Party hats out, everyone! Stephen Hawking turned 70 years old yesterday, 49 years after being told he had fewer than four left to live.
The Cambridge professor suffers from a motor neuron disease related to Lou Gehrig’s disease that has gradually taken from him his ability to move, feed himself, and speak, except through a synthesizer that he operates using a cheek muscle (unfortunately, his control of that muscle is also fading). But despite these handicaps, he has survived to an incredible ripe old age—the average for an Englishman is currently 77.2—and has continued his work as a cosmologist and physicist throughout. How has he managed to live so much longer than expected? Read More
Cosmologist Stephen Hawking‘s voice is quite distinctive: the robotic monotone, emanating from an electronic synthesizer he’s used since getting a tracheotomy, is instantly identifiable. But as his neuromuscular disease progresses, and as the technology he’s using grows increasingly obsolete, his personal voice technician has to devise more and more workarounds. Sam Blackburn, who’s occupied the position since 2006, is now moving on, and the New Scientist spoke to him about what the job entails. Blackburn says:
I guess the most interesting thing in my office is a little grey box, which contains the only copy we have of Stephen’s hardware voice synthesiser. The card inside dates back to the 1980s and this particular one contains Stephen’s voice. There’s a processor on it which has a unique program that turns text into speech that sounds like Stephen’s, and we have only two of these cards. The company that made them went bankrupt and nobody knows how it works any more. I am trying to reverse engineer it, which is quite tricky. Read More
After several years of nail-biting delays and breakdowns, the Large Hadron Collider, one of the few science experiments to become a household name, got underway in March of 2010. The search for the Higgs boson, the elusive “God particle” that would resolve several problems in the Standard Model of particle physics, was front-page news.
But in the last 18 months, as the LHC has scanned through various energies, the Higgs has not showed itself. And at a conference in Mumbai on August 22, CERN scientists revealed news that set the physics community humming: in the energies so far explored, there’s a 95% probability that the Higgs doesn’t exist. Amir Azcel, writing in a guest blog at Scientific American, explains these numbers, considers the tumult in particle physics that will occur should the Higgs prove no more than theoretical, and asks whether Stephen Hawking has just won his infamous bet against the Higgs:
A few years ago, celebrated British physicist Stephen Hawking was widely reported in the press to have placed a provocative public bet that the LHC (along with all particle accelerators that preceded it) would never find the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” believed responsible for having imbued massive particles with their mass when the universe was very young.
Image courtesy of CERN
You know the old routine in sci-fi: Aliens show up, people of Earth freak out. Whether we provoke aliens a la The Day the Earth Stood Still or they arrive foaming with blood lust like in Mars Attacks, storytellers’ general feeling is that the mass of humanity would not respond well to the real presence of extraterrestrial life. We need Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to keep ’em separated from us.
In 2011—the year after we were supposed to make contact—are we humans still a backwater mob of talking apes who would crumble into pandemonium, or cosmic self-doubt, at the discovery of life beyond Earth? This week, a special issue of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society addresses that question and more.
You’ve come a long way, baby
Albert Harrison, psychologist at the University of California, Davis, may live to regret saying nice things about humanity. But it’s nice to see somebody giving us a vote of confidence:
The Brookings Report warned in 1961 that the discovery of life beyond Earth could lead to social upheaval. But [Harrison] says “times have changed dramatically” since then. Even the discovery of intelligent aliens “may be far less startling for generations that have been brought up with word processors, electronic calculators, avatars and cell phones as compared with earlier generations used to typewriters, slide rules, pay phones and rag dolls,” Harrison writes in one of the papers. [MSNBC]
SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) hasn’t been successful in its half-century hunt for alien civilizations, but it has ingrained into people the idea of looking for life beyond Earth. The continually increasing exoplanet count (one discovery was announced just today) is showing people just a small glimpse of the variety of worlds out there. Thus, Harrison says the people of Earth would respond to the discovery of alien life with “delight or indifference,” according to the Press Association.
It’s one of Stephen Hawking‘s most famous hypotheses (though one often co-credited to other researchers): According to the rules of quantum mechanics, a black hole—from which nothing should be able to escape—actually can emit material in the form of Hawking radiation. In the thirty-plus years since the reknowned physicist made his prediction Hawking radiation has remained theoretical, but a research team now claims to have seen it right in the lab.
