Stephen Hawking: Leave the planet or die, humans!

by JGordon on Aug. 13th, 2010

This is your final warning, humans: I am the Hawking! My word is universal law!
This is your final warning, humans: I am the Hawking! My word is universal law!Courtesy NASA
Well, to be honest, that really isn't what Stephen Hawking, international super brain man, said. But he did say that if mankind doesn't spread out from Earth into space somehow, we will go extinct.

Oh, Stephen. You must be a blast at parties.

He's right, I suppose, if in a sightly long-term, sci-fi sense. He points out that "our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill"—ideas central to the concept of the anthropocene, the current, human-dominated era of our planet (and the subject of the Science Museum's upcoming Future Earth exhibit). It's possible that we might screw up the Earth beyond repair (something that has been within our ability since the dawn of the nuclear age, and is more so than ever now), and we'll be stuck here on a doomed planet. Unless we figure out how to survive in space, or make our way to other planets, he thinks. As the Hawk-man puts it, "The human race shouldn't have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet."

Enjoy your time on the planet while you can, folks, because the human race is like a 25-year-old whose parents are just about to start charging rent for the basement.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Shana's picture
Shana says:

Maybe this is old hat, but every time I see the words 'save the planet' I feel disappointed. The earth won't go away as a result of climate change, it'll just change. Probably in a way that makes it less hospitable to us. It's really about saving ourselves and the systems we rely on for survival. Maybe a pedantic distinction, but I think that a focus on the planet rather than us humans diminishes the urgency of the situation--especially for people unmotivated by bees and bats. Most of us can probably agree that we want to live.

I don't know that space is the answer...but it may be better than geoengineering?

posted on Mon, 08/16/2010 - 12:23pm
rationalist's picture
rationalist says:

Hawking merely states that the best way to preserve the human race is to move us to another planet. This ideology was espoused by Sagan before him, and hundreds of other astronomers.

Just make sure the new planet has lots and lots of unobtainium!

posted on Tue, 08/17/2010 - 9:04am
peacekeeperhippie's picture
peacekeeperhippie says:

Okay JGordon. First off, Stephen Hawking is the Third Einstein. He knows more about the universe than the vast majority of people on Earth. Secondly, he is darn right. We have destroyed planet Earth. We are draining oil, burning it, and heating up our atmosphere. Animals are dying because of our ignorance. Ever heard of the island of ice that just broke off of Greenland? That gonna leave a mark on world maps. We'll have no choice but colonize other planets. By 2050, the world will be populated by 9 billion humans. Earth will not be able to support that many people regularly. As much as I don't want to ruin other planets like we did this one, soon we may have no other choice.

posted on Tue, 08/17/2010 - 11:29am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Okay, peacekeeperhippie-

First off, I believe I wrote "He's right, I suppose." Let me check... ok, yep, it's there. So there's no need to get defensive.

I think it might be overstating things to say that we destroyed planet Earth. We very well may be in the process of destroying it for ourselves (and for a great deal of other species), but as Shana points out above, life will go on. Vast environmental calamities have happened before, and life has truly been pushed to the brink, but it continues. The difference is that we've been caught with our hand in the cookie jar this time.

It's probably safe to say that Hawking's imperative would be true even if humans weren't such crummy stewards of the planet—eventually something would get us, but we've just shortened the timescale. (Or our own actions have made our survival more tenuous, so that if something else did happen, it would be that much easier for us to become extinct.)

You know what it makes me think of? Species that become highly specialized to a particular ecological niche. They exploit a unique environment far better than any other organism, and so they do really well. But if something happens to their little environment, they're screwed, because they can't survive anywhere else. It's odd to compare that situation to something as adaptable as humanity in an environment the size of a planet. But we've made the planet our niche, and in the scale of geological time and the size of the universe, I guess it's a tiny and fragile one.

It's cool that there are people thinking so far ahead, but I wonder if our mental energies would be better spent at the moment by focusing them inward. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if we can't figure out how to manage ourselves on this planet pretty soon, we'll never get to the point where interplanetary colonization (let alone freakin' interstellar travel) is a real option. That sort of thing is going to take time, resources, and cooperation, and we aren't the best at dealing with those things right now.

