Stephen Hawking, Phone Home

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Over at the great Spiked, Joe Kaplinsky lays into Stephen Hawking for giving a craptacular reason for space travel. In late June, Hawking said human beings should "spread out into space," heading to the moon and Mars because we've fouled our nest here on the Big Blue Marble. To which Kaplinsky replies:

[Hawking], 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….

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.

More here.

Scientist and s/f novelist Gregory Benford profiled Hawking for Reason here.

NY Timesman John Tierney talked up affordable ways to get to Mars in Reason here.

Hat Tip: Arts & Letters Daily.

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68 responses to “Stephen Hawking, Phone Home

  1. Doesn’t Hawking’s argument boil down to “Humanity shouldn’t leave all of its eggs in one basket”?

    That seems emminently reasonable to me. In fact, he didn’t say we did fuck up the Earth, he said “In case, the Earth gets messed up.” That included things like a giant asteroid hitting us in addition to the global warming thing.

  2. Say what you will about Hawking on space travel, but the man’s been on The Simpsons (and how many phisicists can say that?) and, according to some here, he’s rock solid on Global Warming.

  3. Isn’t Hawking’s point simply that the odds of species survival increase if humans settle down in other places?

    How is this different than saying a securities-trading firm is less likely to be completely shut down by a natural disaster if it has multiple operations centers? Or that a business that relies on e-mail should have more than one connection to the Internet?

    I know it’s not an upbeat, transhumanist argument, but if species survival — not individual survival — is the concern, then it’s a sensible enough statement.

  4. Hmmmm… “phisicists”? Apparently, either this new spell-checker ain’t doing its job or I need a new eye exam.

  5. Jesus Christ, Gallespie reminds me of some medieval inquisitor tracking down heretics. Give me an open mind over a narrow, article-of-faith-ridden ideology any day.

  6. Methinks Hawking is putting on his Spock ears to get some attention.

    ’cause, if he talked about stuff that was within the realm of reason, it would bore people to death.

    I’m too lazy to Google, but isn’t “space” 99.999999999999999999999999999% nothing? And out of that profoundly small percentage of matter, how much of that comprises of human-habitable space? And let’s not forget that this matter is spread across astronomically large distances.

    I think we should stop with the pipe-dreams and concentrate solely on the rock we currently reside. It makes much, much more sense to talk about planetary defenses against collisions than to suggest Battlestar Galactica roving colonies.

  7. The magnitude of possible global warming (anthropogenic) is a really stupid reason to think we would have to abandon the planet. The constant problem with the logic of chemists, physicist and the like are that they have an innate belief that the world is static. The laws of physics have always applied and will always apply, so they see the world as “balanced” and humans as “upsetting this delicate balance”. This is not true- the earth is a dynamic system that is consistently out of balance and constantly changing. There will be good and bad aspects to an earth that warms up over the next couple hundred years. I think a warmer world would probably support more humans (more rain, longer growing seasons). Of course there will also be downsides (go ask Al Gore). These will be insignificant compared to the end of this interglacial period, when the next ice age begins. This will happen and could happen at any time. Or on a longer scale if a Permian type climate returns (tropical swamps in nova Scotia?).

    Favorite bumper sticker –

    “Earth First! (we can mine the other planets later)”

  8. I don’t know that the opinion of a rap star like M.C. Hawking carries much weight.

    “Upon blind faith they place reliance,
    what we need more of is science!”

    Seriously, I read Hawking’s remarks as other commenters here have–as a belief that mankind needs to spread out and diversify to limit its risk of annihilation. Although I, personally, have other motivations for wanting to colonize space, I think that’s a valid reason, too, and I agree with it.

  9. If you think the Earth is inhospitable and dangerous and resource-poor, just wait till you arrive on Mars. At least on earth, I can go outside without a space suit, and I don’t have to piss in a vacuum tube, and there is half-way decent Chinese food most places. Of course, I would have no problem with a large number of other people going to live on other planets and moons.

  10. Don’t get me wrong, I am attracted to the idea of humans spreading out onto other worlds, I just think that we are spectacularly ill-suited to every world in our cosmic neighborhood, at least every thing we know about it our solar system. Or they are spectacularly ill-suited to us. I can’t imagine an enjoyable existence on any of them, anyway.

  11. Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact it’s cold as hell.

