November 11, 2005 11:48 AM PST

Hawking's cosmological riff

OAKLAND, Calif.--Science will soon provide answers to questions about the origin of the universe, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said here Thursday night.

"We don't have good observations for how the universe is expanding again so rapidly after a long period of slowing down," Hawking said, addressing a packed audience at Oakland's Paramount Theater, where he delivered a lecture called "Origin of the Universe."

"We cannot be sure of the future of the universe: Is inflation the law of nature? Or will the universe eventually collapse again?" he said.

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking takes
on the big questions.

Hawking reassured the audience that these questions would soon have answers, thanks to the thriving study of cosmology. Scientists are now making use of ever-more-precise instruments and powerful telescopes to observe previously unknown aspects of the universe.

"We're getting close to answering the questions, Why are we here, and where did we come from?" he said.

It's rare that a scientist acquires rock-star status, but Hawking has done just that. He spoke to a rapt audience of about 3,000, drawing an eclectic crowd that included men in business suits, college students with dreadlocks, and children in wheelchairs who apparently suffer from the same debilitating disease as Hawking.

Looking characteristically frail, Hawking, 63, spoke through a computer-driven voice synthesizer, which he controls through an infrared blink switch. The blink switch recently replaced a hand switch, which he had become too weak too use. His muscles have continued to deteriorate from Lou Gehrig's Disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Time and history
Hawking is the Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton. He is known for his contributions to the understanding of quantum theory, black holes and the Big Bang theory of the universe's origins. Hawking is currently promoting his new book, "A Briefer History of Time," a follow-up to his best-selling work, "A Brief History of Time."

"We cannot be sure of the future of the universe: Is inflation the law of nature? Or will the universe eventually collapse again?"

He's also known for a great sense of humor, which he displayed numerous times throughout the evening. In an introduction, the speaker illustrated his trademark wit by describing a recent interview on "Larry King Live," during which Hawking was asked what he didn't understand about the universe. He replied: "Women."

During the lecture, he referred to a conference he once attended on cosmology, in which Pope John Paul II expressed his views on the study of the universe. The Pope told the attending scientists not to inquire into how the universe began, but rather to study how it evolved. Hawking said that he was happy the Pope didn't realize he was presenting a paper on the topic at the conference because he didn't want to suffer the same fate as Galileo, who was born 300 years before Hawking.

"I didn't fancy being handed over to the Inquisition," he said.

In a show of good timing, Hawking displayed an overhead slide showing a stone prison wall with his face peering through the bars of a lone window.

Underscoring the notion that people have always questioned their origins, Hawking touched on various understandings of the world throughout the centuries. For example, he began his talk by retelling an African creation myth about God vomiting up the sun, moon, stars, animals and then, finally, man.

Hawking recounted his theory, developed with Roger Penrose, in which they showed that Einstein's general theory of relativity implied space and time would have a beginning in the Big Bang. That's the moment at which the universe expanded, from an extremely dense state, by a million trillion trillion times in a fraction of a second. These results showed it was necessary to join relativity with quantum theory, which Hawking called the great scientific development of the 20th century.

One consequence of the unification of quantum theory and relativity is Hawking's discovery that black holes should not be completely black but should emit radiation and eventually evaporate.

When asked which scientists had inspired him most, Hawking answered that it was Galileo for his observational powers, and Einstein for his theory of relativity. He also said that Einstein "reassuringly" has some blind spots, such as quantum mechanics and gravitational collapse.

When asked about his thoughts on President Bush's proposal to put a man on Mars within 10 years, Hawking simply replied: "Stupid."

Hawking answered one question with more seriousness than others--that concerning his feelings about the U.S. government's policy on stem-cell research.

In Britain, he said, stem-cell research is seen as a great opportunity.

"America will be left behind if it doesn't change its policy," he said.

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Hawking's Computer voice
As I was reading the story, I could hear that special computer voice that Dr. Hawking famous for and the way the words are felt like I was there.

