Letters From a Science Giant

$300K Sale of Hawking Correspondence Funds Gravitational Physics Endowment
by Chris Carroll | Letters photo by John T. Consoli; Hawking photo by Terry Smith/Getty Images; Misner photo courtesy of University Archives

“Dear Charlie,” each letter begins.

They go on to talk about kids, explore recent theories and even ask about reimbursement for a trip to the University of Maryland. Job references are also a big topic—typical for correspondence between two academics.

Far from typical was who penned them: Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who became a popular author and international symbol of perseverance in the face of his crippling Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hawking died in March 2018.

The letters—donated by their recipient, UMD physics Professor Emeritus Charles Misner—were sold in May in a Christie’s online auction, and the nearly $300,000 in proceeds founded an endowment to support research in gravitational physics, in which both Hawking and Misner specialized.

Hawking wrote the letters between 1967 and 1970. The two hit it off while the American scientist was on a fellowship at the University of Cambridge. Soon after, Hawking stayed at Misner’s home while visiting UMD, where Misner’s research group was immersed in the theoretical study of gravitation, and UMD physics Professor Joseph Weber was leading a charge to experimentally detect gravitational waves in space-time.

Last year, when the Department of Physics was seeking funds for a memorial to Weber—who failed in his career-long quest, but laid the critical groundwork for a later experiment that would succeed—Misner remembered the letters. In his overstuffed office, departmental staff finally turned up the four used to found the Weber Endowment for Gravitational Physics.


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