Stephen Hawking: Questioning the universe
February 27, 2008
In keeping with the theme of TED2008, professor Stephen Hawking asks some Big Questions about our universe -- How did the universe begin? How did life begin? Are we alone? -- and discusses how we might go about answering them.Stephen Hawking
- Theoretical physicist
Stephen Hawking's scientific investigations have shed light on the origins of the cosmos, the nature of time and the ultimate fate of the universe. His bestselling books for a general audience have given an appreciation of physics to millions. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
There is nothing bigger or older than the universe.
The questions I would like to talk about are:
one, where did we come from?
How did the universe come into being?
Are we alone in the universe?
Is there alien life out there?
What is the future of the human race?
Up until the 1920s,
everyone thought the universe was essentially static
and unchanging in time.
Then it was discovered that the universe was expanding.
Distant galaxies were moving away from us.
This meant they must have been closer together in the past.
If we extrapolate back,
we find we must have all been on top of each other
about 15 billion years ago.
This was the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe.
But was there anything before the Big Bang?
If not, what created the universe?
Why did the universe emerge from the Big Bang the way it did?
We used to think that the theory of the universe
could be divided into two parts.
First, there were the laws
like Maxwell's equations and general relativity
that determined the evolution of the universe,
given its state over all of space at one time.
And second, there was no question
of the initial state of the universe.
We have made good progress on the first part,
and now have the knowledge of the laws of evolution
in all but the most extreme conditions.
But until recently, we have had little idea
about the initial conditions for the universe.
However, this division into laws of evolution and initial conditions
depends on time and space being separate and distinct.
Under extreme conditions, general relativity and quantum theory
allow time to behave like another dimension of space.
This removes the distinction between time and space,
and means the laws of evolution can also determine the initial state.
The universe can spontaneously create itself out of nothing.
Moreover, we can calculate a probability that the universe
was created in different states.
These predictions are in excellent agreement
with observations by the WMAP satellite
of the cosmic microwave background,
which is an imprint of the very early universe.
We think we have solved the mystery of creation.
Maybe we should patent the universe
and charge everyone royalties for their existence.
I now turn to the second big question:
are we alone, or is there other life in the universe?
We believe that life arose spontaneously on the Earth,
so it must be possible for life to appear on other suitable planets,
of which there seem to be a large number in the galaxy.
But we don't know how life first appeared.
We have two pieces of observational evidence
on the probability of life appearing.
The first is that we have fossils of algae
from 3.5 billion years ago.
The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago
and was probably too hot for about the first half billion years.
So life appeared on Earth
within half a billion years of it being possible,
which is short compared to the 10-billion-year lifetime
of a planet of Earth type.
This suggests that a probability of life appearing is reasonably high.
If it was very low, one would have expected it
to take most of the ten billion years available.
On the other hand, we don't seem to have been visited by aliens.
I am discounting the reports of UFOs.
Why would they appear only to cranks and weirdoes?
If there is a government conspiracy to suppress the reports
and keep for itself the scientific knowledge the aliens bring,
it seems to have been a singularly ineffective policy so far.
Furthermore, despite an extensive search by the SETI project,
we haven't heard any alien television quiz shows.
This probably indicates that there are no alien civilizations
at our stage of development
within a radius of a few hundred light years.
Issuing an insurance policy
against abduction by aliens seems a pretty safe bet.
This brings me to the last of the big questions:
the future of the human race.
If we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy,
we should make sure we survive and continue.
But we are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history.
Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth
are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability
to change the environment for good or ill.
But our genetic code
still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts
that were of survival advantage in the past.
It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster
in the next hundred years,
let alone the next thousand or million.
Our only chance of long-term survival
is not to remain lurking on planet Earth,
but to spread out into space.
The answers to these big questions
show that we have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years.
But if we want to continue beyond the next hundred years,
our future is in space.
That is why I am in favor of manned --
or should I say, personed -- space flight.
All of my life I have sought to understand the universe
and find answers to these questions.
I have been very lucky
that my disability has not been a serious handicap.
Indeed, it has probably given me more time than most people
to pursue the quest for knowledge.
The ultimate goal is a complete theory of the universe,
and we are making good progress.
Thank you for listening.
Chris Anderson: Professor, if you had to guess either way,
do you now believe that it is more likely than not
that we are alone in the Milky Way,
as a civilization of our level of intelligence or higher?
This answer took seven minutes, and really gave me an insight
into the incredible act of generosity this whole talk was for TED.
Stephen Hawking: I think it quite likely that we are the only civilization
within several hundred light years;
otherwise we would have heard radio waves.
The alternative is that civilizations don't last very long,
but destroy themselves.
CA: Professor Hawking, thank you for that answer.
We will take it as a salutary warning, I think,
for the rest of our conference this week.
Professor, we really thank you for the extraordinary effort you made
to share your questions with us today.
Thank you very much indeed.
- Theoretical physicist
Stephen Hawking's scientific investigations have shed light on the origins of the cosmos, the nature of time and the ultimate fate of the universe. His bestselling books for a general audience have given an appreciation of physics to millions.Why you should listen
Stephen Hawking is perhaps the world's most famous living physicist. A specialist in cosmology and quantum gravity and a devotee of black holes, his work has probed the origins of the cosmos, the nature of time and the universe's ultimate fate -- earning him accolades including induction into the Order of the British Empire. To the public, he's best known as an author of bestsellers such as The Universe in a Nutshell and A Brief History of Time, which have brought an appreciation of theoretical physics to millions.
Though the motor neuron disorder ALS has confined Hawking to a wheelchair, it hasn't stopped him from lecturing widely, making appearances on television shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons -- and planning a trip into orbit with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. (He recently experienced weightlessness aboard Zero Gravity Corporation's "Vomit Comet.") A true academic celebrity, he uses his public appearances to raise awareness about potential global disasters -- such as global warming -- and to speak out for the future of humanity: "Getting a portion of the human race permanently off the planet is imperative for our future as a species," he says.
Hawking serves as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, where he continues to contribute to both high-level physics and the popular understanding of our universe.
The original video is available on TED.com