Ian Sample, science correspondent - The Guardian
Thursday August 3, 2006
It was an unusual move for one of the world's most eminent scientists. Having built a career shedding light on the darkest secrets of the universe, from the essence of space-time to the complexity of black holes, Professor Stephen Hawking turned to the internet for answers to the latest conundrum occupying his planet-sized brain.
Introducing himself to the online community as a theoretical physicist and Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, the 64-year-old scientist posed an open question: "In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?"
The question appeared on the website Yahoo Answers a month ago, immediately stirring up an internet storm that saw more than 25,000 people log on to give their deeply-considered views: some said we should just learn to get along, others predicted technology would see us through, and more still invoked the powers of God, love and peace.
But what the world wanted most of all was to hear the great scientist answer his own question, an intervention, most were convinced, that would amount to nothing less than a definitive treatise for human survival. Yesterday, the professor's response finally arrived. In a videoclip submission, the familiar electronic voice pronounced: "I don't know the answer. That is why I asked the question."
Signs of disappointment were muted yesterday, with one respondent choosing to applaud the scientist's honesty. "It is humbling to know that this question was asked by one of the most intelligent humans on the planet ... without already knowing a clear answer," wrote Inetap.
Others took a more encompassing view of life, concluding that humans had had a good innings and it was time to hand over the planet, albeit in a shabby state, to a new caretaker species to see if they could do better. "Maybe the human race shouldn't survive. Let other life forms flourish. We suck," said Video_stooge.
But Prof Hawking's frank admission that even he was stumped by the question merely opened a lengthy response. In a four-minute recorded reply, he laid out a beginner's guide to the changing face of threats to mankind, from devastating asteroid impact and nuclear war to climate change and rampaging genetically modified viruses.
In the long term, Prof Hawking says, humans will only survive if they can leave the rock they call home and spread out into space, to transform and occupy planets around our own sun and then around other suns. Failing that, he adds, perhaps our best bet is to use genetic engineering to tinker with the human species and make us less prone to fighting war.
The reply has now joined the multitude of responses from others who tried to answer the original question, among them succinct advice for us all to eat more fruit and veg, fledgling plans to live underwater, and functional advice to keep eating, breathing and having sex.
But Prof Hawking's message cut the online community into broad camps, populated by optimists, religious groups, climate change deniers and fellow doom-mongers. Rabbit, one poster, believed that despite war, climate change and a breathtaking acceleration of new technology, humankind was not about to annihilate itself. "It will work out ... There will undoubtedly be problems and disasters, but nothing so devastating to match your pessimism. Lighten up!"
The scientist's personal favourite answer came from the fittingly monikered Semi-Mad Scientist. "Without the belief that we will continue to grow and overcome the pains of social chaos as we mature as a species, we might as well not have any faith at all. I'm not talking religion ... but simply the same belief that we will survive just as much as the sun will rise the next day," he said.