He may be a genius, but the legendary physicist is using his renown to hock an outlandish idea that humans must go to space to survive, a notion that only betrays Hawking's own arrogance.
BOGOTA — Acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking believes humanity's long-term future must be in space. I admire his intellectual dexterity and his accomplishments despite his paralysis, but this particular aspiration seems about as clear as a black hole.
I'm not surprised that he should say it, but there is an element of arrogance in a scientist who believes he can know The Theory of Everything. He shows less interest in a most fundamental thing beside him, our extraordinary planet, than in his intergalactic fantasies.
His message for new generations is thus: Let us use up our resources because life on earth could always be wiped out by some man-made disaster such as nuclear war, global warming or some engineered virus. Something to look forward to! I have never heard apocalyptic predictions as repellent and crass as this, despite Hawking's reputed intelligence: Flee to space or die out!
The harm such an idea causes to the collective imagination is not to be ignored. The Englishman might help Internet-hooked teenagers understand where they stand, teach them to value life, the earth and the elements and tell them to put their house in order before getting onto a rocket headed for space. Instead, he spreads a pernicious expectation that is ultimately only for the few, not to mention practically impossible for the species as we know it today.
We are far from overcoming the physical obstacles to space travel. Descriptions of how the body behaves in space and the paraphernalia related to the Universal Waste Management System — the space loo — are, well, hilarious. To urinate, astronauts have to use funnels that suck. For the bigger stuff, an inverted fan must be turned on to ensure the stools will not start floating around the room. It is all so complex that many astronauts, men and women, have said they prefer to drink less and lose weight to minimize the unpleasant experience.
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Hawking on a zero gravity flight aboard a modified Boeing 727. Photo: Jacopo Werther
Meanwhile, space health care is in its infancy. In its introduction to the entry on this topic, Wikipedia notes that humans are physiologically best suited to living on planet earth. You don't say? The list of ailments to expect when traveling to space is lengthy — nausea, muscular atrophy, failing immunity, cancer-causing radiation, interrupted sleep, "barotrauma." A real menu. Never mind where to put the trash, which can't be thrown out the window. I don't want to be an astronaut.
There is money to be made, of course, from space travel. You only have to view NASA's webpage or those of the Russian, Chinese or European space agencies to guess that it is about military development, power ambitions and, for a minority of people, space tourism. You might pertinently ask whether such resources might be better used right now to generate clean energy and boost sustainable farming.
Certainly, travel to space was a breakthrough and opened horizons, and we owe the Hubble satellite, in aesthetic terms at least, for nurturing in us some affection for our blue planet. But to talk of a future away from our globe when we have not even been able to live in harmony with this environment makes no sense. I can barely comprehend such a proposition.
Between the pride and atheism of Hawking, who is more enamored with his ideas than with the multifaceted world, and the sobering humor and humility of Albert Einstein, who said that "the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious," the "source of all art and science," my temperament inclines toward the latter.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Hawking had won the Nobel prize.