Saturday, January 23, 2016

Most threats come from progress in science and technology ̶ Stephen Hawking

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 
 - Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5.167-8), 

The renowned physicist recently discussed his BBC* Reith Lecture1 on black holes.2 It emerged that in response to a question submitted by a schoolboy on whether the world is likely to end on account of humans, or through natural disaster, Hawking pointed to humans, their science and technology as potential culprits. According to The Telegraph's Science News3, Hawking responded  “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology. We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognize the dangers and control them. I’m an optimist, and I believe we can.”

Hawking specifically mentioned nuclear war, global warming and genetically engineered viruses as examples of human-made threats. Colonizing planets is seen as a means of surviving, a point that Hawking also made in the 2011 documentary Surviving Progress4, saying this was our only chance. But now he explicitly identifies science and technology as responsible. There's your progress trap.

In saying that we won't stop progress, or reverse it, Hawking is perhaps inadvertently revealing why science and technology may be our Achilles heel. History abounds with institutions that refused reform, and criticism. Athens prior to the Peloponnesian War, the pre-Reformation Church and the Soviet empire, to name but a few. Critics were seen as heretics and worse. These days, Science and Technology present themselves in many ways as beyond reproach. Thus Hawking's admission of their inherent dangers is a landmark event, for which he deserves the highest praise.

To consider the learning process – that gave us Stephen Hawking – as something not applicable to the problem of progress traps just makes no sense.

Evolution has enabled us not only to learn how to become a very capable survivor in our world, but to create new instruments and modify our world as well as our behaviour. This process suggests there are "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of " in our science, and we should learn this lesson as soon as possible. Mars can wait.5

How do we have the brain power to do that? With 80 to 100 billion neurons in any given person's brain,6 and each neuron capable of making and receiving up to 10,000 connections, well....you do the math.

by Daniel O'Leary FRSA - 23 Jan. 2016

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1qCD6jwN3c6GSzY0SY7DYjH/professor-stephen-hawking
  2. Radio Times, 23-29 Jan.2016.   http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2016-01-19/what-motivates-stephen-hawking-his-answer-has-the-power-to-inspire-us-all
  3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/12107623/Prof-Stephen-Hawking-disaster-on-planet-Earth-is-a-near-certainty.html
  4. http://www.wired.com/2012/04/surviving-progress
  5. Goodman G, Gershwin ME, Bercovich D.   Mars can wait, facing the challenges of our civilization. Isr Med Assoc J. 2014 Dec;16(12):744-7.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25630201
    Amitai Etzioni Mars can wait, Oceans can't.  CNN  Aug.17, 2012 
    http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/09/opinion/etzioni-space-oceans/
  6. http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s1/introduction.html
* The Reith Lecture with Prof. Hawking - broadcast in 2 parts on BBC Radio 4 on January 26, 2016, and on Feb. 2, 2016 both at 9 a.m.