Stephen Hawking lost his longtime battle with ALS on March 14, 2018 — what would have been Albert Einstein’s 139th birthday. While Hawking’s scientific achievements led the field of astrophysics forward in a number of important ways, his impact on the general public was much more of a mixed bag.
Hawking took us to the limits of space and time. In the 1960s, his doctoral work helped us better understand the nature of singularities — which were not mere mathematical curiosities, as some had conjectured — but real objects with particular properties, capable of potentially birthing not only our Big Bang, but of baby universes inside of black holes. In the 1970s, this led him to investigate the event horizons (the “point of no return”) of black holes, leading to his most remarkable discovery: that black holes aren’t entirely black. They radiate energy away, eventually decaying entirely with a cataclysmic explosion at the end.
Hawking’s later career focused on some of the greatest paradoxes of our time, including the origin of space and time, the question of what preceded the Big Bang, and whether black holes conserve (or lose) information. His contributions still resonate throughout the field today, having given rise to hundreds of scientific papers.
As a high-profile science communicator, he popularized astrophysics and theoretical physics. His book, “A Brief History of Time,” sold more than 10 million copies.
But later in life, he used his platform to push a macabre worldview. For instance, echoing the plot of “Independence Day,” he believed that if aliens visited Earth, they would plunder our resources and kill everybody. He said, “I imagine they might exist in massive ships … having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.”
Why exactly a civilization that has mastered interstellar travel would need to come to Earth to pilfer our steel and laptop computers remained unanswered.
Worse, Hawking was convinced that humanity was facing extinction. He once claimed that humans would have to abandon Earth in a century if the species wished to survive: “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?”
He spoke with the religious fervor of a modern-day Jonathan Edwards — but instead of sinners in the hands of an angry God, we were humans in the hands of an angry universe.
And the universe was very angry. Hawking worried that too many humans would consume too much energy and the Earth literally would burn up: “But the present exponential growth can not continue for the next millennium. By the year 2600 the world’s population would be standing shoulder to shoulder and the electricity consumption would make the Earth glow red hot.”
He was equally fearful of artificial intelligence, which he described as possibly the “worst event in the history of our civilization.” If humans or their machines weren’t the agents of our civilization’s demise, then Mother Nature would intervene, perhaps through an epidemic or asteroid strike. There were far too many rapacious humans on this planet, and celestial retribution would thin out the herd.
The trouble with his predictions is that none of them were rooted in scientific reality. Demographers reject the notion of overpopulation; epidemics, climate change, and artificial intelligence are potential challenges, but not a threat to the species; and Earth isn’t predicted to face an apocalyptic asteroid strike for at least millions of years.
It is a shame that Hawking spent his later years playing on people’s worst science-fiction fears. Despite this lamentable worldview, however, Hawking’s contribution to science and science communication will be remembered as among the greatest of all time. Few people can turn black holes into objects of fascination for children and adults alike.
As Hawking himself once put it, “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special.” Let that be his lasting legacy.