Who the hell does Stephen Hawking think he is anyway?

So famous physicist Stephen Hawking is in the news these days advocating more shooting of humans into space:

“Life on Earth is at the 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.”

said Hawking in Hong Kong this week in a notable passive construction;

“It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species.” 

OK, let alone for the moment the sheer hubris-laden assumption that within twenty years we’ll be able to build artificial ecosystems, sustainable over the very long term, that can support human life at population levels necessary to preserve a worthwhile percentage of human genetic, intellectual, and cultural diversity. Seems to me we tried doing that a few years back on Earth, where we had an entire planet full of tools at our disposal, and it worked rather more poorly than its planners expected. A description of the failure of the “self-sufficient ecosystem” Biosphere experiment, from that last link:

Throughout the experiment, oxygen levels steadily dropped, until the members barely were able to maintain consciousness. The rules of self-sufficiency were changed yet again as oxygen was pumped in to prevent brain damage. In the meantime, all the pollinators died, so that none of the plants could reproduce. Finally, all the birds and animals brought in for food also died.

For the humans, Biosphere quickly became a desperate exercise in fighting off starvation. The eight members, split into two factions of four — which to this day do not talk to each other — were reduced to hording [sic] and counting peanuts. Biosphere ended as an almost comical failure.

And that was on this planet, where the designers could just have a thousand yards of specialized concrete and a million square feet of tempered glass driven up to the site on flatbed trucks. I suspect an attempt to replicate the Biosphere experiment in the Valle Marineris would be a bit more difficult. The construction crew here could actually breathe without tanks, for one thing, and what happens when the New Martians realize they have the wrong gauge turnbuckles for the shadecloth awning, and all the lettuce plants get UV poisoning? We’re talking about an agency that forgot to do a English-Metric conversion for an unmanned Mars probe here. Would you really trust them to buy compatible plumbing fixtures from 400 million miles away?

But forget that for now. And forget that Hawking is saying this in a year in which NASA is re-emphasizing humans in space and — for consequent budgetary reasons —  pulling the plug on unmanned missions to monitor, and perhaps thus help mitigate, the dangers he cites.

What pisses me off is this. I’m looking at the list of dangers Hawking cites: genetic engineering turning the biosphere into gray goo, climate change from burning of fossil fuels, nuclear war… and a certain commonality among them strikes me. I mean, we’re not talking the sun going nova, which is far enough in the future that a dollar a year budget devoted to extrasolar mass migration research would likely be more than adequate to get us there. And we’re not talking comet impact or flood basalt here. Every threat, every looming disaster Hawking’s talking about here is human generated.

There are two reasons why Hawking’s brainstorm is thus just utterly, unbelievably stupid.

First: these problems are mitigatable, if not in fact reversible or (in the case of nuclear war) even preventable if, and only if, addressing them is made a priority. which means not cutting funding to satellite-based climate monitoring programs for some masturbatory, LaRoucheian Robert Zubrin fantasy. (Have I mentioned that I know Zubrin from when he used to sell LaRouche’s paper New Solidarity, in Buffalo in the 1970s? A story for another time.)

The other reason?

Let’s say you had a horrible cockroach infestation, and the bugs were trashing your house, spreading filth and eating the bindings of your irreplaceable antique books and breeding profligately and an electrician came to you one day and told you that they were eating your circuit breaker insulation, and you needed to do something about it or your house would burn down.

I don’t know about you, but my first reaction would not be to put a bunch of roaches in a Tupperware container and then release them into a neighbor’s house so that the species would live on.

We are the problem here. We’ve only got one planet right now and we’re messing it up. What happens when we’re spread out on a bunch of planets? The pressure’s off, and we have one less reason not to piss in our drinking water. If we blanket Mars with radioisotopes and fast-food wrappers? Well hell, Titan’s right there. And we can always mine Jupiter for hydrogen.

Hawking’s future of humanity resembles nothing so much as those aliens from Independence Day, the ones that travel from planet to planet laying waste the resources and moving on, pausing only to strangle Brent Spiner. OK, so every disaster has an upside. My point is that our planet deserves better than to be a mere discarded larval skin for a species that goes on to eat the galaxy, implacable and soulless and vulnerable to computer viruses written in haste by a drunkard, on a Macintosh.

I like this planet just fine, Professor Hawking, and I’d much rather we spend our creative energies learning how to live here without fucking it up. And you want to distract us by promising a future that fewer than one in ten million of us here will ever see, based on a techno-wankoff that some of your most respected colleagues have dismissed as utterly useless?

Yeah, right. Great idea, Einstein.

64 thoughts on “Who the hell does Stephen Hawking think he is anyway?

  1. Amanda Marcotte

    From his point of view, I suppose certain technological innovations do seem pretty fucking amazing.  But what strikes me as insane is that even if it were possible to start over on Mars as a colony, it would be only a small, elite group that got to go while the rest of us died in the cesspool that used to be this planet.  In other words, it’s a racist, classist fantasy.