  12. I think it would make more sense to stay where we are and just kick all the trouble-makers off the planet. We could expel Kim Jong-il with a bottle rocket.

  13. Heh. Good one.

  14. …on earth … I don’t have to piss in a vacuum tube

    For years now I can piss on transistors. What a lucky bunch we are, to live in such times.

  15. In Soviet Russia, vacuum tubes piss on you.

  16. Fools! We must leave Earth to escape the robots and our genetically engineered replacements!

    Actually, I figure we’ll deal with inhospitable environments by changing them, changing us, or some combination thereof. Interesting times. Though I reject wholeheartedly Fred Pohl’s option in Man Plus. You can read the book, ’cause I’m not telling what was done to adapt that poor guy to Mars. Ugh.

  17. sam:

    The world is dynamic and many scientists think so as well. In fact, I’ll wager that most chemists and physicists don’t think that it’s static at all. I personally think that a living, growing, evolving Earth is a healthy thing. But you are correct that there may be some positive consequences as well. How can we possibly know for sure at this point?

    As I’ve said here before, the GW debate amongst scientists is not as cut and dried as most of the public seems to think. It’s just that the doomsday scenarios are so much more exciting and get more press so we get sucked in by the “four out of five doctors” stuff.

  18. Please, lots more Mr. Nice Guy! Maybe in a couple of centuries humans will have developed the capability to explore and live in space in a reasonable manner, but right now it’s a preposterously expensive and ludicrously unhealthy boondoggle.* Let’s abolish government-funded space programs and cut our damn taxes!

    *And don’t tell me about the private sector. When a private sector vehicle attains escape velocity (27,000 miles an hour, more or less), I’ll be impressed.

  19. “The magnitude of possible global warming (anthropogenic) is a really stupid reason to think we would have to abandon the planet.”

    The article is clear- he never said we should abandon the planet. He said we should expand into space. The number of existential dangers humanity (and our biosphere) face is huge. Mocking these concerns is sophomoric.

  20. “Actually, I figure we’ll deal with inhospitable environments by changing them, changing us, or some combination thereof.”

    Perhaps, but I am somewhat pessimistic about our capacity to engineer other worlds in any significant way using tools that have to be launched into space at great cost and risk. Not saying it couldnt happen, just that it would require some pretty astonishing technological advances. I would imagine that once we have developed the capacity to engineer planets and humans, it would be much more cost-effective to modify our own planet and out own species to deal with earthly problems.

  21. Let’s build a Dr. Evil-type lair deep in the earth’s mantle. Woudlnt we be as safe there from most existential threats as we could ever hope to be on Mars or the Moon? We could have sharks with frickin laser beams on their heads and stuff. It’d be cool.

  22. Well, it isn’t an either-or proposition. And, as far as having the technology to make changes to ourselves or to the environment of another world, I imagine that we’ll move much faster when we actually have a reason to do so. A permanent presence in space might help accelerate things, after all. In fact, I’m sure that it would. And the lessons learned in, say, modifying Mars’ or Titan’s environment might be useful if we’re facing major climate issues on Earth (either due to global warming–man-made or otherwise–or some natural catastrophe).

    I’m not necessarily advocating massive government funding of space colonization–in fact, I’m not–but I do think we should be out there in force. Earth will do fine (or not) whether or not we go, but the advances that exploring and exploiting the solar system will bring will likely help us to improve our lot on this world. Until the Martian colonies revolt and redirect comets at Earth. Oh, well.

  23. All this science… I don’t… understand. It’s just my job… five days a week. I’m a rocket… MAN!

  24. “The article is clear- he never said we should abandon the planet. He said we should expand into space. The number of existential dangers humanity (and our biosphere) face is huge. Mocking these concerns is sophomoric.”

    I agree, as one example a bolide impact is one of the greatest hazard to civilization. My point is that global warming is not. I also confess I didn’t read the article.

  25. “My point is that global warming is not”

    I’m with you there. Sorry, my comments weren’t intended to single you out- I was speaking to the bizarre amount of criticism Hawking’s comments have drawn.

  26. The constant problem with the logic of chemists, physicist and the like are that they have an innate belief that the world is static. The laws of physics have always applied and will always apply, so they see the world as “balanced” and humans as “upsetting this delicate balance”.

