“With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.” – Professor Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking is one of the most well-respected scientists in history. To celebrate his 75th birthday, the BBC channel will air a new documentary titled “Stephen Hawking: Expedition New Earth.”
According to a press release, Hawking explains humankind’s “precarious” situation, including “his predictions that the human race only has 100 years before we need to colonize another planet.”
Unsurprisingly, Hawking is taking a bashing for – what some consider to be – an extremely radical perspective. The fact that Hawking initially predicted a 1,000-year time period for colonization is only adding to the scrutiny.
In this article, we’ll discuss a bit about Professor Hawking and his work. We’ll contextualize – to the best of our ability – the genius’s predictions.
Who is Stephen Hawking?
If you were to pose this question to anyone in the scientific community, you’d likely be mocked; perhaps relentlessly.
(While this writer was vaguely familiar with Hawking’s work, it was actually a documentary about the man’s life that provided most of the knowledge!)
Hawking is a graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge University (two of the most prestigious institutions in the word), where he majored in Physics and Cosmology, respectively. He graduated near the top of his class despite “not very much work.”
At Oxford, Dr. Hawking was diagnosed with a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neuron disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The condition has rendered Hawking completely paralyzed. He is able to communicate and give lectures via cutting-edge technologies developed by many companies: Lenovo, Intel, Speech Plus, and SwiftKey.
Professor Hawking is best known for his work on gravitation, gravitational radiation, black holes, and wave functions. His book, A Brief History of Time (published in 1992), made accessible his elaborate theories to non-specialists. The book ultimately became a bestseller, and has sold more than 10 million copies in 20 years; the work has also been translated into 35 languages.
Where Hawking “ranks” among the best physicists of all time is a matter of fierce debate – a debate that Hawking himself never wanted.
In many ways, Hawking doesn’t fit the traditional “mold” of a scientist. He downplays his intelligence (“People who boast about their IQ are losers”), has an unabashed sense of humor (“It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away”), and is stoically optimistic (“Where there is life, there is hope.”)
Hawking, despite his stubborn opposition, has been called “The most influential physicist since Einstein.” (Which Hawking says is “Rubbish.”) With this kind of clout, people tend to listen when the Professor speaks.
Famous Scientist Says Humans Move to a New Planet in 100 Years
In November of 2016, Hawking’s warnings were three-fold: artificial intelligence, global warming, and nuclear war could destroy the Earth. “Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years.”
The phrase “next thousand or ten thousand years” is a source of pause for many. There’s a sizable difference between one to ten thousand years and one hundred. What possible reason can explain the physicist’s sudden “100 years” theory? Hawking specifically lists climate change, possible asteroid strikes, population growth, and epidemics as the biggest threats. (Nuclear war seems more plausible to many.)
Is colonization of another planet the answer? Is it possible, now or ever? Is it even necessary – in a thousand years or beyond?
Should I pack my bags?
First, let’s examine the scientific rationale of Hawking’s “culprits” for extinction:
1. Climate change: Per NASA, 97-plus percent of actively publishing climate scientists concede “Climate-warming trends over the past century are likely due to human activities.” Few scientists deny the climate is changing, and that climate change following the Industrial Revolution has expedited this warming effect.
2. Overdue asteroid strikes: The last “civilization-ending” asteroid hit earth over 65 million years ago. Some scientists believe we’re “overdue,” as Professor Hawking suggests, but “NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordinate Office does not expect a major asteroid impact in the near future.”
3. Health epidemics: Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve had five epidemics that have each resulted in more than one million fatalities – all of them occurring in 1889, 1918, and 1957, 1960, and 1968. The most recent epidemic, the Ebola Virus, was extinguished after just three years.
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI): Hawking is not alone in his warnings about the adverse effects of AI. Elon Musk, the brain behind Tesla, SpaceX, and other ventures has articulated his stance as well: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So, we need to be very careful,” Musk continues, “I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure we don’t do something very foolish.”
Putting it all together
There is no denying the fact that Stephen Hawking is a genius of the highest order. He is undoubtedly one of the most influential physicists since Albert Einstein. Still, others question his motives, methodology, and even his mental stability (Hawking is now 75.)
That said, a few facts are hindering Hawking’s hypothesis. First, we are nowhere close to achieving the technological capabilities required to colonize another planet. Second, we don’t know if human beings are capable of living on a distant planet; we’ve evolved over hundreds of thousands of years on just Earth. Third, many “powers that be” still deny the dangers that Hawking, Musk, and other great minds have put articulated.
With all of that said, is colonizing another planet really the answer? Shouldn’t science and rational thinking prevail over the whims of vested interests? It has in some advanced countries. Sadly, the United States cannot claim to be one of them.
The bottom line: we must educate and inform ourselves and future generations to the potential perils this planet faces. Human logic must prevail over ignorance.