  2. Paul Tomblin

    Where did you get the ludicrious idea that Biosphere II was anything to do with science?  There are astrologers with more intellectual rigour than the quacks and charlatans who put together that crap fest.  Real scientists can and *do* do better.

  3. E.

    Yes, I agree 100% with your complaints against Hawking and anyone else who sees a mission to Mars as a solution to the problems humans have created on Earth.  This is the only planet in our solar system that can sustain human life, maybe any life.  The only way anyone could live on Mars or any other planet (other than Earth) would be to devote an inordinate amount of Earthly resources making that happen?  And why?  Let’s be real.  Let’s be responsible.  Let’s take care of the planet we have, beautiful and miraculous and plagued by human problems.  I believe humans have the ingenuity and drive to solve the problems that threaten us, but we have to face reality and make the sacrifices necessary.

  4. Charles

    I had not previously realized Hawking was so brainless. 

    “Okay, other than the money.”  I can hardly bear to think about what the trillion or two dollars that are going into Iraq could have done.

  5. Troutnut

    I agree with Hawking and I think your criticisms are silly.  For one thing, you’re thinking too short-term.  Hawking isn’t saying we should move to the moon next week.  For another, you’re thinking from a “save the Earth” rather than a “save humanity” perspective.

    For instance:

    Let’s say you had a horrible cockroach infestation, and the bugs were trashing your house. … I don’t know about you, but my first reaction would not be to put a bunch of roaches in a Tupperware container and then release them into a neighbor’s house so that the species would live on.

    But you are one of the roaches!  We all are.  Sign me up for the Tupperware Arc…

  6. RP

    The money has to go to our getting our crap together first before we start sending ourselves all over the solar system.  Maybe figure out how to stabilize the world population or even lower it?  I’m having my doubts that we’re smart enough to do that, surrounded as I am by a bunch of folks having their 3rd non-adopted kid….

  7. darkymac

    The eight members, split into two factions of four — which to this day do not talk to each other — were reduced to hording [sic] and counting peanuts.

    A bit like geopolitics over recorded history, really, and a worthwhile demonstration of how, whatever the naked chimp essays, if it needs cooperation, planning and goodwill then it’s basically stuffed from the outset.

    One may find this collection at NASA worth a giggle or three.
    It appears that the greater the isolation of a section of society, the more unreal its perspective, and Mr Hawking is nothing if not isolated.

  8. jason

    I think you might be reading this from too tight of a viewpoint. What can we do about a cataclysmic eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano? Or a massive meteorite impact? Or a heretofore unknown disease that creates a pandemic? Or climate change in which anthropogenic global warming is but a bit player (since we know the planet has done that many times in its history)? Or a massive and deadly solar event? Or other catastrophes not caused by humans?

    In this sense, Hawking is right. He is not advocating we ignore our responsibilities here in lieu of trying to get off this rock; he’s advocating we address both approaches, especially since there are many ways our species can be destroyed which in no way would be caused by us. We can, after all, do both, right? I mean, we can address the problems here (hoping for the best) while spreading ourselves out there (planning for the worst).

    And the premise that his idea in this regard is somehow elitist, racist, or some other -ist seems laughably short-sighted. Do we simply ignore the possibility that our species could be wiped out through no fault of our own because any attempt to colonize space would be, by your assumption, an opportunity only for the upper echelon? Thinking for the race as a whole, I’d prefer that at least some portion survive than to know we were all wiped out in the name of equality.

    As for his list of examples, global warming is not necessarily a function of man (otherwise it would never have happened before we came along, yet it did). He also mentions “other dangers we have not yet thought of.” His point, obviously, was to speak to relatively heightened concerns at present while also maintaining that there are innumerable threats that aren’t even on our radar at present.

    Honestly, and not to pick a fight, but all of this seems like a tempest in a teacup. I believe he’s right for a whole lot of reasons, and I don’t think it’s wise to disregard the idea in favor of hoping we as a species can get our act together before it’s too late.

  9. DeathToPonies

    Save the human race?  Clearly the good Doctor has been smoking the reefer…we need MORE dead humans not less. 

    We need an extinction of the so called ‘human race’…the universe will breath a sigh of relief.

  10. Phil Plait, aka The Bad Astronomer

    I think both you and Dr. Hawking are oversimplifying.

    First, many of the points you made are correct. How many humans would we need to make a genetically diverse population? Probably more than the three we can (barely) support on the space station. We are a lot more than 20 years from this!

    But not all disasters are man-made, and not all are preventable. A comet coming in from high off the ecliptic might give us as little as a year’s warning before impact, and could cause a mass extinction event. The best thing to do in that case is have an extant space program that can prevent this (and if we have the tech to live off-world, we probably have the tech to move a comet).

