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Hawking and the Long Result

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Stephen Hawking is only sixty-six. Not just because of his indomitable fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is a story in its own right, but because his position at the summit of modern physics has kept him in the public eye for an exceedingly long time. Now, in a speech commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of NASA, Hawking has taken aim at the question of why space matters. And it’s not surprising that this Star Trek fan quoted his favorite show.

“If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before … It will not solve any of our immediate problems on planet Earth, but it will give us a new perspective on them and… Hopefully, it will unite us to face a common challenge.”

But of course, that question of solving our immediate problems on Earth is what is often subject to debate. Although the space budget is usually overestimated (a recent conversation illustrated this, a friend citing the ‘trillions we’re spending on space’) Hawking notes that you could increase the international space budget twenty times and still be talking about no more than 0.25 percent of the collective gross domestic product (GDP). That’s a quarter of a percent of the world’s financial resources to potentially save the species.

Stephen Hawking

Some of us point to the threat of impacts from near Earth objects (NEOs) in this debate, but Hawking has in the past mentioned the dangers of climate change and nuclear war as reasons for expanding first to other planets and eventually to other solar systems. He views the current NASA goal of a return to the Moon and a trip to Mars as steps within this broader vision, one that includes work on interstellar propulsion that may pay off on a time frame of from two to five hundred years.

Image: Stephen Hawking’s vision takes us out a good five hundred years. Do we have the cultural commitment to apply consistent effort over such time frames? Our future in interstellar space may depend upon the answer. Credit: British Council.

Hawking spoke at George Washington University on Monday, where the bulk of the audience may have found a two to five-hundred year time frame uncomfortable. After all, we’re not used to thinking in such terms, and in an era that demands fast turn-arounds, wouldn’t it be grand to simply come up with a star drive tomorrow? Indeed, do we have the patience to embark on a project that might last five centuries, whose outcome will always remain in doubt, and whose funding will have to be continually extracted from reluctant governments or, more likely, drawn from the philanthropic donations of a small number of visionaries?

A quick solution to star drives is unlikely. But Stephen Hawking is himself an example of the power of the long-term even as it applies to daily life. Speaking last week at Caltech (again via a pre-recorded talk), Hawking answered questions that had been submitted to him in advance. There were only five questions, but according to Kip Thorne, a close friend and upcoming physics legend in his own right, it took Hawking several days to program his answers. Thorne describes him as “about the most patient, stubborn man I know.” Patience and stubborness. Those are the traits that may get us to the stars, markers of a core belief in the long haul.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dad2059 April 23, 2008, 17:03

    Words alone can’t describe Stephen Hawking’s character. I think we can all agree on one though; Immortal.

  • James M. Essig April 23, 2008, 20:06

    Hi Folks;

    Stephen Hawking is one of those guys who comes along maybe every few centuries or so. He is in the long line of giants that went before him such as Plato, Euclid, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. This gentle disabled man who probably lacks the physical strength to harm a kitten has a giant mind with a certain impersonal sense about him of devotion to higher principles such as the study of the ultimate underpinnings of the cosmos.

    I am not trying to convert anyone here, but rather, I offer an anecdotal account of how just one run of the mill Catholic views Stephen Hawking. Hawking’s devotion to the higher calling of understanding the cosmos is so profound coupled with his life long struggle with the great cross of his very severe disability in my opinion is a sign of a great degree of Sanctity. In his very physically frail state, he has touched folks of all faiths with his endearing grin and his tireless devotion to unlocking the mysteries of the cosmos. He is a great role model to all of those suffering from disabilities and is a tangible sign to us all that all human life has the dignity of sanctity at all stages of its development and that even the frailest of the frail can contribute greatly to society as Stephen Hawking has done in his extreme disability.



  • J. R. April 23, 2008, 22:44

    Sounds like the same concept that those at the Ultimate Project site want to implement. It seems like the UP folks want to pick up Hawking’s vision and run with it.

  • Athena April 23, 2008, 22:48

    It’s wondrous to have someone of Hawking’s stature and influence on the side of space exploration. Patience and dedication, indeed. And these qualities aren’t difficult to evoke in humans, our hurried (harried) era notwithstanding. The Gothic cathedrals were built collectively by free artisans, you can see the guild stamps on the bricks. Many didn’t live to gaze at the completed work. But in their minds they saw it soar and the vision sustained them.

    All this sounds romantic. But I think that a healthy dollop of dreaming is an indispensable component of our humanity.

  • Jim Baerg April 23, 2008, 23:22

    I think Vernor Vinge’s comments in the later half of this essay are worth thinking about.


