Stephen Hawking’s Doodle-Filled Blackboard Is on Display for All to Decipher

The equations, cartoons and in-jokes featured here, which date from a conference in 1980, probably won't help us find a "theory of everything"

Stephen Hawking at Work" display, Exploring Space gallery, Science Musuem, London, 2022. Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
The blackboard included in the "Stephen Hawking at Work" display at the Science Museum in London.
Science Museum Group/© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

What was Stephen Hawking thinking? A new exhibit at the Science Museum of London hopes to answer that question by looking at one of his old blackboards.

Hawking, the revered theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author who passed away in 2018, kept a blackboard “smothered with cartoons, doodles and equations” from a conference on superspace and supergravity he arranged in 1980, according to The Guardian.

Are there lost secrets and amazing discoveries amongst these doodles and in-jokes? The best bet to decipher the blackboard might be if any of the attendees from that long-ago event come by and view the exhibit (“Stephen Hawking at Work”) itself, which also features a copy of the physicist’s 1966 PhD thesis, his wheelchair, a small glass apple, a formal bet that information swallowed by a black hole is lost forever and a personalized jacket from the creators of The Simpsons.

Professor Stephen Hawking, poses for photographs in his office at The Centre for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, in central England, 03 September 2007
Professor Stephen Hawking in his office at The Centre for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge in 2007.
Leon Neal/AFP via Getty

As Live Science notes, the blackboard served as a distraction for the conference guests who were attempting to come up with a cosmological “theory of everything.” Amongst the scribbles are half-finished equations, puns and doodles (including Martians and squids), as well as cryptic phrases like “stupor symmetry” and “Exxon supergravity.”

As for the answers potentially held within? “We’ll certainly try and extract their interpretations,” says Juan-Andres Leon, the curator of Hawking’s office, per The Guardian. He adds: “We didn’t want the display to be solemn, all heavy with trombones and swirling galaxies and things like that. We wanted it to be playful. He didn’t take things too seriously and I don’t think he’d have been such a celebrity if he didn’t have that spark of fun about him.”

The Science Museum itself does offer some explanations: “Many of the jokes refer to the name and nationality of the co-organizer Martin Roček; a variety of creatures refer to the group of ‘Vielbein’ mathematical operators, which in German also means ‘many-legs.’ Hence for example an Einbein has one-leg, Vierbein has four, and Achtbein, the most promising for these theories, has eight and appears under different guises.”


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.