Saturday, January 17, 2015

Sh*T Stephen Hawking Says

Courtesy: XKCD

Andrew Leon's blog Strange Pegs features his review of The Theory Of Everything, which apparently tells pretty much nothing about Stephen Hawking and so is just about as boring as I imagined it would be.

I am not sure how I feel about Stephen Hawking; as I commented to Andrew, I read A Brief History of Time back when I used to read more science books, and I of course hear about Stephen Hawking doing stuff all the time because there are (judging by media coverage) only three scientists alive in the world today: Stephen Hawking, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye The Science Guy.

I (and you and nobody really) am not in a position to judge Stephen Hawking's intelligence. I take for granted that he's a smart guy. What I am in a position to judge, though, is whether Stephen Hawking is doing science anymore, or doing what most 'scientists' seem to do, which is mis-state scientific things for hype and publicity purposes.  While I am sure that many problems with 'scientific' reporting are that the reports are oversimplified or under-reported, without fact-checking, for example, I think at least part of the problem is when scientists play into that by saying things that have little to no scientific basis.

This isn't a new thing with me; my opposition to velociraptors (never existed!) and Drake's Equation, among other 'scientific' claims, are pretty well-known to anyone who has read this blog for more than a year.  (Here is where I talked about how Drake's equation isn't, at all, a long time ago.) This isn't just me being a curmudgeon or spoilsport (like Neil DeGrasse Tyson is. FOR GOD'S SAKE JUST LET PEOPLE HAVE FUN TYSON!), but me worrying that catering to the popular is reducing the science.

After commenting on Andrew's blog, I started thinking about the things I've heard Stephen Hawking has said over the years.  This is, after all, a scientist so revered that a movie about him was just made, and titled after what is the most profound quest science has right now.  Is Hawking deserving of such accolades?  To find out, I did a Google search for things Hawking has said recently. And here are those things:

Hawking warned that aliens with interstellar capabilities could possibly harness the entire energy of a star to make a wormhole in space, and then reach Earth, taking our resources and killing us all before moving on. That was on his TV show. It's not clear if Hawking discussed the science of wormholes or how circling a star with mirrors would work to capture and channel the energy, even theoretically, but he DID make people think about alien invasions, right?

Hawking also said we need to abandon Earth, or at least colonize other planets -- because we're definitely going to destroy this one and cannot sustain it at all.  Hawking said that events like the Cuban Missile Crisis are going to increase in frequency.  Remember how many nuclear showdowns there have been in the past 50 years? There's like one a day now, right?  Hawking also forgets that in the recent past it was predicted we would run out of oil and never be able to cultivate enough food to feed 7 billion people. I'm not saying we shouldn't work on colonizing other planets (if those aliens don't get there first!), but ignoring human scientific advances in every single field except space exploration seems... unscientific.

Hawking has also said that artificial intelligence will end humanity, when robots end up learning to self-replicate, which he feared they would be able to do faster and more efficiently than we can.  Granted, it takes about 13-18 years to 'manufacture' a human who can fight reasonably effectively, but where are the robots going to get all the resources to build an army of robots that quickly? Last time I checked, metal bodies weren't growing on trees.  Hawking's claims on this subject more or less were paraphrases of The Matrix, only 10 years later (he warned robots might block out the sun, which of course is what we tried to do to stop The Matrix.)

Just before a new book of his came out, Hawking announced that efforts to discover the "God Particle," the Higgs Boson, could destroy the universe! As described in his upcoming book! And then in said book you learn that the possibility of this actually happening is exceedingly small and not worth worrying about! And by "exceedingly small" he meant that in order to create a Higgs Boson which would destroy the universe you'd actually need a particle accelerator bigger than the entire planet Earth! Which of course doesn't exist! But still, read his book!

It is possible of course that even scientists get drawn by the allure of popularity and money, and abandon pure science for headline-grabbing (and movie biopic-generating) statements that favor hyperbole over nuance.  Possible, and sad, for people who actually favor science, and who think real science is more than just NOMADIC ALIENS JOIN FORCES WITH SUPERINTELLIGENT MACHINES TO DESTROY EARTH WITH HIGGS BOSONS.

HEY IF YOU ARE INTERESTED this is the topic of a short story called Quantum Everything, which is available in my book Just Exactly How Life Looks.  There's also a story about cowboys in there. 

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