    If we have off-earth settlements, any disaster is far more likely to leave survivors who would then know one more mistake to avoid in the future.

  • John Hunt April 24, 2008, 0:39

    It is true that Stephen Hawking has the media’s attention.
    But let’s be candid. Will his comments lead to sufficient funding for an interstellar program?
    Or for that matter, will it even lead to a significant increase in funding for such? I for one have my doubts.

    It’s not that Hawking is incorrect in the final analysis. Rather, it is that the case for funding an interstellar mission is not strong enough compared with the case for funding other worthy projects which do not have sufficient funds. But how can this be? Can there be any priority greater than that of saving the human species?

    Part of the problem is that Stephen Hawking didn’t use this opportunity to:
    1) (I would argue) sufficiently make the case that humanity is near it’s demise,
    2) advocate a specific interstellar mission design,
    3) make the case that said specific mission can be accomplished within modest budgets, and
    4) how that mission would actually save humanity.

    I’m not going to dwell on #1 much except to say that I think that it seems to me highly unlikely that global warming will kill 100.0% of humanity before they accommodate or establish a self-sustaining lunar base. As for nuclear war, I just don’t think that the blast or the radiation effects are sufficient to kill 100.0% of people.

    Rather, I puzzle why Hawking didn’t mention self-replicating threats such as:
    – nanotech,
    – biotech, or
    – artificial intelligence
    Although I maybe can imagine why he didn’t mention the threat of a high-energy physics experiment gone bad. ;)

    More to the point is that (as far as I can tell) he nor we are in agreement about a specific interstellar mission design that we can successfully argue has a decent likelihood of success, within a reasonable budget, and within a reasonable time frame. Maybe no such mission is possible. But I see several promising concepts such as solar sails, mag sails, SailBeam, nanoprobes, etc. If there exists an interstellar plan that would take 60 years rather than 500 years to accomplish then Hawking would have something to talk about.

    Imagine if we, the interstellar mission advocates, were able to come up with a detailed, plausible interstellar mission design. Then perhaps Dr. Hawking’s celebrity could ignite specific action.

  • Paul Titze April 24, 2008, 5:03

    I wouldn’t mind paying an extra 0.25% “space tax” towards our long term survival, sounds good to me!

    Cheers, Paul.

  • george scaglione April 24, 2008, 9:08

    i was really lucky to have seen that speech on tv and i agree 100% with what has been stated above both by hawking and my friends in this group. sincerely george

  • ljk April 24, 2008, 14:15

    To John Hunt – Nuclear war may not kill everyone, but what
    will be left won’t be much, and it certainly won’t be civilized
    or be able to build starships.

  • hiro April 24, 2008, 14:58

    Will the technological singularity affect advanced propulsion developments like fusion/antimatter rocket/space ship? I think that we will have these kind of technologies in the next 150 years, because I think if the singularity does exist, then it will happen within the next 50 years. After that, it depends on the impact to adjust the rate of the advancement.

  • Adam April 24, 2008, 16:36

    Hi All

    John, I sympathise with your impatience, but a more modest goal might be to set-up self-sustaining colonies on Mars, Mercury, Venus, Ceres and Titan, rather than trying to reach another star system. Other stars present us with too many unknowns until our telescopes improve immensely. The more habitats – for example varying gravity levels – humans prove adaptable to, the better. Evolutionary history has shown that the real survivors are generalists who have a broad environmental range – sticking to Earth-like N2/O2 planets is leaving us open to extinction through astrophysical forces.

  • John Hunt April 25, 2008, 3:18

    Hi Adam,

    Under normal circumstances I would agree. A step-wise approach of bases on the Moon, Mars, Ceres and then eventually Alpha Centauri is the most reasonable approach.

    But you know, that Fermi guy keeps sticking his head up like some sort of bad horror flick monster! If we can get to Alpha Centauri by stepping stone bases, then some alien civilization should have done so eons ago. So…WHERE ARE THEY? Sure the Prime Directive or such can explain the Great Silence but so long as the technologic singularity remains a possible solution then I think it prudent to try and get out of the solar system sooner than later. I’m with Hiro on the timing of the technological singularity. I know an interstellar mission is a very tall order but hoping the extinction will not come is not a strategy.

    By the time we launch an interstellar mission I think we’ll have characterized the size, atmosphere, temperature, and presumed resources of a target planet. Establishing a self-supporting base on the Moon and Mars are within our technologic capabilities today so I don’t think we’ll have a problem being able to colonize a terrestial planet within 10 ly (apart from trying to transport humanity via a very small craft).