    But you can’t guarantee it, and the stakes are high. What of a nasty virus, or some other ecological or astronomical disaster we aren’t yet aware of? I think the odds are very very low for this, but I don’t think that means we can simply stay on Earth and hope for the best.

    The timescales are important, too. I think it’s reasonable that it may take 200 years for us to really move off world, and the odds of a natural disaster wiping us out are pretty low over that time. And that is where I think both of you are oversimplifying: we can do this, we just need to take our time and do it right. I don’t think it needs to be in 20 years as Hawking says, nor do I think we should abandon it entirely as you imply.

    That’s a false dichotomy, and I don’t buy it. We can do both! We can fix things here, and we can colonize other worlds. I’d prefer to do it in a friendly, non-Independence-Day way, and I suspect that given enough time, and the will to do it, we can do it.

  11. darkymac

    and if we have the tech to live off-world, we probably have the tech to move a comet

    This, and Mr Hawkings’ urge, both beg the question of the desire to move from the Earth.

    I’ve more emotional investment in sticking around the place that has looked after me and mine for so long.  I’d rather try to manage keeping it clean enough here.

    Call me a dumbcluck but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else anyway.

  12. Milo Johnson

    Superb points, Phil, and made far more precisely than I could have made them.

    If our species becomes extinct, the universe loses.  Yes, we have our issues, but what child doesn’t?

    We need to get some of our eggs into other baskets, just as soon as we can.

  13. Chris Clarke

    Well, people are certainly reading a lot into this that I never said.

    I’m a space exploration fan. I agree with Robert Park that wholly mechanized probes provides MUCH better bang for the buck, but I do like to think that at some point there will be humans living on Mars. Or Titan. (Not the moon. There’s fuck-all happening on the moon. It’s like Muncie on a Sunday morning, except without the atmosphere.)

    But you know what? All species go extinct. I like people, and I like human culture. But we’re another species, and I don’t see any more problem in admitting that extinction is our inevitable fate than in admitting I’m gonna die someday.

    Paul’s right: Biosphere II was a crock. I mainly mentioned it for entertainment value. I did fail to mention the Pauly Shore movie, it occurs to me. And I am ALSO a big fan of continued experimentation in self-contained, self-sufficient ecosystems. I’d gladly devote an inordinate sum of money ‚Äî say, the cost of half a B-2 bomber, wholesale ‚Äî to federal programs to try to build such biospheres.

    But what I think a fair number of people in the hard sciences miss ‚Äî not pointing fingers at anyone here, just a trend I’ve observed ‚Äî is that we know amazingly little about how the biosphere we’re in now has managed to occupy a more or less stable state for the last 12,000 years. I’m betting that any attempt to build a long-term habitat for people is going to be a swift and almost certainly deadly long-term lesson in unintended consequences.

  14. Antonio

    If I were one of the roaches, though, I think I’ d be interested in moving to the neighbor’s.

  15. Hank Fox

    Great post, Chris.

    I started to add in my two cents, but it’s already running to three pages, so it’s more like a nickel’s worth, and I’ll have to post it on my own site when I finish.

    Anyway, you’re right, for a great many more reasons than you stated here.

  16. Hank Fox

    Considering comments made here after I started writing my tome, I’d like to say this one thing:

    The minimum necessary ecosystem for supporting human life may well be the size of a planet. (If you consider solar energy needs, the size of a solar system.)

    Seriously, it may be (probably IS) a fact that human life can’t survive, sustain and reproduce itself without an entire planet on hand—THIS ONE—to draw sustenance from.

    (In some ways too complex to go into here, I’m not sure we’re really even alive on our own.)

  17. decrepitoldfool

    He’s losing it.  Gotta be. This is as lame-brained as anything I’ve ever heard.  We already have a wonderful, giant spaceship that just needs a few repairs.

  18. Mark

    I see your point.
    I wonder if Hawking isn’t just cutting to the chase though—maybe he believes as you do too, but he knows it’s never going to happen.
    I mean, look who leads this country (the US, but other countries are led by similiarly stupid men).
    It’s like fight or flight…
    Maybe he thinks the fight is all but lost.
    Sometimes I think so…it’s hard to know.
    I mean, when you really think on it, will humans save themselves?  Can humankind actually stop destroying the planet?  I wonder is all…
    I wonder if Hawkings isn’t just being realistic.  You or I or anyone posting here can see it—it’s time to stop wasting our planet….but, you know, mankind is rather stupid.  Maybe offerring a few spaceships and a potentially viable new homeworld is all that can be given.  The Roach analogy is just.  I don’t know.

  19. saltyC

    What does the Earth care if it is covered in forest or asphalt? Moralistic (yes moralistic, millenarian even) arguments taking a quasi-spiritual tone of Earth as a sentient being are silly.

  20. Troutnut

    Some of us roaches have developed a slightly broader perspective than a ludicrously reified self-interest.

