What’s in Store ...




Planting Golden Seeds in Northumberland, Tyne & Wear, and Durham




One of sciences most famous men, Stephen Hawkins, predicts the inevitable  rise of a super race.


This blog was originally intended to shine a light on the man who first walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong.  It was he who famously said, ‘This is one small step for (a) man, but a giant leap for mankind.’


However, on reflection, many people have written and spoken about Neil Armstrong and his big adventure.


What I am more concerned about today is getting to grips with an article in the Times Culture magazine.  This article introduces theoretical physicist Stephen Hawkins’ work.  When Stephen Hawkins died this year (March 2018), he left behind volumes of recently written but unfinished work.  These drafts became this book, a book which is seen as Hawkins’ last message to the world and this from a man who spent his life understanding the stars.


‘I am very aware of the preciousness of time,’ Hawkins writes.  This a typical wry joke from someone who was not only the scientist who discovered the origins of time in the BIG BANG, but the man who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at 21 and told he had but a few years to live.  Much to the amazement of his doctors he lived to 76.  His time somehow stretched out.  Yet     our time on Earth as a species, he warns, is fast running out.


The problem is not a cosmic one. The BIG CRUNCH which according to Hawkins will bring the Universe to an end is 20bn years away. “You can to quite a lot of eating, drinking and being merry before that”.  No, the fault is in ourselves.


Radical change is upon us.  One kind will start with the ‘repair of genetic defects’.  But some people wont be able to resist the temptation to improve and this will lead us inevitably towards a race of ‘self designed beings’. Ordinary, ‘unimproved’ humans won’t be able to compete and presumably they will simply die out or become ‘unimportant.’  This will happen unless artificial intelligence makes it irrelevant first.  Hawkins warns us not to dismiss the idea that AI  might one day ‘incursively improve itself without  human help’.  Calling this science fiction would be. ... potentially our worst mistake ever.


Even if AI does not go ballistic and take over, the technology poses real and present danger.  Siri Google, Now and chess playing supercomputers ‘are merely symptoms of an IT arms race.  He asks, ‘do we really want cheap AI weapons to become the Kalishnikova of tomorrow, sold to criminals and terrorists on the Black Market?’ The impact of AI depends on who controls it.  In the long terms it depends on ‘whether it can be controlled at all.’


The same is true of the climate.  Here, we are indeed running out of time and space.  The Earth is becoming too small and climate change might already be irreversible.  If the rainforests succumb and the polar ice fields melt, our climate could become like Venus’s ‘boiling hot hot and raining sulphuric acid with a temperature of 250 degrees,’


Yet, Hawkins sees hope in the stars.  ‘Not to leave Planet Earth would be like castaways on a desert island not trying to escape,’ he suggests.  With the right funding, we could have a moon base in 30 years, reach Mars in 50 and send humans to the moons of the outer planets within 500 years.


And that’s just the start.  Astronomers are discovering ever more of the billion Earth like planets thought to exist in the Milky Way.  With the present technology it would take 3m years to get to the nearest, and use up as much fuel as is contained in all the starts in the galaxy.  But we are not stranded.  Hawkins envisages a sail bearing nanocraft, weighing a few grams which could be ‘blown’ into outer space by a kilometre-wide array of lasers.  


It could not stop once launched and could not carry humans, but it could carry information.  And that might be enough - if we, as Hawkins foresees, we successfully transform ourselves into post human, inorganic beings.  Creating immortal digital surrogates is an ‘ambitious dream’ but might not be as far fetched an idea as it sounds.


It is a poignant idea, coming from a man who lived far longer than was expected and who communicated, at the end, using the merest facial twitches to drive a speech synthesiser.  And the ultra distinctive voice - modest and profound - which knits this book together.


And there I leave this article about Stephen Hawkins’ last book.  I hope you enjoyed it and feel as I do that studying astronomy or at least reading the book might be a good thing.  My sincere thanks go to James McConnachie, the Times, journalist who brought the work of Stephen Hawkins to my (and your) attention.


Marian Moore





Brief Answers to the Big Questions,

By Stephen Hawkins.

J Murray 


THE Sunday Times ‘Culture’ Magazine , Sunday, 21 October, 2018. Pp. 38 and 39


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