There You Are, Stephen Hawking

My father, E.G. Stassinopoulos, was a NASA Physicist for 47 years. At age 95, he is still actively researching and publishing through his Emeritus status with NASA. He asked if I might share the following essay with the Huffington Post's readers:

The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking made some surprising statements during a speech last week at England's Oxford University. He forecast the end of humanity within the next 1000 years unless humans were able to successfully find and colonize another planet. Otherwise, remaining on Earth any longer would put humanity at great risk of encountering another mass extinction. Hawking believes that the Earth's cataclysmic end might be hastened by mankind, which will continue to devour the planet's resources at unusual rates. So a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race, Hawking advocates that humans move beyond Earth to other planets and solar systems.

Hawking did not explicitly mention Mars as the "other planet" humans should colonize, but it is the only planet in our solar system suitable for colonization. We have already begun studying and exploring Mars with rovers on its surface and orbiting satellites. There are plans afoot for future missions with astronauts, though the challenges of long-distance human travel and radiation exposure remain obstacles. And, Mars, even if successfully colonized, would not be immune to the natural disasters that threaten Earth, e.g. asteroid impacts.

Human travel beyond Mars, or perhaps through the asteroid belt to Jupiter's moon Io or Saturn's moon Titan, is impossible with current technology. Hawking should be aware that human travel "to the stars" would require more than evolving technology, i.e. a change in physical laws and our relationship to them. The nearest star in our galaxy, Alpha Centauri is 4 light years away. That's 4 years away at the speed of light. At the speed of 15,278 km/hr that 'raced' CURIOSITY to Mars, the trip to Alpha Centauri would take only 282,752 years. Technology limited to the scope of science fiction such as ion drives and matter-antimatter, that could increase propulsion a hundred times would still require colonists to brave a 2,827 year voyage. Captains Kirk and Spock guiding us through wormholes with warp drive is an appealing fantasy, but we will never live long enough and prosper enough to make that fiction a reality.

Even if we were to somehow conquer these challenges and make our way into space, we would still be vulnerable from threats to our species. Infections by lethal organisms, susceptibility to natural disasters or predators, etc., could still be likely. But, most importantly, our greatest danger would come from ourselves. The human traits that have led us to the brink of nuclear war, and are contributing to the potential need for finding another planetary home will accompany us as we travel to other planets. If we cannot address the factors within us that have led us to attack each other and our beautiful home, we will be fated to repeat our behaviors and create a "Scorched Mars" and beyond.

The Greek poet Cavafy's words from a century ago in the poem "H Polis" express so well this intrinsic bane of the human condition:

You said: "I'll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I've spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.";

You won't find a new country, won't find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don't hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you've wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you've destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard
(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

And that is an insurmountable challenge indeed. Live long and prosper.

E. G. Stassinopoulos