    What should be our priority, then, if not the preservation of our habitat and our descendents?  We worry about the Earth only because it’s our habitat.  We pose no threat to the planet itself.  We merely threaten its ability to support species of which we’re fond.  Life here will persist in some form no matter what we do.  So what are we worried about?

    As living things, we have a several billion year history of acting in our own self-interest. Even cooperation and altruism are highly evolved forms of self-interest favoring individuals with similar genes, be they family or even just members of the same or a similar species.  You seem to advocate tossing even these forms of self-interest in the trash and resigning ourselves to eventual extinction for the good of… something.  What’s that something?  What higher principle can you serve?

    But you know what? All species go extinct.

    Technically yes, but your implication (likening extinction to death) is wrong.  Not all extinct species are evolutionary dead ends.  The descendents of our species could persist until the Universe itself is no longer habitable.  If my 100000x-great-grandchildren live in orbit around Vega under the species name Homo superans rather than Homo sapiens, that’s fine by me.

  21. Chris Clarke

    What does the Earth care if it is covered in forest or asphalt? Moralistic (yes moralistic, millenarian even) arguments taking a quasi-spiritual tone of Earth as a sentient being are silly.

    How do you feel about breathing?

    Seriously. Science Fiction is fine. I love SF. But Trantor, or any other wholly paved planet, is not a habitat for humans. Not in a woo-woo “spiritual ” sense: it won’t work. Who’s gonna turn your waste gases into oxygen? A wholly urban planet is an impossibility, unless you’ve got some alchemical tech solely devoted to breaking up CO2 into O2 and diamonds.

    Anyway, who’s invoking the earth as a sentient being? And if you go to space, where you gonna grow the hay to make your strawmen?

  22. Chard Nelson

    > I did fail to mention the Pauly Shore movie, it occurs to me.

    It is normally commendable to fail to mention Pauly Shore, Chris. And heck, Pauly Shore may be sufficient reason to argue against the spread of humans beyond earth.

    I find it rather incredible that we might be able to create a sustainable human population elsewhere, in anything like the foreseeable future. *sigh*

  23. Chris Clarke

    We worry about the Earth only because it‚Äôs our habitat. 

    Lots of us have additional reasons: finding value in our fellow denizens,for instance.

  24. Troutnut

    Lots of us have additional reasons: finding value in our fellow denizens,for instance.

    Which ones?  Deer?  Beetles?  Herpes?  Kangaroos?  Nematodes?  Pauly Shore?  Beavers?  Seaweed?  Lemurs?

    No radical extinction event we cause will wipe life off the face of this planet altogether.  If we were to wipe the slate nearly clean, new forms of life would arise.  By not causing an apocalypse, we deny all the nifty future post-apocalyptic species their chance to exist.

    The familiar denizens are a part of our habitat.  That‘s why we value them.  They are not intrinsically more valuable than the fleks and margurs and quoms and goovlii and tergiceplons which don’t exist and never will unless we wipe everything else out. 

    We should certainly do everything we can to improve and sustain our environment.  But it’s okay to be honest and admit to the habitat/self-preservation motivation, rather than trying to appeal to some ill-defined higher goal.

  25. Chris Clarke

    The familiar denizens are a part of our habitat.  That‚Äòs why we value them.  They are not intrinsically more valuable than the fleks and margurs and quoms and goovlii and tergiceplons which don‚Äôt exist and never will unless we wipe everything else out.

    Well, that was silly.

    Again, troutnut: no one’s talking about anything like intrinsic vallue here. There’s an element of self-interest here, of course. No one’s denying that, and there’s nothing at all wrong with it.

    But I wouldn’t call “because I like knowing they’re there” self-interest except in the late-night-dorm-philosophy-bullshit sense.  And I’m a little surpsied I’m explaining this to someone named “troutnut.”

  26. Frank

    I came over here from Pharyngula where he links approvingly to your rant.  My personal response?

    Piffle.

    Just because we haven’t done it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done; I haven’t read Hank Fox’s defense of his idea that it takes at least a planet to support human life but I really seriously doubt it.  Sure, Biosphere II was a crock and a miserable failure, but Jesus H. Christ, people, it was done on a shoestring by relative amateurs!  The fact that it did as well as it did (which was pretty badly, but no matter) argues that it’s worth trying, and trying again until we get it right.

    I’ve been arguing with an anti-evolution idiot elsewhere and I tell you that the kind of thinking I’m reading here reminds me of him.  Just because we haven’t done it, just because it is difficult, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing.  And believe me when I say that I have no illusions that it will be difficult indeed.  But right now with the knowledge we now have we can’t tell what problems have solutions and which do not.  And which do not now but will in time.

    I look at this from a very selfish perspective.  Sure, all species go extinct.  But we seem to be unique in that we can manipulate our environment rather than it manipulating us.  So which our extinction may be likely, even inevitable, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least _try_ to avoid it.