First, a quick refresher on Hawking radiation:
Physicists have long realised that on the smallest scale, space is filled with a bubbling melee of particles leaping in and out of existence. These particles form as particle-antiparticle pairs and rapidly annihilate, returning their energy to the vacuum. Hawking’s prediction came from thinking about what might happen to particle pairs that form at the edge of a black hole. He realised that if one of the pair were to cross the event horizon, it could never return. But its partner on the other side would be free to go. [Technology Review]
The lonesome, unpaired particles streaming away would make it appear that the black hole was emitting radiation, Hawking argued.
Physicist Sean Carroll, one of the people behind Cosmic Variance here at DISCOVER blogs, tweeted yesterday: “I think Stephen Hawking could say ‘ice cream is delicious’ and get massive media coverage.” He’s probably right.
Last month the renowned physicists made the news by warning of the great threat of human extinction over the next couple centuries, but kindly softened the blow by saying that we’ll be fine if we can get through our growing pains and get off this planet. Back in April, the wave of attention came from his warning that it might not be such a great idea to attempt to contact aliens, should they be more advanced than us and try to wipe us out.
Now, he’s taking on the almighty. Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, co-authored by Leonard Mlodinow, snagged media attention this week because of an excerpt that appeared in the U.K.’s The Times (which we can’t link to, because it’s behind an online pay wall).
“Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,” he wrote. “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going.” [CNN]
Or, to put it another way, here’s a bit from the book’s final chapter about the nature of the universe:
Listen, people of Earth: Everything’s going to be fine. All we have to do is survive another century or two without self-destructing as a species. Then we’ll get off this rock, spread throughout space, and everything will be all right.
If this is not your idea of “optimism,” then you are not Stephen Hawking. The esteemed physicist garnered headlines, and some eye-rolls, after telling Big Think last week that humanity needs to leave the Earth in the future or face extinction.
He’s not knocking climate scientists’ attempts to figure things out on Earth–he’s just thinking long term. “There have been a number of times in the past when our survival has been touch-and-go,” explains Hawking at Big Think, mentioning the Cuban Missile Crisis, and “the frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future…. Our population and our use of the finite resources of the planet earth are growing exponentially along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill,” while “our genetic code still caries our selfish and aggressive instincts” [The Atlantic].
Combined with Hawking’s statement earlier this year that it might be dangerous to contact aliens because they could come and wipe us out, the physicist’s latest warning makes it feel like he’s increasingly a member of the gloom-and-doom crowd. But not so. He’s just the kind of person who thinks on the long, long term.
Let’s jump back to another publicly engaged scientist: Carl Sagan’s message in Cosmos that the stars await… if we don’t destroy ourselves.
In a half-century of hunting, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has turned up nary a whisper from E.T. But for renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, the non-success of SETI and others who hope to contact alien life might be for the best: Aliens, he says, might not like us.
Hawking caused waves with this suggestion in his new Discovery Channel special, which debuted last night. He has long believed that extraterrestrial life exists, simply because of the sheer vastness of the universe. While much of what’s out there might be simple microbial life, there may indeed be new civilizations far more advanced than our own. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be friendly.
Said Hawking: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. 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 colonise whatever planets they can reach” [The Times].
At the University of Cambridge it’s out with black holes, in with tiny vibrating strings of energy. The prestigious professorship that was most recently held by Stephen Hawking, the physicist whose great contributions to the field include new models of black holes, has been given to the string theory luminary Michael Green.
The Lucasian Professorship was established in 1663 and previous holders have included Isaac Newton [BBC News]; it’s considered one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world. Hawking held the job for 30 years, but stepped down in September following his 67th birthday, in accordance with a university rule.
Stephen Hawking, the world’s leading theoretical physicist, was among a group of 16 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award. The medal honors those who have significantly contributed to world peace, U.S. security or other endeavors.
Pres. Barack Obama presented the award, lauding Hawking’s immense contributions in spite of his physical disability due to a neurological disorder. “From his wheelchair, he has led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest reaches of the cosmos. In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and showed us the power of the human spirit,” [Sky News], Obama said of Hawking as he placed the medal around his neck. Besides his contributions to the field of physics through his research on topics like black holes and cosmology, Hawking, 67, is also the author of the best-selling science book A Brief History of Time.