out that the scene was arranged to show off Hawking's stuff for the exhibit at the Science Museum in London. Take the bronze statue on the desk, for example. I was particularly intrigued by the out-of-focus statue because it seemed to hold such a prominent place in the picture.

"I believe the statue is of the pope," Tracey Walters wrote. "But the picture is kinda fuzzy, so?who knows which one?" Others wondered if it was the?theologian Erasmus, or maybe King Midas.

Hawking's longtime executive assistant, Judith Croasdell, straightened out the mystery in an email.

"The statue is the Fonseca Prize which Professor Hawking received in Santiago de Compestela, in 2008," she wrote.?"It normally sits not on Stephen's desk but on the window shelf because it is heavy ? 2 kilograms worth of bronze. Obviously it was put on the desk for the photographers."

A?less weighty?curio is far easier to recognize: It's?a plastic action figure of Hawking as he appeared in an episode of "The Simpsons,"?the animated show that the physicist has called the best thing American television has to offer. The figurine is festooned with the helicopter top and the spring-loaded boxing glove that played their part in the "Simpsons" plot. In the distance, you can just make out a picture on the wall that shows Hawking encountering Maggie Simpson and other characters from the show. Watch this YouTube clip to learn more about Hawking's "Simpsons" connection.

Other items include a little toy computer with sticky notes, a space shuttle model, and a crystal globe. "The crystal globe is a present given by Discovery and shows a map of the world," Croasdell says.?"Carved on the globe are the words 'What is essential is invisible to the eye,' [from]?Saint-Exupery."

There's a?humidifier on his desk that?holds an assortment of seashells. The blackboard you see in the picture above is covered with equations scribbled by his students. Another blackboard in the room, not seen here, that has mathematical in-jokes written on it.

Sarah Lee / Science Museum via Reuters

Another picture commissioned by the Science Museum shows Stephen Hawking with a picture of Marilyn Monroe looming over him.

Another photo of Hawking's office, taken from a different perspective, gives prominent play to?his picture of Marilyn Monroe,?who is one of?the professor's favorite personages from the past. "If I had a time machine, I'd drop in on Marilyn Monroe in her prime," he once mused. The room's walls are covered with flyers as well as photos from Hawking's trips around the world.

To find out more about these items and others in Hawking's office, check out Roger Highfield's profile of the professor in The Telegraph.

The photos are just one little piece of the Science Museum's one-room exhibition: Museumgoers can also see?pictures of?Hawking before his struggle with motor neuron disease, as well as mementos that touch upon the highlights of his long career. The Science Museum's inventor in residence, Mark Champkins, created a "Black Hole Light" in Hawking's honor that?uses a swirl of?neon tubing to evoke the path photons would take as they fell into a black hole.

Here's a sampling of the sights:

Alastair Grant / AP

The Science Museum displays a selection of books and papers by British physicist Stephen Hawking. His best-known work, "A Brief History of Time," has been translated into more than 30 languages.

Alastair Grant / AP

A diagram by British physicist Stephen Hawking, titled "Black Hole and Unpredictability," is one of the papers on display at the Science Museum.

Alastair Grant / AP

A marked script from a "Simpsons" episode that aired in 1999 highlights Stephen Hawking's lines, including this one: "Silence! I don't need anyone to talk for me except this voicebox." The Stephen Hawking action figure has a helicopter-style wheelchair and a boxing glove, just like the character on the show.

Next on 'Where in the Cosmos':

Today's "Where in the Cosmos" picture puzzle focuses on a far-out subject that's been the subject of research recently. I haven't written anything about it yet, but next week I'll fill you in on what the picture shows and why it's significant. Chances are that some Cosmic Log correspondents will figure it out well before next week. To join the conversation, check out the "Where in the Cosmos" posting on the Cosmic Log Facebook page.

More about Stephen Hawking's life and work:

The exhibit celebrating Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday runs through April 9 at the Science Museum in London.

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.


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