    Finally, the idea that if we spend resources there we won’t spend them here is just insane.  Whatever happens with respect to human-caused disasters, people will always be people; there will be some that are greedy and short-sighted and others that are compassionate and far-sighted.  It would be nice if we could take that humanity to the stars, not least because there sure as shit doesn’t appear to be anyone else out there.

    That’s our heritage, up there.  The Earth is, ultimately, a dead end.  For life to make it long term, we are its best chance.  Just by the accident of our big brains.

  27. Elissa

    I was thinking about your post and musing over the sad fact that what is brilliant and beautiful about us -our art, music, literature, philosophy, mathematics, even our best comedy, television, movies -won’t survive.  (Hell, even if there is no calamity, I’m pretty sure the coming oil shortage and resource wars will pretty much topple our current civilisation(s) within the next decade or two.)

    But the irony isn’t that people in some unforeseen future will not be able to appreciate all these things, it’s that billions of people sharing the planet today don’t get a chance to access this.

    (Other than those things, we’re just skin bags filled mainly with water.  While I don’t advocate the immediate reduction of 90% of our numbers, as other people seem to, I’m not all that attached to our indefinite continuing existence.)

  28. indrax

    This isn’t about global warming or anything else specific. This is about the fact that the planet is small and fragile in general, and humanity is too valuable for us to let it be wiped out.

    We could get hit by an asteroid tomorrow.
    We need to work towards making it so that the destruction of earth, for whatever reason, is not the destruction of humanity.

    He is not saying that we should not work on problems here, but even if we fix all the problems that humanity causes itself, we STILL need to get out.

    This also isn’t about a migration or an evacuation, that is almost completely infeasable.
    This is about getting some small population into space, so that if we die, they can continue. This isn’t escapist at all.

  29. Holly

    Thanks, Chris, for a wise and funny post—the cockroach analogy made me laugh out loud.

    I visited Biosphere II myself.  What a remarkable failure.  Nothing but cockroaches and ants managed to thrive.

    I also like Elissa’s comment that “the irony isn‚Äôt that people in some unforeseen future will not be able to appreciate all these things [art and the like], it‚Äôs that billions of people sharing the planet today don‚Äôt get a chance to access this.”

    Pretty much.

  30. indrax

    Biosphere added alot of unneeded cruft to the goal of remaining stable. It had I think 7 zones for different climactic areas. It had many, many different species, and this increased the complexity.

    You can buy a completely sealed habitat with brine shrimp and seaweed that will last for years without intervention. The fundamentals are not beyond us, if we try.

  31. saltyC

    I don’t want a world covered in asphalt. Yes it was a strawman, or rather, bait. It was intended to prove that the only persuasive argument you can make for sustainability is that it is in our own best interest. But you seemed to imply that the Earth has a preference.

    Stories involving us as a household pest and the Earth as a homemaker trying to rid herself of said pest with natural disasters will only persuade a misanthropic minority. People who are happy when their fellows dies of disease, famine or violence.

    Such people see themselves above others (more than is normal) or they would have done themselves in long ago. What they’re really saying is they like wilderness better than people, and if only those annoying people would quit blocking their view of the pretty trees they’d be happy. I wonder if they’d be happy in any situation.

    PS I’m a bicycling-clothes-hanging-dry-organic-vegetarian and your stance annoys me. What will the average American think of it?

  32. Chris Clarke

    But you seemed to imply that the Earth has a preference.

    I take no responsibility for others’ difficulties with reading comprehension.

    Stories involving us as a household pest and the Earth as a homemaker trying to rid herself of said pest with natural disasters will only persuade a misanthropic minority. People who are happy when their fellows dies of disease, famine or violence.

    Oh, please. I have a bit more faith in my fellow humans’ sense of metaphor. And humor.

    Though the outraged handwringing from the sanctimonious Star Trek set over this post the last couple days has diminished that last a bit.

  33. Frank Mayhar

    Kathy, Chris, this was exactly what I was referring to when I compared you guys to the creationist I’ve been “debating.”  Kathy at least seems to have a hard time with the difference between “fact” and “opinion.”  And Chris, I don’t very much like being referred to as part of “the sanctimonious Star Trek set.”  Did you even bother to read what I wrote?  Dismissive, perhaps, but outraged?  Not hardly.

  34. Chris Clarke

    salty, I recommend you read more carefully. You’re embarrassing yourself.

    Frank, you led with a vile insult, to which I did not rise. You got a lot better treatment here than you might reasonably have gotten. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t thinking of you when I mentioned the “sanctimonious Star Trek set.” I did read what you wrote, and found it reasonable, if less than persuasive.

    But you seem miffed that your post didn’t change my mind, and that I went on to argue with others after you’d graced us with your logical, though insultingly offered argument.

    Here’s the thing: we do not roll over here when confronted with cliches about galactic manifest destiny and humans being the pinnacle of evolution, not even if they’re dressed up, as yours were, in a sort of post-modern Machiavellian relativism.