    Comment by: sam at July 7, 2006 10:05 AM

    I think you’re confusing scientists with new-age shamanistic neo-luddites.

  27. The number of existential dangers humanity (and our biosphere) face is huge. Mocking these concerns is sophomoric.

    Given that a) even the most optimistic Martian remediation ideas would still leave the Red Planet less inviting for humans than Earth was during the Cretaceous period; b) the moon has no atmosphere at all, nor any geological activity to make it interesting or exploitable; c) the other planets in the solar system rank below even Mars in terms of hospitableness; d) the possibility that planets of terrestrial or martian atmosphere qualities may have formed in the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is speculative at best; and e) progress on the warp drive or any other means of traveling outside the solar system has been underwhelming: how does space exploration help the human race protect itself from any of the existential dangers you’ve mentioned?

  28. The constant problem with the logic of chemists, physicist

    That was a pun-physical constants…

  29. Tim, who says we have to live in an earth-like environment? And don’t forget that we may end up adapting ourselves to these other worlds, rather than the other way around.

  30. “how does space exploration help the human race protect itself from any of the existential dangers you’ve mentioned?”

    There is no way to eliminate every risk but moving people to differnet locations in our solar system increases our chances.

    I’m not sure what the exact number is but certainly a population of 10-20,000 off planet would be genetically viable. This number doesn’t require a terraformed planet.

    Obviously people living off planet would need extensive technologies to support them. Some options for habitats are O’Neill colonies, Asteroid habitats, etc. These would need some type of propulsion to not only control their orbits but to move them (inside Jupiter’s magnetic field or behind it for example) in case of a giant solar flare or nearby astronomical event.

  31. Was somebody saying something about conservative science reporting being weakened by knee-jerk dismsissal of anything that kinda sorta sounds like what an environmentalist might say?

  32. Tim, who says we have to live in an earth-like environment? And don’t forget that we may end up adapting ourselves to these other worlds, rather than the other way around.

    Well I’d say the billions of earth-dwellers who have failed to relocate to Antarctica or the floor of ocean-both paradises in comparison to even the friendliest known extraterrestrial environments-suggest there are limits to our capacity to make it over the long term in non-earthlike atmospheres. As far as adapting to the other worlds, well, that’s easier said than done: By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.

  33. There is no way to eliminate every risk but moving people to differnet locations in our solar system increases our chances.

    There’s a risk that my family could be killed in a fire at my home, but will the odds of survival increase if I lock each of my kids into the trunk of a different car, scattered around the city? Do the odds get better if each car has an average temperature of minus-100 degrees F?

    It’s hopeless, folks. Space is worth exploring on its own terms, but it’s not going to solve our probems. Or at least, by the time it does, we’ll be looking like the Talosians.

  34. No one said that progress was easy. I don’t see any mass movement off of the planet any time soon, but getting some viable populations off of the Earth would suit me just fine. For several reasons. If we get to the point where it is economically and otherwise in our interest to terraform another planet or moon (or to take other measures to adapt us to other places), then we can worry about those problems. For now, a cave on Mars with ten people living in it would be a nice start. A pressurized cave with power and stuff, I might add.

    A cool underwater dome city on our planet would be nice, too 🙂

  35. this argument devolves into whether you are pessimistic about the future of man or optimistic. This optimists (me included) say “let’s go” to the idea of space travel and the colonization of the solar system and then beyond. the pessimists want to stay behind and bitch about everything on earth. New rockets will get us to the stars, and future technology will allow our descendents to live off planet. It is just a matter of time.

  36. For now, a cave on Mars with ten people living in it would be a nice start. A pressurized cave with power and stuff, I might add.

    Agreed. All I’m saying is it’s hard-bordering on impossible-to foresee a time when that cave would not be dependent on a flourishing human civilization back on good ol’ planet earth-best planet of them all! The other planets hate us for our freedoms!

  37. At last, a technology pessimist at Reason 🙂

  38. Earth will be the homo sapiens central for some time to come. Until the Spacers conquer us with their positronic robots.

    Unless we mess ourselves up, I’m confident that will make our way into space sometime in the not-too-distant future. I’m equally confident that the way we get there, our initial reasons for going, and our way of dealing with the environmental challenges will be nothing like what we predict today. Heck, maybe the Vulcans will show up and give us warp drive. Who knows?

