Six important things humanity can learn from Stephen Hawking

With the passing of Stephen Hawking on March 14th 2018, the world has lost one of its most brilliant minds, and most celebrated intellectuals. His invaluable contributions to both the frontiers of theoretical physics and popular science communication made him one of few science ‘rock-stars’ with a truly global audience.

His long struggle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) gradually paralysed him over the decades, yet the success he achieved in spite of the disease that was supposed to beat him in his 20s has inspired countless individuals, as has his extensive disability outreach work. His sense of humour and appreciation of life beyond physics made him a perfect fit for pop culture, with guest appearances on The Simpsons, Star Trek, and several Pink Floyd songs.

Motivated by the desire to increase public interest in spaceflight and to show the potential of people with disabilities, in 2007 Hawking participated in zero-gravity flight. NASA/Wikimedia

Beyond groundbreaking discoveries and public engagement,  Stephen Hawking was also a renowned promoter of humanist values, speaking out on a wide range of political and social issues. As a celebration of Hawking’s iconic voice of reason, here are just a few nuggets of insight from the man himself.

On the USA pulling out of the international climate agreement:

“By denying the evidence for climate change, and pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world, for us and our children.”

His warnings about advancements in artificial intelligence:

“I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

Criticism of the ongoing privitasation of the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK:

“The crisis in the NHS has been caused by political decisions. The political decisions include underfunding and cuts, privatising services, the public sector pay cap, the new contract imposed on the junior doctors and removal of the student nurses’ bursary”. “We see that the direction in the UK is towards a US-style insurance system, run by the private companies, and that is because the balance of power right now is with the private companies.”

On the importance of dialogue over violence:

“Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

A warning about contact with extraterrestrial civilisations:

“One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like this, but we should be wary of answering back. Meeting an advanced civilisation could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.”

And, finally, a quote that resonates particularly strongly in our modern post-truth world, and serves as a warning against the growing trend of anti-intellectualism:

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is illusion of knowledge.”

Stephen Hawking may no longer be with us in conscious form, but the wisdom he leaves behind will remain immortalised. Thanks Stephen.

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