    To sum up: despite leading with an insult on your first comment here ever, you’re welcome to stay and discuss. Just stop whining.

  35. saltyC

    Oh no! Not embarrassing myself in YOUR eyes!  I am crushed.

    Is this a cut-and-paste sticker you attach when you’re too lazy to investigate the presumptions in your own writing?

    Oh I forgot, it was a joke therefore had no underlying meaning.

    You’re coming off as quite arrogant and snotty.

  36. saltyC

    No, what I really mean to say is, you’re a pig.

    You don’t bother to wonder if maybe I had a point. You merely paste this snarky label on me without even considering what I had to say. You are one of those assholes who see themselves so absurdly far above others it’s sickening. Go to hell.

  37. durandal

    You sterilised, Kathy McCarty? I only ask because it seems relevant at the moment. I get a kick out of people who cheerfully advocate an “80 or 90 percent” human die-off, presumably because these folks assume they will be in that lucky tenth part.

    But if a mass human die-off interests you, well, charity begins in the home, as they say.

    Cheers,

    Durandal

  38. shakabusatsu

    Hawking maybe a brilliant mathematician but as a scientist, he is a closed minded devout positivist.  His opinions on things always fall on the dark side, have a mechanic lack vision and nihilistic pessimism. Maybe it has something to do with the fact he’s quadoplegic. That would depress me if I was a brilliant mind trapped in a wheelchair.  Yeesh. I feel he became so popular because of the whole politically correct syndrome of propping up people who “overcome adversity”.  While he may be brilliant and paralized, niether make him correct. Which is not his fault, but that of the media’s for valuing his thoughts, theories and opinions over all the other brilliant scientists (yes there are quite a lot).

  39. decrepitoldfool

    I feel he became so popular because of the whole politically correct syndrome of propping up people who ‚Äúovercome adversity‚Ä?.

    Probably not.  Hawking truly is very witty and funny, and he is a good writer.  I think he’s pretty far off-base with this bit, however in addition to being quite the physicist he is also quite the populist -a handy trick for anyone.

  40. jason

    It continues to amaze me that so many people apparently practice the “never leave home if anything is left undone” mentality. I mean, if we shouldn’t reach out from Earth until everything here is addressed, and that regardless of other concerns, I can only assume those advocating such a stance never leave their nests until all the laundry is done, all the vacuuming is complete, all the dishes are washed and put away, and every little task is complete. I realize going to work means making money, but that’s obviously not important if we ignore, even momentarily, anything left undone at home. Thus is the critically important proclamation being made when we declare that every concern here on our planet must be addressed before we consider expanding our reach beyond this tiny little rock.

    I’m shocked and appalled by the lack of interest in scientific advancement (known to be hinged on expanding our abilities and reach beyond this planet). I mean, wouldn’t it be easier to explore the universe if we bloat our presence outside of Earth?

    And that’s nothing compared to the obvious declaration of “I don’t care if all humans die so long as there remains any concern worthy of action right here.” Really? Are we so hopeless? Are we so unworthy of saving?

    What I see is a lack of reading and comprehension skills. Hawking never said, “Cut and run because we’ve made a mess here and should get the hell out of Dodge”. Why are so many people finding that in his statements? I guess it’s true what they say about American schools.

    No one can deny that partisan faith is getting in the way of common sense and scientific discovery.  Boiled down to basic elements, critics say:
    -Environmentalism should always trump survival of the species.
    -Cynicism must always take precedent over the quest for knowledge.
    -Quadriplegia is a convenient excuse for discarding sound, reasonable, logical, and scientifically accurate information; essentially.

    Listen: Hawking’s not losing it. That’s a disgusting idea that reeks of prejudice and ignorance. He’s right in every conceivable way. I’m disappointed to see that science works just like politics: it’s only true if you believe the same thing, otherwise it can be disregarded as ignorant foolhardiness.

  41. Chris Clarke

    It continues to amaze me that so many people apparently practice the ‚Äúnever leave home if anything is left undone‚Ä? mentality. I mean, if we shouldn‚Äôt reach out from Earth until everything here is addressed, and that regardless of other concerns, I can only assume those advocating such a stance never leave their nests until all the laundry is done, all the vacuuming is complete, all the dishes are washed and put away, and every little task is complete.

    That would be silly. But no one here said that.

    And that‚Äôs nothing compared to the obvious declaration of ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt care if all humans die so long as there remains any concern worthy of action right here.‚Ä?

    Or that.

    Cynicism must always take precedent over the quest for knowledge.

    Or that.

    Environmentalism should always trump survival of the species.

    False dichotomy. Survival of our species depends on environmental protection.

    I’m disappointed to see that science works just like politics: it’s only true if you believe the same thing, otherwise it can be disregarded as ignorant foolhardiness.

    And that just makes no sense. This is a political discussion about science. No one here’s doing science. Or at least, not in this thread.

