Jan. 20, 2012 at 6:54 PM ET
The cosmic curios of the world's best-known physicist went on display today at a London science museum, chronicling the amazing 70 years of Stephen Hawking's life. Over the decades, the quadriplegic genius has popped up in so many pop-culture settings that some of those curios require a little explanation.
That's what we found when we ran a picture of the professor in his Cambridge office as the first installment of a "Where in the Cosmos" series on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. There's such a generous assortment of gewgaws that it's a wonder Hawking gets anything done.
It turns out that the scene was arranged to show off Hawking's stuff for the exhibit at the Science Museum in London. Take the bronze statue on the desk, for example. I was particularly intrigued by the out-of-focus statue because it seemed to hold such a prominent place in the picture.
"I believe the statue is of the pope," Tracey Walters wrote. "But the picture is kinda fuzzy, so who knows which one?" Others wondered if it was the theologian Erasmus, or maybe King Midas.
Hawking's longtime executive assistant, Judith Croasdell, straightened out the mystery in an email.
"The statue is the Fonseca Prize which Professor Hawking received in Santiago de Compestela, in 2008," she wrote. "It normally sits not on Stephen's desk but on the window shelf because it is heavy — 2 kilograms worth of bronze. Obviously it was put on the desk for the photographers."
A less weighty curio is far easier to recognize: It's a plastic action figure of Hawking as he appeared in an episode of "The Simpsons," the animated show that the physicist has called the best thing American television has to offer. The figurine is festooned with the helicopter top and the spring-loaded boxing glove that played their part in the "Simpsons" plot. In the distance, you can just make out a picture on the wall that shows Hawking encountering Maggie Simpson and other characters from the show. Watch this YouTube clip to learn more about Hawking's "Simpsons" connection.
Other items include a little toy computer with sticky notes, a space shuttle model, and a crystal globe. "The crystal globe is a present given by Discovery and shows a map of the world," Croasdell says. "Carved on the globe are the words 'What is essential is invisible to the eye,' [from] Saint-Exupery."
There's a humidifier on his desk that holds an assortment of seashells. The blackboard you see in the picture above is covered with equations scribbled by his students. Another blackboard in the room, not seen here, that has mathematical in-jokes written on it.
Another photo of Hawking's office, taken from a different perspective, gives prominent play to his picture of Marilyn Monroe, who is one of the professor's favorite personages from the past. "If I had a time machine, I'd drop in on Marilyn Monroe in her prime," he once mused. The room's walls are covered with flyers as well as photos from Hawking's trips around the world.
To find out more about these items and others in Hawking's office, check out Roger Highfield's profile of the professor in The Telegraph.
The photos are just one little piece of the Science Museum's one-room exhibition: Museumgoers can also see pictures of Hawking before his struggle with motor neuron disease, as well as mementos that touch upon the highlights of his long career. The Science Museum's inventor in residence, Mark Champkins, created a "Black Hole Light" in Hawking's honor that uses a swirl of neon tubing to evoke the path photons would take as they fell into a black hole.
Here's a sampling of the sights:
Update for 12:45 a.m. ET Jan. 21: When the Planetary Society's Charlene Anderson took a look at the pictures above, she saw a familiar sight — the planet-shaped Cosmos Award that Hawking received from the society in 2010. Check out her posting to the Planetary Society's blog, in which she expresses her surprise and pleasure at seeing the society's award in such a place of honor.
Next on 'Where in the Cosmos': Today's picture puzzle focuses on a far-out subject that's been the subject of research recently. I haven't written anything about it yet, but next week I'll fill you in on why it's significant. One of our Cosmic Log friends has already figured out what the picture shows, and as a reward I'll be sending her a copy of John Gribbin's latest book, "Alone in the Universe." To join the conversation, check out the "Where in the Cosmos" posting on the Cosmic Log Facebook page.
More about Stephen Hawking's life and work:
The exhibit celebrating Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday runs through April 9 at the Science Museum in London.
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.