Wednesday, 21 June 2006

A Hawking Double

From MSNBC :
The survival of the human race depends on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe because there's an increasing risk that a disaster will destroy the Earth, world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking said Tuesday.

The British astrophysicist told a news conference in Hong Kong that humans could have a permanent base on the moon in 20 years and a colony on Mars in the next 40 years.
He added that if humans can avoid killing themselves in the next 100 years, they should have space settlements that can continue without support from Earth.

"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."
That seems pretty self-evident.
Consider the recent discovery of the crater in Antarctica :
Ralph von Frese and his colleagues at Ohio State University stated that the Wilkes Land crater is more than twice the size of the Chicxulub crater in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, which marks the impact that is thought to have killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The meteorite that produced the Chicxulub crater is believed to have been six miles (9.6 km) wide whereas the Antarctic meteorite may have been up to 30 miles wide (48.3 km).

It is difficult for researchers to put rough bounds on the date of when the crater was formed however; the crater is cut by the rift which opened to form the Indian Ocean, which implies that it must be over 100 million years old.

A chunk of rock or ice that big would ruin your whole day. Not to mention drastically remodel the Biosphere.

And yet some people just don't get it :
In the face of myriad threats, Hawking's solution to the problem of human survival is fanciful but not particularly practical and not particularly human. The notion that we humans ought pack it up and head out for another planet is a solution that deserves little additional attention because it is not only a silly solution but it is a denigration of human life on earth.

While there may well be hospitable planetary systems around and about our own Milky Way galaxy, traveling to them at known speeds in space could easily require several human generations of travel time. We will only be able to hope that our great great grandchildren actually get to where they think they are going. Any round trip taking a decade or two quickly defeats the purpose unless our brave sojourners plan on never returning to those they leave behind, in this case the overwhelming majority of people, presumably left to die on an overheated earth.

That brings up the related problem of determining just who would have the dubious honor of departing earth in order to ensure the "survival of the species." Presumably, under capitalism's dominion, only the rich and powerful would have adequate resources and political clout to take flight. In spite of the unfairness of it all, Hawking's approach would eliminate a few of the rich and powerful who are, after all, most responsible for earth's sorry condition in the first place.

At the same time, limiting the human gene pool and the human idea pool to those few people on board a few space ships hardly seems like an approach to "survival of the species" unless we are not really too concerned about the quality of the species and the quality of human thought. By now, of course, some of the best ideas on earth have come from every nation on earth. It's a fact.
True, but he doesn't exactly offer an alternative.
The simple human truth is that we are, by and large, integral to the well-being of the earth and we ought be rejoicing in that fact. There is no where else to go worth going and no reason to go there ... if it were not for our collective behavior toward ourselves and the earth. So, instead, let's not think about capitalism's ding dong world that Hawking thinks we must leave rather than change.
I doubt that a thousand cubic kilmetres of nickel-iron coming in at 20km/sec would be affected by that though.

But this guy wasn't the only critic :
Unfortunately, the criticism of Hawking’s speech all seems to have come from the wrong direction, chastising him not for being pessimistic, but for not being pessimistic enough.

So the cosmologist Alan Guth upbraided Hawking for his lack of realism. Since we don’t have the means to evacuate the earth, said Guth, a giant underground bunker in the Antarctic would be a better bet for escaping disaster on Earth. I guess it all depends on what you mean by ‘realistic’.

Another line of criticism came from ‘GrrlScientist’, a blogger on the widely-read website, She attacked Hawking for trying to avoid the consequences of human beings wrecking the Earth, and said we should put forward solutions for repairing our mess:

‘According to Hawking’s scenario, I envision humans as the rats of the universe; filthy, violent, rapacious, travelling from one planet to another just as rats hitchhiked on ships from one oceanic island to another, destroying everything until the last habitable island (planet) within reach has been ruined. Is that the sort of legacy that we, as a species, want to be known for? At least rats did not actively plan out their next conquest, as humans seem to be doing.’
The fact that by learning how to Terraform other planets, we may learn how to remediate past mistakes here (and vice-versa) seems not to have occured to her.

And here's the second Hawking encyclical, without comment :
World-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said Thursday that the late Pope John Paul II once told scientists they should not study the beginning of the universe because it was the work of God.

Hawking, author of the best-seller "A Brief History of Time," said John Paul made the comments at a cosmology conference at the Vatican. He did not say when the meeting was held.

Hawking quoted the pope as saying, "It's OK to study the universe and where it began. But we should not inquire into the beginning itself because that was the moment of creation and the work of God."

The scientist then joked that he was glad John Paul did not realize that he had presented a paper at the conference suggesting how the universe began.

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