    But I completely agree with you, Jason, as regards the comments on Hawking’s disability. His quadraplegia has no bearing on the validity of his ideas. And if he is dependent on machines to communicate and to get from one place to another, that’s hardly something someone chatting on the internet at work before he drives home has any right to point out as a distinguishing characteristic.

    In any event, I’m all for scientific discovery. Boost NASA’s budget a hundredfold, and send robot missions out to liveblog the Oort cloud. I’ll be fighting for a front-row seat.

  42. jason

    Forgive me if I misunderstood, Chris. I apparently interpreted the following incorrectly:

    What pisses me off is this. I’m looking at the list of dangers Hawking cites: genetic engineering turning the biosphere into gray goo, climate change from burning of fossil fuels, nuclear war‚Ķ and a certain commonality among them strikes me. I mean, we’re not talking the sun going nova, which is far enough in the future that a dollar a year budget devoted to extrasolar mass migration research would likely be more than adequate to get us there. And we’re not talking comet impact or flood basalt here. Every threat, every looming disaster Hawking’s talking about here is human generated.

    There are two reasons why Hawking’s brainstorm is thus just utterly, unbelievably stupid.

    First: these problems are mitigatable, if not in fact reversible or (in the case of nuclear war) even preventable if, and only if, addressing them is made a priority. which means not cutting funding to satellite-based climate monitoring programs for some masturbatory, LaRoucheian Robert Zubrin fantasy. (Have I mentioned that I know Zubrin from when he used to sell LaRouche’s paper New Solidarity, in Buffalo in the 1970s? A story for another time.)

    It seems to me that you exactly say that: If our own home is still messy, it behooves us to focus on that before we move on to other activities. The comparison is precisely the same, IMO, and please don’t hesitate to correct me if I’m wrong (unlike many, I’m always willing to admit when I’ve misinterpreted what others say).

    In addition, to wit:

    Survival of our species depends on environmental protection.

    Again, it would seem to me that you are saying the only way for our species to survive is to focus wholly on the mess we have right here (and, yes, it’s a major mess).

    It would appear to me that Hawking just offered a possible alternative to that self-proclaimed axiom. Did I misunderstand his meaning? Or yours?

    As for all humans dying, I’ve obviously interpreted the cockroach metaphor with much ignorance. I would appreciate your clarification in that regard. The same is true for cynicism.

    And then there’s “[t]his is a political discussion about science. No one here’s doing science.” Those seem mutually exclusive.  Also, it would seem very few understood that was the case. I can read and re-read your post and continually fail to come to that conclusion. I can be quite dumb at times and beg your forgiveness if I’ve misunderstood you.

  43. Chris Clarke

    If that’s snark, then well done sir. Nice and subtle. If not, also well done.

    The problem here ‚Äî it seems to me ‚Äî is your taking my “fix the huge honking problems that threaten us right now” for “fix all the problems that face us on any scale.”

    It’s a scale issue, in other words. You do the same thing here:

    Survival of our species depends on environmental protection.
    Again, it would seem to me that you are saying the only way for our species to survive is to focus wholly on the mess we have right here (and, yes, it’s a major mess).

    It’s that “wholly” that’s the problem. No one here has said, so far as I can tell, that we need to stop looking through telescopes at quasars until we get the Endangered Species Act made a global law, or whatever.

    Like I said: I don’t have a problem with a continued space program. It’s the juxtaposition of “we need Mars colonies” with “because the world is going to hell” that bothered me. Those who point out that we could have a Mars colony and wonderful environmental initiatives if we spent our money more sanely are correct.

    Course, this is all pretty much moot: if we don’t get the Mars colonies going in ten years, we won’t be able to for some time.

  44. Allison

    Your feelings on Brent Spiner differ from my feelings on Brent Spiner!  Therefore your argument is moot and you’re stupid and you can’t do science and I hate you and YOU DON’T KNOW ME!!!!1

  45. jason

    It’s definitely not snark. I don’t do snark, at least not at the expense of others, or at least not intentionally, or unintentionally, or whatever… Well, let’s just say it was not intended to be snark. I truly am confused in this case and am trying to reconcile what I know with what I hear from others.

    Despite checking the brochures time and again, I fail to locate any indication that Hawking declared we should colonize space simply “because the world is going to hell”. What he did say is the world faces any number of threats, some identifiable and some not, some anthropogenic and some not, and that failure to respond to those threats could be suicide for the species. He never advocated ignoring the woes of this world in lieu of creating the same elsewhere; instead, he, to me at least, blatantly identified that we have problems and concerns here on Earth and we should take them seriously and understand the threat they pose to Homo sapiens in toto. I also heard a call for scientific advancement.

    I suppose what amazes me is that, like a pack of wolves, too many people have turned on him and misconstrued and misinterpreted his words. Many of these people are otherwise logical, critical, open thinkers who otherwise advocate the kind of progress which he so clearly states in this regard.

