Hawking: physicist, optimist, prophet of doom

Apocalypse now? Just some of the ways people have predicted the end of life on Earth.

Was Stephen Hawking right to predict the end of the world? The visionary physicist urged humans to colonise space to save themselves from inevitable destruction. Is this science or sci-fi?

“I am an optimist”, Stephen Hawking recently said. You might not have guessed it. In his later years, the renowned theoretical physicist, who died yesterday, was prone to making bleak predictions about mankind’s future.

In 2016, he declared that “a disaster to planet Earth… is a near certainty in the next thousand or 10 thousand years”.

Last year, he issued an even more dire warning: “The human race only has 100 years before we need to colonise another planet.” He made the comments in a BBC documentary that marked his 75th birthday, Stephen Hawking: Expedition New Earth.

The comments added urgency to statements Hawking made in his 2016 Reith Lectures. In response to a question from the audience, he warned of the significant dangers humankind poses to its own existence. Although the probability of disaster is “quite low” in any given year, he said at the time, “it adds up over time.”

His prediction was also a call for action. “We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognise the dangers and control them,” he said. Humans should seek to colonise space to allow long-term survival.

Hawking took an increasing interest in threats to human existence, even though they lay outside his field of expertise. The physicist believed that “advanced aliens” could “conquer and colonise” Earth. He campaigned to accelerate the search for intelligent alien life.

Yet most of the threats Hawking perceived were man-made. In 2015, he joined robotics experts in writing an open letter warning that “autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow”.

On another occasion, he noted: “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.”

Around 2800 BC, an Assyrian tablet reportedly spoke of “signs that the world is speedily coming to an end”. Armageddon and humankind’s potential role in its own destruction have remained subjects of fascination ever since.

The end is nigh

How depressing, say some, to consider the destruction of humankind’s place on Earth. Our species will prove unable to live together, working in the common interest. The technology we invent will bring untold destruction. And we will selfishly ruin the planet we have been gifted control over. A pessimistic message.

On the contrary, Hawking thought of himself as an optimist. If we can spot the risks we face, we can find ways to prevent or mitigate them. In years to come, humankind may have colonised other planets; that would require scientific progress that we cannot even contemplate yet. These urgent threats could drive humanity to achievements previously thought impossible.

You Decide

  1. Do you worry about the end of the world?
  2. Is Hawking’s message a pessimistic or optimistic one?

Activities

  1. Form teams of three. Each team will either agree or disagree with the motion: “The end of the world is our greatest opportunity.” Choose three points to make and prepare a one-minute speech on one of them each. Debate as a class.
  2. Research an occasion in history when the end of the world was predicted. Prepare a two-minute presentation to your class showing the impact it had on human behaviour.

Some People Say...

“Danger causes mankind’s greatest achievements.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Hawking was known for his groundbreaking research into black holes and the origins of the universe, as well as his motor neurone disease, which gradually robbed him of his movement. He lost his voice in the 1980s as part of treatment for pneumonia, and communicated thereafter through a voice synthesiser. He published various popular science books, including the bestselling A Brief History of Time.
What do we not know?
If Hawking’s predictions will prove to be correct. He was not the only well-known figure talking about impending threats to our existence. For instance, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk believes human existence is threatened. We also do not know if it is even possible for us to develop the technology to colonise other planets within the next 100 years.

Word Watch

75th birthday
When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in his twenties, he was told that he only had a couple of years to live. He died aged 76.
Lectures
The Reith Lectures are a series of radio lectures given by leading figures. They are commissioned by the BBC.
Expertise
Some of Hawking’s most important contributions to science have to do with black holes. These are regions in space so dense that they draw in matter from around them. Some were created when the universe began and others when galaxies were first created.
Aliens
Hawking said last year: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
Autonomous weapons
These are a weaponised form of artificial intelligence which can select and fire on targets without instructions.
Signs
The tablet’s warning that “our Earth is degenerate in these later days” sounds familiar today.