  • david lewis April 28, 2008, 9:28

    Do we have the cultural commitment to apply consistent effort over such time frames?

    No. We don’t. At least not as a species and not for something like interstellar travel.

    On the other hand there are groups of people that have had consistent goals for that length of time – mainly religious groups. Though even they are usually corrupted and end up being something their founders would have found repulsive.

    A small group, a few million people out of the earth’s billions, might see the goal of interstellar travel in a near religious manner and be able to exist for that long. They might influence governments to make minor steps in the path to interstellar travel. Some orbital infrastructure, a moon base, an asteroid base, …. Each step would help develop the science for interstellar travel. Once you have self-sufficient asteroid bases then you are half way to being able to travel to the stars. A propulsion system capable of getting the asteroid up to 1 percent light speed and you’re 90 percent there. All that remains is being sure you can protect the asteroid from collisions for the several centuries it would take to get to another star.

    We might be stuck with just sending self-replicating machines carrying a few bits of DNA. Self-replicating machines weighing a few grams would be able to colonize a star before such a human crewed vessel could get half way there.

  • James M. Essig June 8, 2008, 21:54

    Hi Folks;

    I just read a headline on another physics oriented website wherein the headline appeared in the form of a question “Physics, no longer a vocation ?” and I felt I had to give an anecdotal account of what a main stream conservative Catholic male feels about the topic if only from a social-scientific perspective. Note, that I am not trying to convert anyone here and I am not advocating any faith-based agenda, for it would be inappropriate to do so within this scientific forum.

    As a Catholic, I adhere to the concept of the Final Resurrection of the Dead and that the entire physical world or cosmos will be transformed into a highly exulted and glorified state, perhaps after first passing out of existence at the so-called end of time. I believe that all human bodies will be united to the souls that animated them wherein the human body will take on an incorruptible nature, a nature that will also include a glorified incorruptible state of our brains. Also, as a Catholic, I believe in the Real Presence of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Second Person of the Trinity in the Sacred Consecrated Host during the Sacrifice of the Mass, in short that the Sacred Host is Christ Body and Blood.

    The point I am trying to make is that if even a run-of-the-mill conservative Catholic can see the great dignity of the physical world and physical mattergy, then anybody can. To study the depths of the physical cosmos including the existence of any bodily ETI is a great and profound vocation. As a Catholic, I sometimes feel a little annoyed when fellow Christians scoff at my interest if the physical world as if such interest was of no significance compared to that of the spiritual created realities.

    I am convinced that physics is a great vocation including the physics of manned interstellar travel. As we at Tau Zero ponder the theories, intricacies, and possible methods of interstellar travel, we are providing the ground work for more territory for human life to settle and for the potentially unlimited growth of human and/or ETI civilization. This, I believe, is among the very top most pro-life goals we can contemplate.



  • ljk June 30, 2008, 12:30

    Hawking ‘close’ to explaining universe’s inflation

    New Scientist (article preview) June 28, 2008

    Starting with current observations
    of the universe and working back to
    narrow down the initial set of
    possibilities and by treating the
    early cosmos as a quantum object
    with a multitude of alternative
    universes that gradually blend into
    ours, Stephen Hawking and colleagues
    think they are close to perfecting
    an answer to explain why the infant…


  • ljk July 6, 2009, 2:29

    July 03, 2009

    Stephen Hawking: “Humans Have Entered a New Stage of Evolution”

    Although It has taken homo sapiens several million years to evolve from the apes, the useful information in our DNA, has probably changed by only a few million bits. So the rate of biological evolution in humans, Stephen Hawking points out in his Life in the Universe lecture, is about a bit a year.

    “By contrast,” Hawking says, “there are about 50,000 new books published in the English language each year, containing of the order of a hundred billion bits of information. Of course, the great majority of this information is garbage, and no use to any form of life. But, even so, the rate at which useful information can be added is millions, if not billions, higher than with DNA.”

    This means Hawking says that we have entered a new phase of evolution. “At first, evolution proceeded by natural selection, from random mutations. This Darwinian phase, lasted about three and a half billion years, and produced us, beings who developed language, to exchange information.”

    But what distinguishes us from our cave man ancestors is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, Hawking points out, over the last three hundred.

    Full article, plus check out the image of Hawking with Earth, Luna,
    and Mars in the background around him:


  • ljk July 19, 2009, 1:46

    July 17, 2009

    The Ultimate Reality TV Show: Stephen Hawking on the Significance of the Apollo 11 Landing

    The enduring legacy of the Apollo 11 landing is the ultimate reality show: the life or death future of the human species.

    Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s liftoff toward the moon – and the first-ever mission for two US astronauts to walk on the moon’s surface.

    Stephen Hawking, our century’s Einstein, discussed his views on the profound significance of the mission on mankind in the introduction the to a just-published book Apollo Through the Eyes of the Astronauts, which he co-wrote with his daughter, Lucy, a journalist and author.

    Full article here:


  • ljk August 3, 2009, 13:21
  • ljk October 22, 2009, 22:34

    String theorist takes over from Hawking

    Michael Green unveiled as Cambridge University’s next Lucasian Professor of Mathematics


    Canadian theory institute honours Stephen Hawking

    Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics names new building after the Cambridge physicist


  • ljk January 26, 2010, 1:55

    Into The Universe with Stephen Hawking

    Posted by hydrotec 6 days ago (http://press.discovery.com) View profile
    Category: Science | Tags: discovery future science universe hawking

    (NewDesignWorld Press Release Center) — (Silver Spring, Md.) — How did our universe begin? Could alien life be found on distant planets? Does our galaxy have a life expectancy? Delve into the mind of the world’s most famous living scientist and explore the splendor and majesty of the universe as never seen before in Discovery Channel’s world premiere special four-part series INTO THE UNIVERSE WITH STEPHEN HAWKING.

    As only Discovery can create and deliver, viewers will gain access to one of the most coveted locations known to man-the mind of Professor Stephen Hawking. Marrying the most respected name in science with the most trusted worldwide name in nonfiction media, INTO THE UNIVERSE WITH STEPHEN HAWKING is a landmark television event that will bend the mind, stretch the imagination and unleash the wonder.

    Cutting- edge effects, digitally enhanced NASA footage and live action combine to bring Hawking’s extraordinary vision of the universe to the screen for the first time. Definitive, provocative, surprising and exquisitely beautiful, INTO THE UNIVERSE WITH STEPHEN HAWKING is a fascinating look through the mind’s eye of one of the finest brains on the planet.

    Full article here:


  • ljk September 8, 2010, 22:04

    Review of Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, on The Science Shelf:


  • ljk March 9, 2011, 0:34

    Hawking, Aldrin join up to plot humanity’s future in space

    Astrophysicist, ex-astronaut dream big about human survival; plans sketchy

    By Mike Wall


    updated 3/8/2011 6:23:28 PM ET 2011-03-08 T23:23:28

    One of the world’s leading astrophysicists has teamed up with one of the first humans ever to walk on the moon to help plot out humanity’s future in space.

    Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and Buzz Aldrin — who in 1969 became the second person to set foot on the moon — have joined forces in an effort “to better mankind’s future in space” after a recent meeting in Southern California, according to an announcement.

    Details of their plans are sketchy at the moment, but the pair are dreaming big, with nothing less than the survival of humanity on their minds.

    A vision for space

    In a joint statement, Aldrin and Hawking said that their collaboration “seeks to define and obtain a Unified Space Vision that will continue the expansion of a human presence in space and ensure the perpetuation of the species.”

    Full article here:


  • ljk November 22, 2011, 1:38


    Stephen Hawking: Colonize space, or else

    by Chris Matyszczyk | November 19, 2011 12:05 PM PST

    In recent times, famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has become something of a hawk when it comes to human survival.

    His fears have been profound. His warnings have been chilling.

    He told us earthlings just last year that aliens might swoop down on us and devour us whole, while plundering what’s worth taking from here. You know, a few Ferraris, an iPhone or two, Selma Blair, Yosemite, Aziza restaurant in San Francisco, and a couple of Himalayas just to look at.

    Now, according to The Canadian Press, Hawking is adamant that we have to start colonizing out there before we endure a Waterloo down here.

    In a speech in Waterloo, Ontario–the home of the thriving Research In Motion–Hawking said it’s nice that humankind has developed technical abilities to make its environment a lovely (or not) place, but that our sheer selfishness and aggression–yes, not only in America–will be our undoing.

    “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space,” he said.

    The only way, it seems, is to send more and more human beings into space in order to discover potential new, healthier environments–ones that aggressive, selfish people can destroy more slowly than they are doing down here.

    Perhaps Hawking is aware that this week, NASA made it easier to become an astronaut, by facilitating online applications for the first time in its history.

    It does seem slightly pitiful that so many of our great scientific and engineering minds are being wasted on creating fine new ways to pay for your shampoo with your iPhone, rather than on creating machines that can swiftly and safely transport humans to occupy the Planet Yog.