Speaking ahead of his BBC Reith Lecture on black holes, Stephen Hawking discusses the danger inherent in progress and the chances of disaster on Earth, The human race faces one its most dangerous centuries yet as progress in science and technology becomes an ever greater threat to our existence, Stephen Hawking warns.
“We will not establish self-sustaining colonies in space for at least the next hundred years, so we have to be very careful in this period,” Hawking said. His comments echo those of Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, who raised his own concerns about the risks of self-annihilation in his 2003 book Our Final Century.
Speaking to the Radio Times ahead of the BBC Reith Lecture, in which he will explain the science of black holes, Hawking said most of the threats humans now face come from advances in science and technology, such as nuclear weapons and genetically engineered viruses.
“We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognise the dangers and control them,” he added.
The Cambridge scientist, who turned 74 earlier this month, said his expectations were reduced to zero when he learned he had a rare and slowly progressing form of motor neurone disease at the age of 21. But reflecting on more than 50 years since the diagnosis, he said he had been very fortunate in almost every other way. In Hawking’s area of theoretical physics, his disability was not a major handicap.
Asked what kept his spirits up, he named his work and sense of humour. “It’s also important not to become angry, no matter how difficult life is, because you can lose all hope if you can’t laugh at yourself and at life in general.”
Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century?
by Martin Rees
228pp, Heinemann, £17.99
Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s most distinguished theoretical astrophysicist and one of its best writers on matters cosmological, is no stranger to catastrophe; he has a professional interest in supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, cannibal galaxies and many of the universe’s other savageries. In Our Final Century, though, his concern is not just destruction, but self-destruction. The 20th century, he points out, was the first in which humanity’s chance of self-destruction shot up above the eschatological background noise. At a cumulative risk that Rees (long active in disarmanent campaigns) sets retrospectively at about one in six, a nuclear holocaust knocked other end-of-the-world scenarios – asteroid impacts, supervolcano eruptions, and, for the fanciful, alien invasion – into a cocked hat. Now he thinks things are getting worse. Although the dangers are no longer dominated by nuclear weapons, Rees puts the chances of civilisation coming to an end in the 21st century as high as 50:50.