By David L. Brown
Well, Stephen Hawking is at it again, with a prediction that humankind “will need to venture far beyond planet Earth to ensure the long-term survival of our species,” according to a story in The Telegraph (here). Hawking has spoken before on this subject, warning earlier this year during a trip to China that the Earth could turn into another Venus with temperatures of 400 degrees Celsius that would make all life impossible.
According to the Telegraph report today:
Returning to a theme he has voiced many times before, the Cambridge University cosmologist said today that space-rockets propelled by the kind of matter/antimatter annihilation technology popularised in Star Trek would be needed to help Homo sapiens colonize hospitable planets orbiting alien stars.
Internationally known cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
Prof. Hawking, who is confined to a wheelchair with motor neuron disease, MND, was commenting using a muscle below his right eye to operate – via a switch on his glasses – his voice synthesizer. He spoke to a press conference prior to the presentation of Britain’s highest scientific award, the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, previously granted to Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, and Albert Einstein.
Surprisingly considering his health profile, Hawking expressed a desire to personally travel into space, suggesting that Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipOne program could be used to take him for a brief trip beyond the atmosphere.
The Telegraph article continued:
“The long-term survival of the human race is at risk as long as it is confined to a single planet,” [Hawking] said. “Sooner or later, disasters such as an asteroid collision or nuclear war could wipe us all out. But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe.
“There isn’t anywhere like the Earth in the solar system, so we would have to go to another star.
“If we used chemical fuel rockets like the Apollo mission to the moon, the journey to the nearest star would take 50,000 years. This is obviously far too long to be practical, so science fiction has developed the idea of warp drive, which takes you instantly to your destination. Unfortunately, this would violate the scientific law which says that nothing can travel faster than light.
“However, we can still [stay] within the law, by using matter/antimatter annihilation, and reach speeds just below the speed of light. With that, it would be possible to reach the next star in about six years, though it wouldn’t seem so long for those on board.”
It is interesting that Hawking did not mention environmental catastrophe as a threat to life on Earth (or it he did it was not reported). That danger seems far more likely than an asteroid strike or nuclear warfare that would destroy all life.
It is my opinion that the Earth is the only home humanity will ever have, and to place our hopes on the idea of migrating to other worlds is a vain exercise in futility (See my essay “Man’s Natural Home Will Always Be Earth,” posted here on June 15, 2006). A serious consideration is the doubtful existence of those “hospitable planets” orbiting faraway stars. The odds of finding another planet friendly to Earth life might be on the order of picking a particular grain of sand from all the beaches in the world. To assume otherwise requires something beyond scientific reason, and perhaps the kind of superstitious faith that leads to belief in a literal heaven. In fact, there is a strong and obvious parallel between the concept of “going to live in Heaven” and the idea of migrating to a “hospitable planet.”
Human beings and all other forms of Earth life are intricately entwined in the incredibly complex biosphere of our home planet, and as appealing as the idea may appear it seems unlikely that our kind could successfully live on alien planets. As the long geologic history of extinctions demonstrates, it is hard enough for species to survive even here on Earth.
The theme of my novel, The Star Phoenix, is directed to this critical question about the future of humankind. Logic demands that we resist the easy “solution” to the environmental problems we face of turning away from the Earth and simply going to live somewhere else. To me, that “alternative” seems all too similar to the imaginings of a little boy who says to himself that if his parents keep forcing him to study and clean up his room he will run away from home and become a pirate. Nice idea, unlikely possibility.
On the other hand it would be enchanting to see Dr. Hawking achieve his dream of riding SpaceShipOne for a brief trip from the New Mexico desert to the edge of space. What a moment it would be, not only for him but all humankind, for this brave individual to glimpse the stars from above the atmosphere, to (if I may paraphrase Star Trek) boldly go where no cosmologist has gone before. Perhaps if he should someday look down upon the glowing blue ball that is our wonderful planet Earth, floating in the cold and forbidding void of star-speckled space, he would realize that our world is the only place where humans belong or should ever dream of living.