In a remarkable exercise in academic openness, the University of Cambridge announced today that it has made Stephen Hawking's 1966 PhD thesis freely available online. The work, "Properties of expanding universes," was released with the permission of Dr Hawking through the University's Apollo digital Open Access repository as part of an effort to inspire new research by making such documents more widely accessible.
Our modern civilization is heavily dependent on cutting edge scientific research for its progress, but the dissemination of this 21st century research is still largely stuck in the days of Queen Victoria. Postgraduate students, for example, can labor for many years on their doctoral thesis. In the pre-internet age, the author could become so paranoid as to keep the manuscript in the fridge in the event of fire, only to see their efforts vanish into obscurity on publication.
These days the problem is that all this work, even if an academic triumph, might still end up as obscure as a scroll hidden in a pharaoh's tomb and read about as often, because a thesis with a print run of two dozen copies ranks as a runaway best seller. One would think that the coming of digital technology that allows for literally limitless copies to be distributed at almost zero cost would be the ideal solution, but academia remains remarkably conservative when it comes to access.
To encourage a greater sharing of information and to celebrate Open Access Week 2017, Cambridge University Library's Office of Scholarly Communication selected the Hawking thesis for Open Access from Apollo's 200,000+ digital objects. Written by the then-obscure 24-year old Cambridge physics postgraduate, "Properties of expanding universes" deals with Hawking's application of the physics of black holes as a way of explaining the development of the Universe as a whole after the Big Bang.
Since Dr Hawking's subsequent rise to fame as one of the world's most recognizable living scientists, the thesis has drawn a great deal of attention and even the catalog entry is one of the most requested items in the library. The hope is that by making this work openly available, it will help to persuade other Cambridge alumni, which includes 98 Noel affiliates, to agree to make their papers available for Open Access as well. As of this month, all PhD recipients are required to make a digital version of their theses for preservation and they are encouraged to allow Open Access.
"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," says Hawking. "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 University/New Atlas.
Cambridge University/New Atlas.