The best mind of our time.
Posted by kmguru (12 comments )
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Best Mind of Our Time
no disresect to hawking, a brilliant astrophysicist, but, depending on how you define "of our time", i'd say feynman. if only because hawking's writing is pretty tough reading; feynman is a delight and a hoot.

who says you can't be a great mind and have a little fun at the same time?

mark d.
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Link Flag
Best Mind
Wow, that was a "Me Too" comment. Just like this.

I bet you my little teenaged sister has a better social mind than he'll ever have. :)

Also peculiar to a simpleton such as myself, are his simplitic and almost absurd metaphors - for nature being chaotic, for example. Him of all people should see the divine patterns. Maybe I just misread...
Posted by Tunasashimi2 (3 comments )
Link Flag
Not that hard to explain
"We don't have good observations for how the universe is expanding again so rapidly after a long period of slowing down,"

Well, it's really quite obvious if you think about it. The Big Giant Head had to stop blowing to take another breath. Hence the period of slowed expansion. Duh.

"We cannot be sure of the future of the universe: Is inflation the law of nature? Or will the universe eventually collapse again?"

Of course the universe is going to collapse. When the Big Giant Head puts the universe on the chair right before the Big Giant Butt sits down; the universe will end with much hilarity over simulated flatulence and a good laugh will be had by all. Well, at least by those with a face. The Big Giant Butt wont be saying anything because nobody likes it when you talk out of your whoops-a-daisy.
Posted by Nathan Lunn (113 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No one will ever....
... accuse you of having a sense of humor.....
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
Big Giant Head
Your ideas intrigue me. I'd like to subscribe to your newsletter!
Posted by MikeDson (50 comments )
Link Flag
Posted by rivsys (26 comments )
Link Flag
Stop asking wrong questions
Hawking always asks the wrong questions. I'll make it simple:

Why is grass green?

Answer that, and you have the origin of the universe.
Posted by PurePacket (28 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: Why is grass green?
That's easy, because it isn't purple.

I do wish the readers here would take it easy when talking about a subject that they know nothing about. It's easy to see that those who are posting know nothing about this subject.
Posted by royc (78 comments )
Link Flag
And the answer is.....
.... a fundamental optical property of the compound chlorophyll,
which is the current result of the evolutionary development of
photon capture techniques begun by the primitive plant life
some 3,5+ billion years ago. The selection process was
significantly dominated by the spectral power distribution of the
young and relatively weak sun at that time. Chlorophyll itself
evolved into hemoglobin with the emergence of animal life
capable of living in the oxygen pollution created by the
widespread plant life.

So where is the origin of the Universe????
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
Clearly not one of our more "switched on" peers.
Posted by Gerry1981 (13 comments )
Link Flag
Well, then...

Simple as that.

Or, alternatively, why not?
Posted by nightveil (133 comments )
Link Flag
Actually, it's gray
accept for the minority of time when you're looking directly at it.
Posted by mgreere (332 comments )
Link Flag
It is the experience stupid :-)
The answer to the question "why is grass green?" brings us to question what it means to "experience".

Essentially, it is an age old question related to qualia in general which we have not made much progress in understanding from a scientific standpoint yet.

The hope is, with advancements in understanding of our brain which is progressing rapidly, we would be able to answer questions related to mind and consciousness. If it happens in our lifetime, I will be a happy man :-)
Posted by cichlid13 (3 comments )
Link Flag
What was really stupid?
"When asked about his thoughts on President Bush's proposal to put a man on Mars within 10 years, Hawking simply replied: 'Stupid.'"

I wonder whether Hawking's answer referred to his thoughts on human space exploration, or to the fact that the questioner should have known that Bush never proposed anything of the sort.

