On Monday, 23rd October, science legend Stephen Hawking’s PhD thesis was uploaded online, all for free. The deluge of enthusiasts trying to read the 1966 document ended up crashing the publications section of Cambridge University’s website. In the few days since it was published online, it became the most accessed research paper on the university’s website, possibly in the world.

Hawking's PhD first page.

The opening page of Stephen Hawking’s PhD.
Image credits Cambridge University / Stephen Hawking.

While studying at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1966, a young, 24-year-old Prof Hawking wrote 134 pages for a document that was to serve as his PhD thesis. Titled “Properties of expanding universes,” you’d rightfully expect it to be a dense body of work and one that likely wouldn’t ever be a hit with the public at large. So until now, it could be read at the university’s library (either physically or through a scanned copy), for anyone willing to shell out a £65 (US$86 or €74) fee.

The thesis proved to be the most sought-after item in the library, however. Since May 2016, roughly 200 requests were made for the PhD, the majority of which was believed to come from the general public, not academics. The next most-requested document amassed just 13 requests.

So on Monday, October 23, the university’s library dutifully transferred the document to the publications section of Cambridge University’s website — expecting perhaps a few hundred or thousand hits.

Blazing glory

It proved so popular, however, that the publication section crashed on the day of its release, strained by the sheer number of people trying to access it. Mere days after going live, the PhD paper was viewed more than two million times by about 800,000 unique browsers “from every corner of the globe”, and more than half a million people tried to download it, faculty revealed.

Dr Arthur Smith, acing joint deputy head of scholarly communication at Cambridge, calls the figures “monumental”.

“This is far and away the most accessed item we have in the university’s Apollo repository,” he said.

“I’d hazard a guess that Prof Hawking’s PhD thesis is also the most accessed item from any research repository ever. We’ve never seen numbers like this before.”

The next most read PhD thesis has received just 7,960 downloads in the whole of 2017.

Stephen Hawking was born on the 8th of January 1942 in Oxford, England. In 1959 he had earned a place at the Oxford University, and would later continue his PhD studies at Cambridge.

By 1963, he had been diagnosed with a rare early-onset, slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a condition that would eventually completely destroy his ability to perform any type of voluntary motion. He was given two years to live.

In 1973, he started studying quantum mechanics. By 1974, he expanded on the singularity theorem whose foundation he laid out in his doctoral thesis. This included not only the existence of singularities but also the idea that the universe might have started out as a singularity. He also outlined the theory of the Hawking–Zel’dovich radiation during this year, one of the cornerstones of our understanding of black holes.

In 1988, he published A Brief History of Time, arguably one of the most influential popular-science books ever written, selling over 10 million copies worldwide.

When asked whether he’d want to make this PhD freely available, he agreed almost immediately, recounts Dr Lauren Cadwallader, acting joint deputy head of scholarly communications at Cambridge University.

Prof. Hawking said he hopes the decision to make his thesis freely and widely available will help “inspire people.”

“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,” he added.

“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!”

Dr Cadwallader adds that she hopes it would be a “great example for academics writing their theses now that maybe in 51 years’ time they’ll be having theirs still read”. The University is now trying to encourage some of its other former academics to make their work public, just like Prof. Hawking.