  39. For a little Friday fun, take your favorite Stephen Hawkings quote (or make one up), drop it into a Microsoft Excel cell, and click on the Text to Speech tool. Excel will do a reasonable impersonation. Be sure to include some text about changing my diaper.

  40. “Heck, maybe the Vulcans will show up and give us warp drive.”

    No no, the Vulcans show up once we’ve invented warp drive. To keep an eye on things. Right after some lame ass ballad.

  41. Sorry for the over-posting, but one thing I am curious about is how adaptable we really are. On Earth, I think the answer is “very”, and I think that has a lot to do with Tim’s billions of corpses that died trying to get us to our exalted status (still rated #1 species in the latest interspecies polls).

    Anyway, does that adaptability carry over into space and to other planets? It’s not just the obvious stuff like gravity and radiation. What about all of the biota here that won’t be going with us? What about not having the same exposure to solar radiation that we have here? Etc., etc. We may end up adapting via technology, but my point is whether the human body has the flexibility to adapt to permanent settlement elsewhere. Stay tuned!

  42. No no, the Vulcans show up once we’ve invented warp drive.

    I guess thoreau needs to get working on that, then. Right after he’s solved the corn syrup problem. 🙂

    Either him or the secret designers.

  43. joe, that was a movie. I’m talking about the real Vulcans 🙂

  44. Right after some lame ass ballad.

    I’ve recently had to bone up on my post-Kirk Treks, so I’m speaking as somebody who never saw a full episode of Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise until a few weeks ago: Why does everybody seem to hate Enterprise so much? I understand why nobody likes the Awesome Eighties ballad, but minus the song I actually find that opening-credits exploration montage kind of stirring. And the decision to do a prequel moved the franchise back to its strength: exploration. The spinoffs had vanished so far up their own wazoo they really needed to get back to basics. I haven’t seen enough of Enterprise to know whether they succeeded in that, but there really was a desperate need to jettison most of the mythology and get back to exploring strange new worlds.

  45. Space, exciting and new.
    Beam aboard, we’re expecting you.
    Space, life’s neatest reward.
    Let it warp, it warps back to you.

    The Enterprise soon will be making a five-year run.
    The Enterprise promises some “thing” for everyone.
    Set a course for bold ventures,
    Your mind on a new species.

    And Spock, ain’t so logical, anymore.
    It’s an open smile on a friendly bridge.
    Yes SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE! It’s SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE! (hey-ah!) Beam on aboard, it’s space!

  46. Oops, “bridge” and “anymore” don’t rhyme. Oh, well.

  47. TC:

    Y’know, come to think of it, maybe it WAS the ballad that killed the series. Every fellow geek I’ve talked to hated it.

    The original “Trek” theme with the crazy 60s bongos and “laa-laa” vocals really got the party started right.

    However, “Enterprise” gets all sentimental, with the crappy song and the montage. I thought I was watching “Thirtysomething”, for christ’s sake.

    So, by the time the show actually starts, I’m already thinking “Geez, Scott Bacala is such a wuss.” And it’s all downhill from there.

  48. You know, when Trek comes back, as it inevitably will, why not bring back updated versions of the original music? To this day, I still catch myself humming the Star Trek Fightin’ Music–Kroykah!

    I think they should do the next series in the time of TOS. That was the romantic era of the Federation, with few rules, fewer acts adhering to those rules, short skirts, and only twelve Constitution-class starships.

  49. I think that has a lot to do with Tim’s billions of corpses

    Actually, that’s Tim plagiarizing HG Wells. If I could come up with a phrase like that, I wouldn’t be dicking around on a web-based comment thread.

  50. I knew that sounded familiar. Oh, well, I cite you citing Welles. We do that in the law all the time. ‘Cause we’re lazy.

  51. Face it, guys: we’re stuck here.
    Nobody’s going anywhere.

  52. I’m reminded of articles I’ve read about the type of resiliancy the planet earth has. We could pollute the atmosphere until nothing detectable could live, but eventually the process of bacterial evolution could begin again and bring rise to a new sentient species.

    Essentially, we might be causing global warming now ecause of the stress we’re putting on the environment, but if the stress was stopped tomorrow, its possible the earth could rebound like a weeble wobble and find a new equilibrium.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ll survive our destructiveness, but atleast we shouldn’t feel too bad about destroying the Earth, because it’ll be back after its dusted off our corruption

    🙂

  53. Mother earth will abort us and every other living thing on her sooner or later unless we escape. The sun shall only shine for so long and then at some point the universe will die and where will we (what will “we” mean at that point) go? Will it always be possible to escape?