PS—Just out of curiosity, who was the second Einstein?

posted on Tue, 08/17/2010 - 12:45pm
peacekeeperhippie's picture
peacekeeperhippie says:

Sorry about that, JGordon. I just didn't appreciate how you talked about Stephen Hawking. You are right with the fact that previous apocalypses have occurred, but the Earth still lives on. The question is, will we? Remember, history show that no civilization last forever. Again, I apologize. I was very rude.

posted on Thu, 08/19/2010 - 12:36pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Oh no, now I feel bad. People aren't supposed to apologize in comment threads! They're supposed to act snarky and intellectually superior. I don't even know how to handle an apology!

Let it be known: I only use phrases like "international brain man" out of affection for one of the greatest thinkers of our time.

I just thought it was funny how the popular press had picked up on that statement from Hawking—it was one of the most popular science news stories of the last couple weeks, and I'm sure that's because it was generally presented as if he were offering an ultimatum to a very imminent threat. Hence, "Leave the planet or die, humans!"

But, yeah, I don't think he's proposing a bizarre sci-fi scenario. Once you get past the headlines, it seems like he's really pointing out how humans and Earth are vulnerable in the same way other species and their specific habitats are (albeit on a different scale), and that we could potentially get out of the trap we've dug for ourselves. Maybe.

posted on Thu, 08/19/2010 - 3:55pm
Shana's picture
Shana says:

I agree, and in some sense going to a different planet would be like furnishing your house at IKEA, except that the earth is a good bit more stable than that particleboard nightstand I got. When the couch falls apart because you sit down like a yeti, you just throw that one away and get a new one to mess up, lather, rinse, repeat. But if you would just sit down on the couch like a normal person, that couch would last several years. Some IKEA stuff is quite durable actually.

So I guess what I mean to say is don't sit on the earth too hard and you won't have to buy a new one. Or something like that.

posted on Tue, 08/17/2010 - 2:43pm
rationalist's picture
rationalist says:

Granted, it is unlikely that human beings will change the planet such that all life is unsustainable However, the cost of living will go up considerably as population increases, and we will see higher mortality rates due to overpopulation. If we don't take some responsibility or leave, humanity will become only a shadow of its former self.

Who knows, maybe we'll get to the point where we're a WALL-E type society living on a cosmic "space Ark." We may have to do it sooner than we think--there's an asteroid set to hit Earth in 2036. (Only a 1 in 6000 chance it will actually hit us.)

Finally, the second Einstein was Ernst Rutherford--he discovered the nucleus.

posted on Wed, 08/18/2010 - 7:26am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Global warming is bad

posted on Wed, 08/18/2010 - 12:12pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Stephen Hawking isn't the only one. Aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin also thinks that, "...a positive future for humanity requires human expansion to space."

And you can hear him "sing" about why Mars is our best bet here:

posted on Wed, 08/18/2010 - 8:59am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Is the slot for Fourth Einstein still open?

Also, I think I'm against space travel, if only for this reason: I don't imagine that quick, affordable passenger cruises to Alpha Centauri will be available in my lifetime. If I can't go, no one can!

posted on Wed, 08/18/2010 - 9:30am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

one of these days everyone is going to have to accept that global warming does exist and that it can be a huge threat to life on earth. we shud all try to be as eco frienly as possible. would you be able to live with the knowledge that all the cute little baby animals are all going to die?

posted on Wed, 08/18/2010 - 3:19pm
rationalist's picture
rationalist says:

@JGordon:
Space travel to Alpha Centauri is likely to be a possibility in your lifetime. However, it is impractical.

A quick lesson on relativity:

As you go faster, you perceive time to go slower. As a result, as you approach the speed of light, time will appear to stop. Thus, you will feel as though little time has passed on the journey (about forty years).

However, since earth is static during this time (relatively speaking), 2.5 million years will have passed on earth. Expect to find a full news crew cluttering the landing site with their super-advanced rockets, waiting for you to land after a 2,500 millenium space oddessy.

Finally, I couldn't let this opportunity pass to debunk the claim that Stephen Hawking's new book disproves God. It doesn't. Hawking showed that the laws of physics (particularly quantum theory) could cause the universe to arise in the multiverse. The question is now: how did the multiverse get there?

And despite it's being an ad hominem attack, this is exactly what Einstein did when the quantum theory came out--ignore the facts to fit his preconceived conclusioin that "God doesn't play dice with the universe." Hawking has displayed a similar intellectual sneakiness when he denied the Big Bang so he wouldn't have to admit that God was ultimately responsible.

Maybe calling Hawking "the third Einstein" is more poignant than we thought!

posted on Fri, 09/17/2010 - 3:27pm

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