There was a specific account of Stephen Hawking by one of his contemporaries in which Hawking was in his late undergrad or early postgrad.

As I remember, there was a small class of physics students (each one was very capable in their own right) who had been given (I think) ten difficult questions to have a go at. At the next tutorial, the person who was giving the account was very proud that he managed to solve one of them and make significant progress on another. Another person had managed to solve two questions and the tutor was very impressed by this. Stephen showed up late, as he tended to do, and apologised that he only managed to solve eight of them in time.

I remember reading the above tale a long time ago, and thought it was a nice story, but I recently wanted to check if it was true and haven't been able to find any reference to it.

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    $\begingroup$ ... and if you cannot find this exact story, perhaps you can find the same story, but starring someone other than Hawking ... $\endgroup$ Jul 14, 2019 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect this is probably an urban legend similar to what's described in The story about Milnor proving the Fáry-Milnor theorem for Milnor and Dantzig (and likely others as well). $\endgroup$ Jul 15, 2019 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ This is a generic fabricated anecdote, into which multiple names are substituted as occasion directs, and you shouldn't waste your time tracking. Look at reputable biographies instead. Hawking was not particularly impressive at Oxford, and barely got a First on the final exam. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Jul 16, 2019 at 0:30

1 Answer 1


This story has been depicted in The Theory of Everything, a 2014 biographical romantic drama film directed by James Marsh detailing the life of the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

In an early scene, it has been shown that Stephen Hawking, who has just begun his PhD at the University of Cambridge, and other fellow students was given a problem set of 10 questions by their PhD supervisor Dennis Sciama of which Stephen could do "only" nine.

Though I could find no historical proof for such a story and it only seems (as commented by others) to be a cooked up anecdote for the sake of publicity. Moreover, the film has been criticized for being utterly dishonest on many occasions. Writing for the film blog of UK daily newspaper The Guardian, Michelle Dean noted:

The Theory of Everything's marketing materials will tell you it is based on Jane Hawking's memoir of her marriage, a book published in the UK as Music to Move the Stars, and then re-issued as Travelling to Infinity. But the screenwriters rearranged the facts to suit certain dramatic conventions. And while that always happens in these based-on-a-true-story films, the scale of the departure in The Theory of Everything is unusually wide. The film becomes almost dishonest–in a way that feels unfair to both parties, and oddly, particularly Jane Hawking herself.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually Jane Hawking's criticism was that the film down-played her role, not that the film was deliberately dishonest. There is such a thing as artistic license after all. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2020 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ Even though Jane's criticism was about her role in the film, we can point out that the film was "utterly dishonest on many occasions" (as mentioned in the answer) and, thus, indicating that this anecdote may not be correct. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2020 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ Singh: Firstly, I think Jane Hawking's assessment of the movie is more likely to be closer to the mark as she was there (and you weren't). And Michelle Dean is merely echoing Jane's criticism. Secondly, like I've already said, artistic license is part and parcel of film-making - and that's not lying. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2020 at 10:34

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