By Mark Champkins
When I was asked to design Stephen Hawking a 70th Birthday present on behalf of the Museum, I have to confess, I was a little overwhelmed. I was chuffed to be asked, but didn’t really know where to start.
After giving it some thought I reckoned it would be worth talking to some people that knew him and his theories really well, so I approached the Museum curators, Boris and Ali, who have been responsible for putting together a display about his life and work.
They were amazingly helpful, explaining a little about his theories about Black Holes and his work to unite the field of quantum physics with the cosmological. They showed me some images of his office, and his most prized objects and awards, along with some models he had made of the way light falls into a black hole. They also directed me to one or two objects in the Museum that have relevance to his work, one of them being Geissler Tubes.
Geissler tubes are beautiful! Alison and Boris described to me how a fella called Geissler was experimenting with vacuums, and created Geissler tubes by pumping gasses into the vacuum tube, and passing a current through the gas. The gasses glowed as they emitted photons, and though they started out as a curiosity, they led to two developments that relate to Hawking’s work. Firstly, the tubes led to the development of the equipment used to discover the electron – the first sub-atomic particle, which in turn, arguably led to the field of Quantum Physics. Secondly, the Geissler tubes led to the creation of Crookes radiometer, which as it’s name implies detect radiation, linking with Hawking’s identification of his very own form of radiation, that which escapes from a black hole.
I then hit upon the idea of making a “Black Hole Light” using the closest thing available to a Geissler tube – neon tubes. I liked the pun, and how it alludes to Hawking Radiation.
The form I chose for the lamp was inspired by the profile of the model I had seen in Hawking’s lab, demonstrating how light is sucked into a black hole.
I rather liked the idea of uniting the technology that led to the birth of Quantum Physics (in the form of a Geissler-inspired neon tube), with a form that is representative of the path light would take spiralling into a black hole. Mixing Cosmology with Quantum Physics, and trying to reconcile them in one artefact. Something of a metaphor for Hawking’s work.
Having made the light, I am really pleased with it. I really hope it can also serve a practical purpose in his home or office, and that he’ll like it!
View the rest of the pictures in our Flickr set