Significant people: looking up at the stars with Stephen Hawking

Learning objectives

  1. Discover why Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton are significant.
  1. Use portrait elements, such as expression, pose, clothing and background to reveal useful information about people.
  1. Compare portraits to discover the differences and similarities between people in the past and the present.
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    Stephen Hawking,    by David Gamble,    1988,    NPG P632,    © David Gamble
Stephen Hawking
by David Gamble
colour print, 1988
14 in. x 11 1/8 in. (356 mm x 283 mm) uneven
NPG P632
© David Gamble

What can you see when you look up at the night sky?

Have you ever wondered about the moon, the stars and the planets?

This is a portrait of the scientist Stephen Hawking. He is remembered for having brilliant ideas about space, and for helping us understand complicated ideas about our mysterious universe and how it all began.

Look closer

What can this portrait tell us about Stephen Hawking?

Look closely at this portrait for a whole minute (you may want to use a timer). Remember to look in all four corners and around the edges.

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    Stephen Hawking,    by David Gamble,    1988,    NPG P632,    © David Gamble
Stephen Hawking, by David Gamble, 1988
    • A smart, dark-coloured jacket and trousers and a white shirt with a checked pattern.
    • A chalkboard with numbers and mathematical equations written on it.
    • Stephen needed to be good at maths to work out the difficult scientific problems he was trying to solve about the universe.
    • He was so good at maths that he became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge – one of the most important jobs at one of the most famous universities in the world.
    • An upside-down photograph of Albert Einstein (another very famous scientist) is stuck to the top of the chalkboard. Why do you think it’s upside down?
    • There is another photograph stuck to the bottom of the chalkboard. Although we can’t see it properly, we know this is a photograph of Isaac Newton (yet another very famous scientist). We will find out more about him a little later on.
    • Perhaps the photographer is trying to say that Stephen Hawking is a brilliant scientist – just like Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.
    • We can see a picture of the Earth in space. The picture also shows the surface of the moon.
    • This might be to remind us that Stephen’s work is all about outer space and the universe.
    • He’s at work, at the University of Cambridge.
    • We can tell this because he’s wearing smart work clothes.
    • It also looks like he’s been busy working something out on the chalkboard behind him. Or maybe he’s been teaching students at the University.
    • Stephen is sitting in an electric wheelchair. The wheelchair has a high back to help support his head and body.
    • Stephen Hawking had a disease called Motor Neurone Disease. This meant he couldn’t walk and needed a wheelchair to get around.
    • He was also unable to use his voice to speak. He used a special computer called an electronic voice synthesizer to speak for him. We can see this attached to the front of the wheelchair. It was invented by one of his friends at the University of Cambridge to help him communicate with everyone.
    • Stephen is smiling. He looks happy. Can you copy his Expression A look on a person's face that shows their thoughts or feelings. ? How does it make you feel when you smile?
    • The photographer (David Gamble) was looking up at Stephen. This is a clever way of reminding us that Stephen’s work is all about looking up – into the night sky and out into space.
    • Stephen Hawking famously said: ‘Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.’

Review and reflect

Stephen Hawking was determined that motor neurone disease wouldn’t stop him from living a full life.

This portrait was made in 1988. He had just written a book called A Brief History of Time. The book sold 10 million copies and made him very famous around the world. By the time he died in 2018, Stephen Hawking had become one of the most famous scientists who ever lived.

What else would you like to find out about Stephen Hawking? Try using these question starters:

  • I wonder why…
  • I wonder what…
  • I wonder how…
  • I wonder who…
  • I wonder when…
  • I wonder if…

You could visit the National Portrait Gallery, other museums and galleries, watch videos or TV programmes, read books or search online to find out the answers.

Scientists then and now

Isaac Newton is another very famous scientist. He lived more than 300 years ago. He is remembered for discovering how Gravity The invisible pull that makes things fall to the ground, keeps the moon in the sky and stops us from floating off the Earth. and other forces (pushes and pulls) work in our world, and in the wider universe.

He’s also remembered for inventing a new type of telescope which is still used by Astronomer A scientist who studies the sun, moon, stars, and planets. today, and for showing that sunlight is made up of all the colours of the rainbow.

He had exactly the same job as Stephen Hawking at the University of Cambridge, 300 years before him. They are buried near to each other in Westminster Abbey in London.

Compare the portrait of Stephen Hawking with the portrait of Isaac Newton.

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    Sir Isaac Newton,    studio of Enoch Seeman,    circa 1726-1730,    NPG 558,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Isaac Newton, studio of Enoch Seeman, circa 1726-1730
  • View larger image
    Stephen Hawking,    by David Gamble,    1988,    NPG P632,    © David Gamble
Stephen Hawking, by David Gamble, 1988
  1. What can you see that’s the same?
  1. What is different?
  1. How have the artists tried to show that Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton are scientists?

Explore more portraits

Here are some more portraits of scientists and mathematicians.

  1. Can you find out why they are famous and how some of them changed our lives?
  1. Did they work alone or with other scientists to develop their ideas and discoveries?