How do you commemorate one of the most influential scientists of our time?
How do you commemorate Stephen Hawking, a man who sought to unravel the mysteries of the universe with his work on black holes and on the quest to find a theory of everything? His grave in Westminster Abbey now lies between those of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Sculptor John Maine was commissioned to take on the task of creating his memorial.
John's design for the memorial began with a feeling of deep space, where a series of shapes whirl around a central ellipse, a black hole. John chose Caithness slate as his material because it can be light when carved or sawn, but very dark when honed or polished. He designed the centre of the ledger stone to appear black, surrounded by drifts of lighter, carved texture. Two intersecting lines are the coordinates of the ellipse, and refer to the dimensions of space and time. John says "As a memorial to a remarkable man, it was important to balance the need for stillness with a sense of energy."
The project logistics were complex and started with the sourcing of the stone. First the Caithness slab was sawn and the surface prepared in Aberdeenshire. To carve the letters into the stone, John collaborated with letter cutter Gillian Forbes. The inscription echoes the Latin text of Isaac Newton’s stone which is nearby:
HIC DEPOSITUM EST QUOD MORTALE FUIT ISAACI NEWTONI which, translated, became:
HERE LIES WHAT WAS MORTAL OF STEPHEN HAWKING
In addition, Hawking’s famous equation – which proves that black holes emit 'Hawking Radiation' and evaporate - is inscribed on his memorial. As with every hand-made memorial or headstone, the design and spacing of the letter forms are crucial to the power of the finished artwork. The style of the letter forms is influenced by the life of the person being commemorated and the text to be inscribed. The letters also have to marry with the other elements of the design. John describes his approach, "I set out the main inscription in two lines to form part of the encircling shape. The letter design is simple, but each letter needed slight distortion to create the sense of flow. By contrast, the complex equation is cut to reproduce a distinct font found in scientific documents. The equation lies on the axis through the stone."
The stone was sent to Gillian Forbes in Perth for the inscription to be cut. She faithfully reproduced the size and position of the inscription, according to John's overall drawing. The precision of the human eye and the skilful hands of an experienced letter carver animate the letters.
The slab was then returned to Aberdeenshire, where John added the lines and cut the areas of texture to complete the work. The stone was transported to Westminster Abbey where it was set into the nave floor over the ashes of Stephen Hawking, after a moving service on 15 June 2018. Photographs copyright John Maine RA.