Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's public statements this year have been decidedly unusual, even weird. In April, he emphatically argued
that humans should not try to contact aliens, for fear of being conquered. A week later he released a 3,000-word guide
to building and using a time machine.
His more recent declaration is tame by comparison, but still
noteworthy. Hawking says that "our only chance of long-term survival"
is to launch ourselves, as a species, into space. He's not knocking
climate scientists' attempts to figure things out on Earth--he's just
thinking long term. "There have been a number of times in the past when
our survival has been touch-and-go," explains
Hawking at Big Think, mentioning the Cuban Missile Crisis, and "the
frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future. ...
Our population and our use of the finite resources of the planet earth
are growing exponentially along with our technical ability to change
the environment for good or ill," while "our genetic code still caries
our selfish and aggressive instincts." Taken together, he reasons, "it
will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years,
let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long-term
survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet earth, but to spread
out into space." This, concludes Hawking, is precisely why he is "in favor of manned ... space flight."
Lest you be downcast, fear not: Hawking
proclaims himself an "optimist," saying that if we can just "avoid
disaster for the next two centuries our species should be safe," as we
head out to other planetary homes. Striking out into the universe is not simply a matter self-preservation, but a moral duty. "If we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy," he says, "we should
make sure we survive and continue." Of course, the
suggestion that we are the only intelligent life forms for a few trillion miles seems to raise the question: so why worry about alien attacks?
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