TED Talks Worth Talking About – Stephen Hawking

Posted on April 19, 2008


February 2008, Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s most famous physicist, gives a talk at TED. Here is my transcription of the talk complete with links, and then some reflections and implications for faith:

There is nothing bigger or older than the universe. The questions I would like to talk about are:

1. Where did we come from?
2. How did the universe come into being?
3. Are we alone in the universe?
4. Is there alien life out there?
5. 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 they 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 use 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 determine the evolution of the universe given its state over all 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 a 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 allowed 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. More over, we can calculate the probabilities that the universe is 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 unvierse 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 ten billion year life time of a planet of earth-type. This suggests that the probability of life appearing is recently 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 reports of UFOs. Why would they appear only to cranks and weirdos. 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 a selfish and aggressive instincts [sic] 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 inward looking 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 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.

MODERATOR QUESTION: 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 7 min. and really gave me an insight into the incredible act of generosity this whole talk was for TED.]

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.


I transcribed this because it is difficult to follow along with what is really being said while listening to the electronic voice of Hawking’s computer. That reality appears evident in the moderator’s question, an inquiry that was addressed in the talk itself. Hawing generously answers, and adds the final sentence tidbit which is informative, and exhortative, that the alternative is that civilization don’t last very long, but destroy themselves. That note rings very poignant at our stage of history.

But there are three specific things that he said that are of interest.

One, that the universe, and life, can spontaneously create itself out of nothing. It has been the contention of many apologists that “nothing comes from nothing,” which is more of a philosophical argument than a physical/scientific one. Hawking’s statement seems to be completely contradictory, that something did come from nothing, and that something is a BIG something: the universe. To date, in my thinking philosophically about this, there is still no contradiction, for theists who believe in a God outside of the universe, this still makes perfect sense, and is compatible with the Christian world-view. God is outside of the observable universe, and could have been the initiator of all consecutive observable realities in the universe beginning with the big bang. I mention that as an encouragement to all of us, in the scientific and in the faith communities and suggest that we ought not sell each other short. Which then means, I take issue with Hawking’s statement “we have solved the mystery of creation.” Perhaps in some ways, but not in all. I have developed and wrestled with the statement that “observation is not explanation,” that is to say, just because we can report about what we have observed, calculated, and deduced, this does not mean a complete understanding or explanation to the question “why?” For that, we need philosophy and theology.

Two, that our genetic code still carries selfish and aggressive instincts. I’m unsure if this is an accurate observation or corollary, but it does seem inevitable that science and ethics/morality are always layered on top of each other. I understand what Hawking is saying about the scientific need for these kinds of behaviors in primordial times, but it still feels like an ethical judgment. Perhaps we’re just at a loss for words, a lacking of proper terminology to truly describe what these instincts are. Or, perhaps there is some influence that morality has on our scientific observations. I’m unsure.

Three, that if we are to survive in the next hundred years, we must take to space as our next habitat. I don’t have any well thought out reasons as of yet, but I simply feel fearful and anxious about this kind of prospect. While I don’t want to decry this as merely Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” I can’t help but wonder that if this is true, only the privileged and well-to-do will survive, for the means of this kind of frontier journey can only be taken by those who are sufficiently capable of the financial and intellectual demands. Where is the communal sense of humanity in this? Ought we care for our planet enough to not allow ourselves to be reduced to escapism? And, doesn’t this contradict what other scientists are saying, that there is still plenty of room on our planet as long as we manage (steward) it well?

I welcome other’s insights and reflections.

Posted in: Culture, TED, Worldview