After a beautiful, surreal performance from musician Sxip Shirey, a symphonic piece performed on a pair of pennywhistles, we’re treated to a very unusual speaker – Professor Stephen Hawking, who’s speaking in a pre-taped address to the TED community. Hawking offers the observation that “nothing is older than the universe” and offers five quesitons worth exploring at some length:
-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?
Until 1920s, people thought the universe was static and unchanging in time. We then discovered the universe was expanding. Distant galaxies were moving away. This means they must have been closer in the past, and that they must have been on top of each other 15 billion years ago. Was there anything before the big bang? If not, then what created the universe?
We’re beginning to have a little sense of the initial conditions of the universe. Our understanding depends on time and space being separate and distinct. We’re examining cosmic background radiation, which gives us indications of what the universe was like at inception, and lets us calculate the possibilities that the universe was created in different ways. “We now understand the universe,” says Hawking, “Maybe we should patent it and charge people for existing in it.”
We don’t know life appeared, he tells us, but he observes that it appeared very quickly. The earth was formed 5.6 billion years ago, and life appeared about 5 billion years ago. “The likelihood of life appearing seems to be very high.” Intelligent life is something else, however. “On the other hand, we evidently haven’t been visited by aliens… Why would UFOs appear only to crackpots and weirdos?”
If we are the only intelligent beings, we need to consider our long-term survival. He believes that we must look beyond planet earth, out into space. “The answers to big questions mean we’ve made amazing progress in the last hundred years.” To move forward, he believes, we need to invest heavily in “manned – or personed – space flight.”
Hawking tells us that his “serious handicap has given me more time than most to pursue the quest for knowledge.
The goal is a complete theory of the universe, and we’re making good progress.”
Chris Anderson, TED’s host, asks Hawking to speculate on the idea that we’re the sole intelligent species in the Mily Way galaxy. “I think it is quite likely that we are the only intelligent civilization within several hundred light years.” If not, we’d likely year radio waves from the others. Or perhaps civilizations don’t last very long, destroying themselves after they’ve gained intelligence.
Anderson tells us that this brief answer took Hawking seven minutes to generate, giving us a sense of the immense effort involved with even a short speech like this one.