Hawking's Point

By now, you've probably heard about the remarks made by Prof. Stephen Hawking this week to a gathering in Hong Kong about the need for humans to colonize other planets. The famous scientist said our survival eventually could depend on portions of the population locating elsewhere in the vastness of space, as the planet Earth may one day be fatally jeopardized by any number of disasters. It's a far-fetched concept (from someone who earns a living thinking about such things), but it raises intriguing questions.

"It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species," Hawking said. "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers we have not yet thought of."

He told the audience at his sold-out lecture that if humans can avoid killing themselves over the next 100 years, they should have independent space settlements, beginning with Mars and reaching out to other planetary systems.

"We won't find anywhere as nice as Earth unless we go to another star system," Hawking noted.

It sounds more like sci-fi than sci-fact coming from this most respected of physicists, but so did black holes not too long ago (and he figured that one out). When your field of inquiry, though, stretches from the initial instant of the Big Bang to the end of the universe at some point so far from now that theorists can only guess, looking a few hundred years into the future isn't that great a leap of the imagination. So, let's speculate.

First, just how vulnerable are we? Sure, we've made it this far, over the course of millions of years. But things change. And lately, they seem to be changing faster than ever. What awaits us over the next few hundred years? A vastly changed climate? Weapons of mass destruction unleashed intentionally or by accident? New and incurable disease pandemics? Catastrophic collisions with other cosmic bodies? The rise of the cyborgs?

(As sci-fi author Larry Niven once said: "The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!")

Second, if we really ever did have to run for our lives, how far would we have to go? Could we terraform Mars? Could we develop space transport to such a sophisticated level that taking the family to Vega would be the future version of relocating to another continent? Would the planets that our astronomers are finding nowadays that seem to be ever more similar to Earth be safe havens? Or will we need to just keep going, never pausing and never looking back, forever?

Third, considering that one of the biggest threats to human beings is human beings, could we ever escape ourselves? Will we ever manage to stop killing one another with greater and greater weapons? If we can wipe out the species today on this planet, what could we invent to wipe it out in the far-flung future?

Will there ever be enough distance between us and the source of our troubles that we can assume we're safe? Will we ever disperse so fully across the galaxy that we can assure the survival of the species?

If in the far, far future nomadic humans reach a point where the odds of some now unimaginable disaster killing off homo sapiens entirely drop to zero, our descendants should mark that boundary between constant peril and guaranteed success by looking back at the scientist who centuries earlier predicted its possibility as Hawking's Point.

But it's a long shot.

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.