A brief future of time

Nov. 1, 2001
Stephen Hawking, cosmologist and best-selling author, knows more about time than perhaps anyone

Stephen Hawking, cosmologist and best-selling author, knows more about time than perhaps anyone. And by sharing his knowledge, he has led contemporary society from a “flat Earth” understanding of the fourth dimension to a broader and more accurate “satellite image” of the universe’s past, present, and future.

Recently, while discussing the future — our future — the Cambridge University professor made a startling prediction. “I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years,” he said.

Considering the source — a man who can analyze billions of years of cosmological history like you or I might review what we did in the past hour or two, and who has spent years studying the events of a few 10-35 seconds — we have plenty of reason for pause. But not too long because there’s more.

In the same interview, Hawking dropped another bomb. “I’m an optimist,” he said. “We will reach out to the stars.” According to the brilliant physicist and philosopher, life will go on elsewhere, on another planet colonized by genetically engineered humans with computer chips connected to their brains.

The threat, as Hawking sees it, is not terrorism per se. And it’s not nuclear annihilation. It’s biological, a killer virus. “Nuclear weapons need large facilities, but genetic engineering can be done in any small lab. You can’t regulate every lab in the world,” he says. Thus the frightening prediction.

Perhaps Hawking failed to consider the future advances in medical science. Or maybe he hasn’t heard the songs and rhetoric about the coming age of peace, happiness, and love. One can only hope because if the professor is right, as he often is, life as we know it is over. With less than a thousand years to go, we have to get to work. This isn’t a race to the moon. As Hawking says, we must reach out to the stars — and last I checked, they are quite far away.

The question is, then, where do we start, and where do we go from there? We’re not going to transport entire populations many thousands of light years through a series of random events, accidents, and coincidences. No, if we’re going to stand a chance, we must get our best minds together and have them hammer out an intelligent solution. We need a plan.

Now I’m no relocation expert, but I’d say step one is finding a suitable planet in a galaxy within range. Naturally, the farther we can reach into space, the more options we’ll have. But don’t get your hopes up too high. Even if we develop a “warp drive like the one used in Star Trek,” as Hawking suggests, we may have to settle for a cold, dark rock where gravity is several times what we’re used to. For those escaping certain death, however, it may seem like the Garden of Eden.

And that brings up another matter; who goes and who stays? My guess is that we’ll institute some sort of natural selection process or a lottery — that is, after all Americans have been accommodated. The U.S. is the world’s melting pot, plus we have experience in space. It’s only right that we go.

Another order of business is deciding what to bring. Let’s be practical — food, oxygen, water, medical supplies, and other essentials — but let’s not forget about the quality of life. Who wants to get all the way to their new planet and not have golf clubs, fishing equipment, or running shoes? Pets ought to be allowed to go, too; real ones, like snakes, turtles, lizards, and dogs. I say that because, sure as tomorrow, someone will suggest that we limit ourselves to electronic toys like the robot dog, Aibo.

Speaking of electronics, what about the computer chips Hawking mentioned? Are we talking RISC or DSP? And will they be the same for everyone? I don’t want some crummy low-end Celeron wired to my brain, if other guys are going to have real screamers like Pentiums patched in.

I realize I’m beginning to sound selfish here. It’s because I am. We all are. It’s the human condition, and the reason why moving to a new planet is not the answer. No matter where we go, to the furthest corners of the universe, our self-centered and destructive tendencies will follow us. And, once again, they will threaten to do us in.

Other than that, I think Hawking is right. There is reason for optimism. We will reach out to the stars; in fact, beyond them. And there, on the edge of time, we just may find the answers to the problems we face on Earth.

– Larry Berardinis
[email protected]

About the Author

Larry Berardinis

For more than two decades, Lawrence (Larry) Berardinis served on Machine Design and Motion System Design magazines as an editor and later as an associate publisher and new-business development manager. He's a member of Eta Kappa Nu, and holds an M.S. in Solid State Electronics. Today, he is the Senior Manager of Content Programs at ASM International, formerly known as the American Society for Metals.

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