Hawking, we have a problem

Surely Stephen Hawking could have made a better case for space travel than by arguing that humans face certain disaster on Earth?

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Politics

‘Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster’, said Professor Stephen Hawking in Hong Kong last week (1). And in order to survive that disaster, he argued, we will have to ‘spread out into space’, travelling to the moon and Mars.

‘Eminent scientist predicts end of the world’ is hardly shocking news anymore. So which of the alleged threats to mankind has got Hawking hot under the collar? A meteorite strike? Avian flu? Cancer-causing chemicals? Actually, he’s more worried about ‘sudden global warming’, nuclear war and genetically engineered viruses. There is no shortage of apocalypse scenarios these days.

Two aspects of Hawking’s speech are noteworthy. The first is that he, like many other scientists and public figures today, seems capable of putting the case for progress (in this case, space travel) only by flagging up the doom and disaster that will occur if we don’t take that progressive path. So instead of arguing that humans should conquer and colonise space because it is in our nature to explore and because that would enable us to expand and develop, he posits space travel as a way of escaping almost certain disaster on a planet that we have apparently already ruined.

Just as UK prime minister Tony Blair puts the case for nuclear power by raising the spectre of manmade global warming, so Hawking and others make the argument for space travel through fearmongering about the future of planet Earth.

The second noteworthy thing is how Hawking completed his list of potential catastrophes: apparently we are in peril from ‘other dangers we have not yet thought of’. Well, perhaps – and perhaps not. It’s a bit hard to say much more about dangers that we have not yet thought of.

‘Dangers we have not yet thought of’ are surely the realm, not of science, but of the precautionary principle. It seems that what is animating Hawking’s concerns, and the concerns of so many others these days, is not a scientific analysis but a fear of the unknown.

No doubt there are scientific discussions to be had about the problems of global warming, nuclear war and engineered viruses. But science starts with what is known, and works outwards from there. Precaution works in the opposite direction: it starts from the unknown where, by definition, science is helpless. That is what makes precaution an unscientific approach.

Unfortunately, the criticism of Hawking’s speech all seems to have come from the wrong direction, chastising him not for being pessimistic, but for not being pessimistic enough.

So the cosmologist Alan Guth upbraided Hawking for his lack of realism. Since we don’t have the means to evacuate the earth, said Guth, a giant underground bunker in the Antarctic would be a better bet for escaping disaster on Earth. I guess it all depends on what you mean by ‘realistic’.

Another line of criticism came from ‘GrrlScientist’, a blogger on the widely-read website, She attacked Hawking for trying to avoid the consequences of human beings wrecking the Earth, and said we should put forward solutions for repairing our mess:

‘According to Hawking’s scenario, I envision humans as the rats of the universe; filthy, violent, rapacious, travelling from one planet to another just as rats hitchhiked on ships from one oceanic island to another, destroying everything until the last habitable island (planet) within reach has been ruined. Is that the sort of legacy that we, as a species, want to be known for? At least rats did not actively plan out their next conquest, as humans seem to be doing.’ (2)

No wonder manned space exploration is out of fashion, when both those, like Hawking, who support space travel and those who oppose it are motivated by the same conviction: that humans have screwed up on Earth. Both sides seem to agree that we have despoiled our planet, and the only real argument is over whether we should stay and patch things up or abandon the Earth and take flight to the moon.

In reality, we will only get to a destination like Mars if we are driven by a positive vision and purpose, such as the quest for knowledge. Looking for life on Mars is one such quest. If Mars has life, even bacterial life, which is independent of life forms on Earth, then it will show that life arises easily and is most likely spread across the universe. If life is found that somehow relates to life as we know it on Earth, that will suggest that life can survive the journey through space – and also raise the possibility that life came to Earth from outside. If Mars is found to be barren, it will shorten the odds that the Earth is truly unique.

It is people who have a passion for such knowledge who will make a mission to Mars a reality – people who are consumed by the need to know; who are tormented by the limitations of robot explorers; for whom pictures of red rocks are simply not enough. It is those who have new ideas for new experiments on Mars, and who cannot wait years for the next robotic lander to get there, who will make the case for humans venturing there instead. In short, a positive view of humanity might spur us to further explore space, whereas arguments for space travel as a means of saving us from our own self-destructive tendencies are likely to have the unintended consequence of making us less willing to explore and take risks.

Hawking made other remarks in Hong Kong that received less coverage than his space comments, perhaps because they go against today’s consensus. On euthanasia he said: ‘I think it would be a great mistake. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.’ On research priorities he argued that ‘fundamental science has to be directed by scientific considerations, not economic ones’. Out of hundreds of press reports on Hawking’s talk, these statements only seem to have appeared in the Chinese People’s Daily (3). Everyone else seemed to think the big story was ‘The End is Nigh (Again)’.

So instead of drawing out the best in what Hawking had to say, our pessimistic press and other scientists criticised him for not being negative enough. Yet there was a glimmer of hope in Hawking’s remarks about space: we could go beyond our solar system to visit other stars, he suggested. That is unimaginable with present-day science and technology, but maybe one day Hawking’s theoretical contributions to understanding how space and time are warped by matter will help us get there. Who knows? But if we’re going to spend so much time speculating about the unknown, then it might as well be something worth speculating about, and worth moving towards.

(1) Humans must spread out in space, Yahoo! News, 13 June 2006

(2) The Legacy of a Star,, 13 June 2006

(3) ‘There’s life, there’s hope’ – Stephen Hawking, People’s Daily, 14 June 2006

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Topics Politics


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