The Sciences

Stephen Hawking's Doomsday Warning

Why is one of the thinking community's heavy hitters dabbling in doomsday prophecy?

By Bruno MaddoxSep 1, 2006 5:00 AM


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Let me begin by assuring you I have nothing but respect for Dr. Stephen Hawking, the noted physicist and raconteur. Those of us who make our living as topflight public intellectuals—"in the game," as we refer to it—share a bond of common experience that renders our occasional disagreements largely irrelevant. To people who have never been feted by the Royal Society or offered a two-minute predawn appearance on Fox and Friends discussing new gadgets hitting the shelves in time for Father's Day, the world Stephen and I inhabit can seem rather daunting and mysterious.

Which it is, for the record. And it's also very difficult. The solitude, the women, the faceless hotel rooms, the constant pressure to think—and I'm able-bodied. For Stephen to have accomplished what he has in the teeth of his dreadful affliction makes him, by my lights, a totem of the human spirit so towering that in its shadow the figure of Lance Armstrong cannot immediately be distinguished from that of Tori Spelling.

Which is why I was perplexed this past June when Stephen went public with his view that humanity is doomed to extinction unless it finds another planet to live on. "It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species," he told an audience in China. "Life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers we have not yet thought of."

He chose not to mention asteroid impact for some reason, but a space rock even twice the size of Rhode Island could have hardly caused a bigger splash than Stephen's declaration. From CNN to The New York Times to this woman I had recently started seeing, his demand that we leave Earth was all anyone wanted to talk about in late June.

That wasn't what bothered me. What bothered me was that Stephen should be troubling himself with such low-hanging fruit in the first place. Anyone blessed with even basic cable knows there are very real threats to the future of human life on this planet: mega-tsunamis, supervolcanoes, Ultimate Fighting Championships. Saying that the long-term future of life on Earth is uncertain is like saying that the future of Fox's So You Think You Can Dance? is uncertain. It's rather obvious. And once you have your brain around that rather straightforward premise, it doesn't take much intellectual heavy lifting to figure out that if we were able to establish an extraterrestrial outpost or two, our odds would improve dramatically.

Yet intellectual heavy lifting is precisely what makes Stephen Hawking Stephen Hawking. Besides being the man who convinced the world that black holes not only could exist but probably did, he later made a pretty convincing case that they weren't that black after all. Contrary to the idea of black holes sucking everything, even light, into inconceivable nothingness, Hawking proposed that there was one thing that could escape a black hole's intractable grip: thermal radiation, now known to all as Hawking radiation.

And much as one can apparently detect a black hole by seeing how it bends the light attempting to pass by it, I felt I could detect the value of Stephen's work by its gravitational pull on neighboring scientists in his field. Clearly, this was a clever guy doing some clever stuff. The spectacle of someone that smart dropping down through the weight classes to make a scientific pronouncement that could have been made by an untrained man drinking whiskey in front of the television struck me as, well, slightly unfair to those of us forced to try to make a living in the cutthroat and less-lucrative-than-you-might-think field of Easy/Obvious Science.

But that was back in June. A few months on, in this Hawking matter, I have achieved some measure of understanding—which is that what first appeared to be a strange, lowbrow tangent in Stephen's career really isn't one at all. Like many great men, his life and his work have an overriding theme: the impossible escape. Having conjured up, in the black hole, the very embodiment of inevitable, unconquerable oblivion, Stephen then took it upon himself to find, in Hawking radiation, the chance at redemption that meant all was not quite lost, that survival was still a possibility. So it is with his own life, in which he daily surmounts astronomical odds. And so it is now, he hopes, for all of us.

Like the asteroids, stars, and old bicycle parts that slowly, silently circle a black hole, sucked ever inward, we earthbound humans could be forgiven for losing hope. But Stephen Hawking remains consistently on message, the same message he's been proselytizing for decades: Lose hope—just not all of it.

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