What if everyone suddenly became geniuses?

Stephen Hawking : The posthumous answers of the Cambridge genius

Black holes. Gravity traps that swallow whole stars. They combine so much mass in a very small space that not even light can escape them. Can only a magician snatch their secrets from them? Stephen Hawking became famous for his research on black holes. Now the British physicist has made another statement: posthumously, in a book that he had stolen from his archive, but which, according to the publisher, had been prepared under his aegis. Title: "Short Answers to Big Questions". In response to questions that were brought to him again and again during his lifetime: What is in a black hole? Are time travel possible? How did it all start? Is there a god?

Attracted by the big questions

“He was always drawn to big questions, regardless of whether they were deeply rooted in his science or not,” says physicist Kip Thorne, and admits that he shies away from such questions himself. Thorne was awarded the Nobel Prize last year for his contribution to the discovery of gravitational waves. Hawking never got that award. His science was inaccessible to experimental testing and sometimes overly speculative. Nevertheless, no researcher since Einstein has been as popular as the oracle from Cambridge, whose statements fascinated the dark, the mysterious, and surpassing every day-to-day experience.

Hawking, too, was a mystery. As soon as he started studying, he realized that something was wrong with him. Movement disorders, sudden falls, articulation difficulties. In 1963, when he was just 21, doctors diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease in which motor nerve cells gradually perish. Would he live another two years? Or three?

It should be 55. Years in which his mobility continued to decline, in which he tried to adapt his technical aids to the growing restrictions until he could only control his voice computer with the help of eye movements. He died in March of this year. Four months ago the wooden urn with his ashes was buried in Westminster Abbey.

How to call into the black hole ...

His monotonous synthesizer voice also symbolically disappeared into space on June 15th: "I have spent my life traveling through the universe in my mind ..." The European Space Agency sent the message into space using a radio telescope. In the direction of the black hole A6202-00, which is only 3500 light years away from Earth in the constellation Unicorn.

You probably thought that if you call into a black hole, nothing will come out.

In the book that has just been published, Hawking expressly warns against sending any messages into space and thus possibly attracting the attention of extraterrestrial intelligences. In his view, the risks are far greater than the opportunities: we only need to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life can transform into something we do not wish to face. "If we encountered a more sophisticated civilization at our present stage, we might end up like the Native Americans did when we met Columbus - and I don't think the Indians were particularly happy about that."

Intelligence doesn't have to be an advantage

Hawking readers are familiar with such sentences. When it comes to the question of extraterrestrial civilizations, however, he holds back - in contrast to his colleagues who put formulas for the frequency of aliens into the world. In the context of evolution, the coincidental emergence of intelligent living beings is probably just one of many possible results. “It's not even certain that intelligence has any long-term survival value,” he argues, given overpopulation, climate change, and the nuclear threat. Bacteria could still live if all other life on earth had long been wiped out by human activity.

And anyway: if there were intelligent life elsewhere, it would have to exist at a great distance from us, because otherwise it would have long since visited the earth. Advanced civilizations would sooner or later become nomads in space. Since every planet is threatened by collisions with other celestial bodies, since every star goes out at some point, alien civilizations, if they exist, would be forced to leave their homes sooner or later and colonize other planets. A universe in which asteroids shoot like projectiles, in which supernovae emit deadly radiation and black holes collide, is not particularly inviting. Nevertheless, we should also venture out into space.

Space, i'm coming

Entertaining, sometimes serious in tone, then again humorous, Hawking's book encourages you to think for yourself and in several places to contradict yourself. As a reader, one may, for example, doubt whether a human race, which is endangering its livelihood more and more, could at some point be able to cope with the completely hostile conditions elsewhere in space. Hawking shares a passion for manned space travel with the Apollo generation.

“Space, here I come!” With these words, he boarded a plane in 2007 to feel the weightlessness on his own body. “It was fantastic!” From childhood he had dreamed of space flights, but missed the first moon landing.

Only dark gray holes

While the family was sitting in front of the television on July 20, 1969, he was at a conference on singularities, i.e. black holes that should be created when a massive star that has used up its fuel collapses until matter inside of one collapses Point is focused. Even for light there would be no more escape if it was within a mysterious limit, the event horizon. Hence the name "black holes". While they were still considered mathematical artifacts in the 1960s, stargazers have now collected numerous indications for the existence of such objects. Black holes are located in the core of our Milky Way, in the region around the galactic center and in our cosmic neighborhood.

In 1974 Hawking realized that black holes are probably not completely black after all, but that they emit radiation until they evaporate (see box). This “Hawking radiation” is considered to be his greatest discovery, even if the theory contains internal contradictions. Hawking ventilated it for so long that his Legacy would have liked to see what he last thought about it. It is precisely here that the book gets lost in metaphors.

Warning of AI

It is striking how often he warned of the dangers of technological developments in the last years of his life, although he was known for his optimism, his enthusiasm for technology and the joy of popularizing science. Also with regard to artificial intelligence (AI). In the future, machines would not only get better and better at revising and improving their own designs. You could also pursue goals that are not ours.

"You are certainly not a bad ant hater who kicks these animals to death out of sheer malice," says Hawking's tongue-in-cheek comparison. “However, if you are responsible for building a hydroelectric power station to generate green electricity and an anthill in the affected area is flooded - bad luck for the ants. We should avoid putting humanity in the position of these ants. "

Hawking's last scientific publication also appeared after his death, with the thesis that the universe is simpler than most people think - and not infinite.

Book Reference: Stephen Hawking, "Brief Answers to Big Questions". Translated from the English by Susanne Held and Hainer Kober. Klett-Cotta, 2018. 240 pages, 20 euros.

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