    Nothing will compare to the global waming we’ll experience in a few billion years when the oceans boil away but you won’t have to cook your seafood.

  54. Isaac-

    T. doesn’t care about warp drive. T. doesn’t care that the Vulcans might have miraculous technologies that could cure diabetes and autism. Why? Because T. has fallen for the lies.

    So T. won’t be inventing any warp drives. Because T. doesn’t care.

  55. What? I love my children.

  56. thoreau, I just heard about some sort of X-Prize-like foundation that’s being set up to study warp drive and other light-speed limit end runs. I believe that NASA dropped out of this sort of research a few years ago, though I’d be surprised if it did so completely. Anyway, just another way that you’ve betrayed America, nay, humanity.

  57. Are we there yet?

  58. ed, if you want to get there, just spread a rumor that there are people smoking indoors in a secret moonbase. I guarantee we’ll be there in force within two years to stop them.

  59. PL-

    Two years? Hell, we could get the government to the moon in one year if we spread a rumor that lunar soil has hallucinogenic properties.

    And Dave W. would demand that scientists determine whether hallucinogens derived from lunar soil are safer than terrestrial hallucinogens.

    But you know what will really get commercial space travel going? Zero gravity porn.

  60. thoreau,

    I have a vision of the future. A woman. A highly trained astronaut with multiple advanced degrees. The pinnacle of human education and fitness. A person with the courage and the drive to be willing to sacrifice a comfortable life on Earth to live in a cave on Mars, for the ultimate betterment of mankind.

    Yes, I see this woman. And I see a web cam.

  61. PL-

    I see this woman in a space ship orbiting Venus. I see a space ship docking with her space ship. I see the airlock opening to establish contact between the vessels.

    And I see a pizza delivery guy emerging from the other ship.

  62. …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.

    Also, they run counter to the substantial evidence that the environmental quality of the earth is improving markedly. On global warming, the evidence is that most of any warming is due to recent increases in solar radiation rather than human activity:

    http://www.john-daly.com/solar/solar.htm

    I say “any warming” cuz there is evidence that the amount of warming has been overestimated:

    “Better Detection, Not Global Warming, Behind Increase In Large Antarctic Icebergs, BYU Study Shows”

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/10/021024070050.htm

    But let’s imagine that the solar induced warming is gonna get birchen worse before it get better. There is still no Hollywood apocalyptic scenario one can envision which entails the demise of human kind that is remotely realistic. A more likely deathblow to our kind is a massive nuclear conflagration. But the chances of this occurring are small and the chances of it being a Homo sapien wipeout are miniscule. A catastrophic collision with an asteroid is more likely, in fact given a long enough time span; the odds of a earth/ asteroid intersection are pretty good. But instead of working to distribute our ancestors, and /or ourselves, depending on how optimistic you are about the biotech revolution extending your personal life span, we could actually avoid the whole disaster if we develop a way to divert the celestial intruder. “Shoot it down” sure isn’t appropriate in this case, is it?

  63. …Shoulda been: “But let’s imagine that the solar induced warming is gonna get *bitchen* worse before it get better.

    The preview button is my friend. The preview button is my friend. The preview button is my friend. The preview button is my friend. The preview button …

  64. …*gets* better.

    I really don’t deserve to be on the same thread with you fine people.

  65. I’m wondering about the worthiness of the idea of preserving our species. What gives this concept, apart from the principle of saving lives, its own merit? Why would anyone work to make this happen for its own sake? The only good reason that I’m coming up with is the desire to preserve one’s own progeny or that of one’s relatives and maybe friends. And even at that, how much am I willing to put toward the survival and procreation of my descendants who are removed by 100, 500, 1000 or 10,000 generations?

  66. thoreau,

    That’ll be a “delivery” to remember, indeed.

    Man, we’re soooo going to be in space now. Now I know why Branson is so into this idea. Porn King of the Solar System!

  67. While I’m all for space exploration and colonization, the survival of the species argument doesn’t cut it for me. Surviving a big asteroid strike on Earth might still be easier than surviving an uneventful day on any other planet, given the right location and equipment.

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