Bush proposed the development, within NASA's current budget, of an infrastructure to replace the Shuttle and permit travel beyond low Earth orbit. He proposed that such a system be able to get humans on the Moon (a relatively easy destination) by 2020. He believed this would provide a starting point for the possible exploration of Mars at some time beyond that. He did not put a date on when that would be.
Posted by wdwoods (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
.... not trying to read Hawking's mind, his point could well have
been the stupidity, in general. of sending manned missions to
Mars. As Spirit and Opportunity have clearly shown, exploration
can occur over longer times and at lower cost using robotic

Going to the Moon was a very interesting experiment, but while
technology itself has expanded immensely, the direct results of
the voyages have been rather bleak, and in retrospect, very

Even the space station is becoming a major bust. Even now,
people are desperately trying to come up with reasons why it
shouldn't be just plain abandoned. After all, tourism is not

Maybe it's time to step back and take a deep breath. We need
something better than brute force rockets to get into space. And
something real, not the delusional fog banks of space elevators
and anti-gravity. But, that's likely to be a long way off.

Right now, we've got more than enough to do right here on
earth. It would be stupid to ignore that work to chase fantasies.

By the way, I firmly believe that we will eventually colonize the
Moon and Mars. Past that, we rap[idly run out of useable real
estate. And if someone doesn't come up with some form of warp
drive, we'll never get to the stars
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
Three Strikes!
Strike 1 - Unless we can find a way to overcome the negative effects of zero gravity on the human body - we are going nowhere.

Strike 2 - Unless we can find a way to protect astronauts from high energy cosmic radiation once they leave the protection of the earths magnetic field - we are going nowhere.

Strike 3 - The vast majority of space scientists agree that unmanned trips are the only economically viable form of exploration given our current state of technology.

I believe that Dr. Hawkings was referring to the above restrictions on long distance manned space flight. With this in mind, any thought of putting people on Mars would be, for lack of a better word, stupid.
Posted by Mister C (423 comments )
Link Flag
You're supporting Bush?
While you are correct that Bush gave no details on his "plan," that is precisely what can be viewed as "stupid." It is as open ended as his foray into Iraq, and has no context for reasoning.

In 1961 when Kennedy proposed going to the moon, he did give a target date. There was a context. These are qualities that Bush lacks, hence any large scale project that he proposes is devoid of vision, clarity, purpose, and plan.
Posted by R. U. Sirius (745 comments )
Link Flag
It's the Question that was stupid
Why would anyone bother to ask Hawking about manned space exploration in the first place? Because they think that what he does has something vaguely to do with outer space? Duh.

He's a theoretical cosmologist and physicist. He's not in any way an astronomer, experimental physicist, astronaut, astrobiologist, sci-fi writer, rocket scientist, or anything else that gives his opinion any special credibility. He's also from a country that has a rather stupid legal ban on manned spaceflight (UK).

Manned spaceflight to the Moon or Mars won't contribute to Hawking's narrow specialty -- so being a typical parochial professional, he has nothing but contempt for it. Surprise - he'd rather spend the money on whatever he's interested in, and the competition for resources has him acting a bit rude, sad to see.

That's fine -- but again he has no special credibility there. You may as well ask a visiting archeologist or musician that same question: their opinion is every bit as valid as Hawking's.

The real question is, why did some reporter think that particular exchange was even newsworthy? I assume there were other questions and talk not reported on. Was the reporter just overeager to print something that sounded deliciously anti-Bush? Now that would also be typical, wouldn't it?
Posted by MikeDson (50 comments )
Link Flag
Right, but which indeed was Hawking referring to? Someone should've drawn him out for more detail...
Posted by Delphinus1 (6 comments )
Link Flag
Other Cosmological Models
The Einsteinian Big Banger model survives in the face of challenges from the Steady Stater flank currently bolstered by Edwin Hubbel's chief assistant Halton Arp's forehead slapping observation via direct photographic evidence of the proximal relationship between quasars and energetic galaxies pegged by "grant science" as residing at greatly disparate distances. Arp sez that red shift is quantaic and not the universal speed bump we think it is. His catalog of unusual galaxies remains a definitive textbook in academia, but his analyses of its non-edited photographic contents showing energetic galaxies ejecting quasars out their rotational axes, turned him into a villified heretic. Decide for yourself: <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>

Walter Alter
Posted by walteralter (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A brief reading....
.... makes me very suspicious of the man's scientific skills. He
ignored the overwhelming evidence that quasars are the cores of
very young galaxies in which the central black hole is actively
forming. He shows little understanding of relativity and makes
some major blunders in his assumptions. etc. etc. etc.

