Stephen Hawking's Thesis Was Wrong About Galaxies, Right About The Expanding Universe

The University of Cambridge released Stephen Hawking’s doctoral thesis to the public Monday —and physicists say it’s not his best work.

With Hawking’s approval, the university granted access to his 1965 thesis titled "Properties of expanding universes," in celebration of Open Access Week 2017. University officials said they wanted everyone to be able to read Hawking’s graduate student thesis, but they didn't expect their site to crash.

Some astrophysicists like the University of Chicago’s Michael Turner had a chance to take a look. According to him, the paper offers some insight into Hawking’s thinking at the time and some interesting findings.

In Hawking's thesis, it appears that the famed physicist was able to write out his equations and sign his name. Turner told Newsweek Hawking could either still write out the math problems or his wife, Jane, helped him out. Hawking even scratches out a portion of his work in the paper. 

“This dissertation is my own work,” Hawking scrawls in the thesis.

Turner said for most graduate students like Hawking, their best work is not their thesis.

In chapter two of his thesis, Turner said Hawking’s assertions were false. Hawking came to the conclusion that galaxies cannot be formed as a result of a growth of small and initial lumpiness in the destruction of matter. Researchers have found the opposite to be true.

Turner said the faux pas shows Hawking was just a typical graduate student.

“That put him on the mortal side,” Turner said.

Hawking then goes on to make a rebound in chapter three of his thesis, when he accurately asserts findings of gravitational waves in the expanding universe. Turner said his theory proves his status as a powerful mathematician.

But chapter four, Turner said, is where Hawking really makes his mark.

Turner said Hawking ends his thesis by "proving something beautiful." Hawking is able to prove the singularity theory, which was later dubbed the Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems. Hawking was able to show that the universe is expanding, said Turner.

“He can prove that in the past there was a big bang,”  Turner said.

Hawking released his thesis to inspire people to question the universe and have access 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 Ph.D. student in Cambridge, inspired by the work of Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein,” he said in a statement. “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!”

Hawking’s paper is the most requested item in the university's research repository containing 200,000 digital objects. University officials said in a statement that in recent months, they have received hundreds of requests from people wanting to download Hawking’s work.

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

Hawking was diagnosed in 1963 with motor neuron disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which reduces muscle functionality. The impact of the disease on Hawking was portrayed in a movie about Hawking's life, The Theory of Everything.

Join the Discussion