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Stephen Hawking Should Stick to Physics

By on 11.6.10 | 5:25PM

Stephen Hawking is a brilliant man. He is admired by scientists all over the globe, myself included. In a nutshell, his research has revolutionized astrophysics, and his popularization of science has earned him a celebrity status not achieved by any scientist since Albert Einstein.

Unfortunately, Dr. Hawking is at it again. And by "it," I mean bestowing upon us his rather bizarre thoughts on everything under (or above) the sun. His latest installment comes in an interview with TIME magazine, in which he provides yet more thoughts on God, death, and consciousness--three subjects of which he has absolutely no expertise.

My problem with Dr. Hawking is not that he speaks about subjects outside his area of research. As a scientist-turned-editor, whose job it is to read and comment upon multiple scientific fields, that would be a hypocritical stance. However, I do have a rule: When commenting on fields outside one's area of expertise, scientists should be as "conservative" as possible; that is, their comments should shy away from "extremist" positions.

So that is why I find Dr. Hawking's public comments so puzzling. Let us take a look at three statements he has made over the past several months:

(1) In regard to the future of humanity, which Dr. Hawking must believe is quite bleak, he said, "It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years." He cited the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as an example of how our "survival has been a question of touch and go." His solution is to colonize other planets.

(2) In regard to alien contact, he believes "the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans." Then, striking a tone eerily similar to the plot of the movie Independence Day, he commented, "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."

(3) Most recently, Dr. Hawking contends that God is not necessary to create the universe. "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist."

Addressing his first comment, it should be pointed out that the Cuban Missile Crisis would most likely not have destroyed the human race. Additionally, while nuclear terrorism is a very real threat, the idea of nuclear annihilation is considered a low probability event by the foreign policy community.

As for his second comment, I cannot help but laugh at how ridiculously similar it is to the script of Independence Day. After the evil aliens briefly took control of his mind, the President revealed their insidious plan: "They're like locusts. They travel from planet to planet, their whole civilization. After they've consumed every natural resource, they move on. And we're next." Dr. Hawking should perhaps watch fewer sci-fi movies and heed the professionals in the field of astrobiology, who spend the vast majority of their time looking for evidence of microbial life in the universe--not plundering bands of intergalactic space pirates.white house independence day.jpg

Finally, Dr. Hawking essentially believes that the laws of physics can replace God. Apparently, in his mind, it is somehow more scientific to believe in "spontaneous creation" rather than divine creation. However, his statement is nothing more than philosophy masquerading as science. Because his hypothesis is just as untestable as any religious belief, it is well beyond the scope of science.

It seems that some scientists cannot escape the apparently irresistible temptation to apply their expertise to every subject known to man--in particular, philosophy and religion. However, it is downright fallacious to do so. The tools of science are equipped to answer, "How?," while the tools of philosophy and religion are used to answer, "Why?" It is inappropriate to apply the tools of science to answer philosophical questions and vice versa.

So, I offer this advice to Dr. Hawking, for his own good: Stick to theoretical physics. It is what you excel at. However, you are neither a foreign policy analyst nor astrobiologist, and you are most certainly not a philosopher or theologian. Why smudge your reputation as a groundbreaking astrophysicist by publicly embracing beliefs that are generally restricted to fans of B-grade sci-fi movies?

Alex B. Berezow is the Editor of RealClearScience.  He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.

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