The man is no heretic, and he should not be vilified. But, his
scientific claims do need to be recognized as generally
worthless. Those claims have long ago been found wanting in

Of course, there are always those massive scientific conspiracies
to delude the general population...............
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
I Am
Theres your fundamental truth.
Posted by Tunasashimi2 (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So are we all.....,
... more fundamental truth.....
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
How will America be left behind again??
"America will be left behind if it doesn't change its policy," he said..

Oh really? How, exactly? Seriously. If the Brits cure ALS via stem cell research, bully for them. That cure is then available to us Americans. Are the Brits going to keep that a state secret? er, no. (So Hawking is evidently not an Economist of the Ricardian tradition, I guess.)

I for one think it would be refreshing if some OTHER country would finally step up and contribute SOMETHING to the fund of medical advancement. We Americans have been letting the world free-ride on our own money, efforts, researches, and resources for a long time.

Our medical research funds, if not spent specifically doing stem cell research, would be spent doing some other useful medical research anyway.
Posted by MikeDson (50 comments )
Reply Link Flag
&gt;I for one think it would be refreshing if some
&gt;OTHER country would finally step up and
&gt;contribute SOMETHING to the fund of medical

Hmmm, are you sure about that statement?

&gt;We Americans have been letting the world
&gt;free-ride on our own money, efforts,
&gt;researches, and resources for a long time.

References please?

&gt;Our medical research funds, if not spent
&gt;specifically doing stem cell research, would
&gt;be spent doing some other useful medical
&gt;research anyway.

Such as what? Your post is full of opinion while short on supporting facts.
Posted by R. U. Sirius (745 comments )
Link Flag
Hmmm Would you call this mail arrogant?
Dear Mike,
The problem is that we will be left behind. Why? Because the ethical issues that prevent us researching into stem cells will also be present when it comes to using stem cells. We just will not be able to get stem cell treatment. And, again, planes of sick people will zoom over to the UK in exactly the same way that they did before Roe vs Wade when plane loads of American girls fertilised by irresponsible American men sped their way to the UK for an abortion.
Not only that, try thinking about intellectual property rights. Who will make the money? The European drug and cell therapeutic companies because they will own the IP, it having been developed in Europe.
Your mind-bendingly arrogant comment that someone else should step up to the plate to do something to advance medical science only serves to underpoint your ignorance. The single most important advance in public health came from Europe - they're called antibiotics. Probably a good idea to get your facts right before you shoot your mouth off.
Posted by LemonFizzer (2 comments )
Link Flag
Actually, I'm baffled by the constant and unswerving certainty the press seems to bestow on the Big-Band Theory.

The BBT has real problems, Hawking's towering intellect not withstanding, to the point that this theory has been termed untenable according to many eminent cosmologists and physicists.

For example, see:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by rivsys (26 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nothing new....
... there are many 'counter-theories' in the public domain.
People keep trying to come up with other answers. And if there
were at least some credibility to any of them, they wouldn't still
be on the fringes of science. So far, the Big Bang still is the only
theory which explains most of the observed phenomena. It is by
no means complete, since the bang itself is not understood. But
once the Big Bang banged, the theory seems to be a very good
descriptor of the observable universe.

The Big Bang theory is quite tenable, at this moment, to the
great majority of eminent cosmologists and physicists. But
people are always looking for better ideas with real substance.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag

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