    We can agree to disagree without hurting my feelings. I certainly wouldn’t be offended to discover I think something that differs from what others think. The primary concern from my POV, however, is that Hawking is being painted a betrayer of Mother Earth when in fact he has done nothing of the kind. Much like calling for us to investigate more than one disease at a time, he does nothing more than point out we should consider “all our eggs in one basket” to be a menace rather than a defense against possible extinction. How that can be a bad thing is where I get confused.

  46. Chris Clarke

    Well, Jason, I think we disagree on a few details, but we’re not really that far from agreement. I suppose the main difference is of emphasis, as well as of the degree to which we think Hawking can withstand mocking as a public figure. I mean, some of the things said in these threads were rather harsh, including some of the things in my post, as hyperbolic as they may have been. But I have a lot of admiration for the man, and I think his reputation will withstand the blogosphere’s flavor of the week argument.

    Anyhow, thanks for persisting: you’re a good guy.

  47. David Bryson, MD (Yale ' 63)

    since urban civilization started 5000 years ago,
    human existence has become increasingly post-Darwinian -Darwinian existence has the First Principles of survival and reproduction -there are no First Principles for post-Darwinian existence -all discussions of human futures are
    equally arbitrary and will remain so until the
    basic distinction between Darwinian and post-Darwinian provides the framework of public thought and action

  48. Mark Matson

    Let me just say I disagree with Chris Clarke just about as much as humanly possible. 

    I’m a proud liberal and hate to see this kind of stuff come from my side.  Sigh.  I’ll just give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you mean well.

    Most of the problems on this planet are about choices more than resources.  There is little competition between getting out into space and saving our planet.  In fact, they may be highly correlated.

    Let yourself dream a little.

  49. Chris Clarke

    Most of the problems on this planet are about choices more than resources.

    This is an article of faith that might have been true in the 1970s, when I first heard it proposed. It is no longer true.

    I will say it for, I dunno, the tenth time: I support space exploration. But there is a resource conflict between large spaceflight programs and survival on the surface of the planet. Frinstance, as one of my co-bloggers reminded me in an email a couple months ago, forty percent of the world’s population relies on nitrogen made available to plants through the Haber-Bosch process, which itself relies on cheap fossil fuels. And if you think we’re not going to face some very difficult choices as regards how we spend our fossil fuel supply in the next few years, you haven’t been paying much attention.

    Do we have a right to say a few hundred million galllons of fuel are going to be used to generate rocket fuel ‚Äî or used directly as rocket fuel, as in kerosene ‚Äî rather than to feed people? Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

    Also, I’m not a liberal.

    But I really would like to see Saturn’s rings close up.

  50. Tom Boutell

    No, we don’t know how to build a sustainable second ecosystem. Yes, we have to know how to do that in order to successfully colonize Mars.

    Consider how useful that knowledge would be in preserving the habitability of the Earth.

  51. Dave

    Seems to me that a lot of Stephen Hawking’s statements have gotten a bit misinterpreted. All he’s saying is that it would be provident to get the human race out onto other planets as a bit of an insurance policy. He knows there’s no reason there has to be life on earth -it’s just one speck amongst lifeless specks, and there are lots of things that could go wrong and make it just like all the otherlifeless ones too. We’ve becomed “science fictioned” into thinking that the universe around us isn’t real somehow, or it’s “manageable” -but it’s as real as rock and a super hostile.  A large solar flare, a gamma ray burster, a nearby supernova, an errant comet -it goes on and on -all real -any could wipe us out instantly -no amount of F15s or cool technology would do a movie rescue on us. Spread the risk, get out somewhere else, and he’s not saying migration -he knows the numbers -1 space shuttle launch = 5 astronauts to 125 miles up, 1/2 of 1% of the USA to Mars, 1.5 million people hmm that’s about 300,000 shuttle launches.

    Seems the home-grown risks are more under our control but insurance still not a bad idea. I see that a lot of Florida home owners can no longer get hurricane insurance. The possibility of tipping the greenhouse effect into irreversible runaway seems the most probable of disasters and Stephen’s right to alert us -the scientists who are actually doing research in the climate area are freaked, but have to be calm and reasonable and not overplay the worst case scenarios. I expect to be made seriously uncomfortable by global warming -won’t be a nice disaster I can watch on TV -I, and most of us are going to be directly affected -scarey!

  52. alicia-logic

    I did fail to mention the Pauly Shore movie, it occurs to me.

    This post was hideously offensive to us in The Sanctimonious Star Trek Set‚Ñ¢, but I can fix it with just a tiny edit:

    “Hawking‚Äôs future of humanity resembles nothing so much as those aliens from Independence Day, the ones that travel from planet to planet laying waste the resources and moving on, pausing only to strangle Pauly Shore. OK, so every disaster has an upside.”

    You’re welcome.