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So many people want to read Stephen Hawking’s PhD thesis that they’re crashing the website

Physicist Stephen Hawking sits on stage during an announcement of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative with investor Yuri Milner in New York in 2016. (Lucas Jackson for Reuters)

As soon as physicist Stephen Hawking’s doctoral thesis became available online, thousands of people immediately downloaded it — so much demand that it crashed the website on which Cambridge University had posted it.

It’s not every half-century-old postgraduate scientific research paper that generates intense demand. But this one, in a win for scholarship, physics and knowledge-for-the-sheer-joy-of-knowledge, is sizzling.

“Properties of Expanding Universes,” which Hawking wrote when he was a 24-year-old graduate student in 1965, long before he became one of the world’s most famous scientists, is now available to all, with its faded typewriter keystrokes and scrawled handwriting.

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Or it will be.

“We have had a huge response to Professor Hawking’s decision to make his PhD thesis publicly available to download, with almost 60,000 downloads in less than 24 hours,” Stuart Roberts, a spokesman for the University of Cambridge, said in an emailed statement.

“As a result, visitors to our open access site may find that it is performing slower than usual and may at times be temporarily unavailable.”

Instead of illumination, researchers, students and the simply curious who try to read it on the university’s Apollo open-access digital library are left with this:

This site can’t be reached
The connection was reset.
Checking the connection
Checking the proxy and the firewall
Running Windows Network Diagnostics

All Cambridge PhD students will now be required to submit an electronic copy of their doctoral work for preservation, and the university hopes to encourage many to allow that work to be open-access so that other scholars can build upon it.

They hope graduates will follow Hawking’s lead and allow access to their work, as well.

“Locking research away benefits no one because the only way to advance science and society is through the communication of ideas and knowledge,” said Arthur Smith of the Office of Scholarly Communication at the Cambridge University Library.

“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,” Hawking said in a written statement.

“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!”

The library had been getting many requests to read Hawking’s thesis but couldn’t fulfill them, Smith said, so it asked him whether he would be willing to make his work public.

Within a day, that page on the Apollo website had more than 400,000 views. As the university works to improve the page load time of the repository, which typically handles only a fraction of that traffic daily, Smith reflected, “It’s been a phenomenal 24 hours.”

What else are people clamoring to read?

There’s interest in everything from shuttlecocks to bubbles to manga. The library’s top 10 most-requested theses (after the runaway leader, Hawking’s) are:

Calculation of Unbalanced Magnetic Pull in Cage Induction Machines
Developing a comprehensive technology selection framework for practical application
Young British readers’ engagement with manga
Imperial succession in Tang China, 618-762
Aerodynamics and mechanics of shuttlecocks
Discourse processing during simultaneous interpreting: an expertise approach
Highly loaded compressors
Effects of tunnelling on buried pipes
Angles of friction of granular fills
Dynamics of bubbles, drops, and particles in motion in liquids