Monday, January 9, 2012

I Aim at the Stars

Stephen Hawking, who turned 70 this weekend, is one of the world's greatest living physicists. Maybe the greatest, who knows? The Guardian observed the occasion with this report, which I can't read without thinking that it must have come from The Onion:
In an interview to mark his 70th birthday this weekend, Stephen Hawking, the former Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, admitted he spent most of the day thinking about women. "They are," he said "a complete mystery."
There's no reason why someone capable of the kind of mathematics involved in theoretical physics should be intelligent outside of his field, and it appears that Hawking isn't. Thanks to his motor neurone disease, it's easy for media to fit Hawking into the beloved anti-intellectual mold of the ultranerd who's not at home in his body, or with other human beings. It seems that a lot of able-bodied scientists fit that stereotype anyway. His life would surely have been different if he hadn't had to struggle against a progressive degenerative disease for fifty years, but it's impossible to know how, and anyway, he now is who he is.

Hawking was going to attend the public symposium at Cambridge to mark his birthday, but was unwell after a recent hospitalization, so he let his computer do the talking for him, as he would have done anyway. I saw an AP story about the event which referred to Hawking's "distinctive, robotic monotone" -- that's a speech synthesizer, dumbass! Years ago, during the 1980s I think, PBS did a program on Hawking before he got his computer setup. Hawking was accompanied by several of his graduate students, who'd learned to understand his heavily slurred speech, so they acted as intepreters, rather like the ancient priestesses who interpreted the gibbering of the Delphic Oracle for questioners. The interviewer would ask a question, Hawking would answer incomprehensibly -- though after a few minutes I could begin to make out the occasional word myself -- and one his students would begin, "Stephen says..." and translate. It was moving, fascinating, and somewhat comical to watch. (You can see a much younger Hawking speaking here, with voiceover translation, starting at 2:45.)

That method might have worked better for the speech he wrote (or maybe recycled -- it sounds similar to one he gave two years ago) for the symposium, some of which sounds like fortune cookies --
But his main message was to "be curious" and never give up, however difficult things might seem. "Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet," he said. "Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don't just give up."
-- or like Polonius' advice to Hamlet. He also rehearsed a popular and annoying scientific hobbyhorse, urging human colonization of space so that the species won't die out when it blows up or simply devastates our planet:
"I don't think we will survive another thousand years without escaping beyond our fragile planet," he said.
That sentence doesn't make a lot of sense. After all, we aren't going to send the entire human population into space, just a few chosen ones. Hawking's idea of "escaping beyond [sic] our fragile planet" is highly metaphorical; it sounds as though he's going way beyond the available evidence in supposing that we can find, let alone reach, extrasolar planets where we could survive. I'm old enough to remember when some astronomers still believed that there were canals, or at least markings which could be mistaken for canals, on Mars. (In fact, "canals" was a mistranslation of the Italian word for "channels", which is what their discoverer called them.) It wasn't until the 1970s that we got a camera close enough to Mars for a really good look. So I'm skeptical of the detailed reports we're getting of extrasolar planets from astronomers now, which are a lot farther away than Mars. Time will tell, but I don't expect to be alive when, or rather if, we get as close to Epsilon Eridani's (unconfirmed) planets as Mariner 9 got to Mars in 1971 -- close enough, that is, to take pictures.

Aside from that, why? Will it really be a consolation, if human beings render the Earth uninhabitable, for the last dying individuals to know that a few of their fellows have moved elsewhere to start the same process all over on another planet? People don't worry about such questions when their personal survival is at stake, but that's just it: those of us who are here will die in any case. If we can't learn to live here, though, I am not sure I'd be in favor of giving us another chance on another world. The idea that it's important to know that the human race will survive somewhere among the stars seems very adolescently romantic to me. Steel-eyed rationalists such as Hawking evidently fancies himself to be still fear their own deaths, which isn't unreasonable, but also the death of the species, which is. I suppose that if cockroaches could think, they'd feel the same way, but that doesn't mean I'd agree that it's important to send a bunch of cockroaches to another solar system either. Let's make our way here, or not at all.