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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Genius Stumped

Stephen Hawking has found a question so vexing that even he cannot answer it, and so has turned to Yahoo answers:

"In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?"

This has netted seventeen thousand answers, so there's no use my responding there. So I'll have to do it here.

It takes enormous study and concentration to reach the level of expertise that Hawking has, even when you're not fighting a debilitating illness that ought to have killed you decades ago. And the British educational system requires you to start concentrating on your major field at sixteen, which means you can drop all that boring history and literature for interesting subjects.

Still, you'd think a genius would have at least a nodding acquaintance with history, and realize that politically, socially, and environmentally, things are just not all that chaotic.

I'm not sure what he thinks is "chaotic" about the environment, unless he means that weather is, technically speaking, a chaotic system. That's something we can't do anything about. A major asteroid strike would sure induce environmental chaos, but short of that I don't see it looming. And no, even global warming doesn't count as chaotic, given that the Earth has been a lot warmer in the past, as any ten-year-old interested in dinosaurs could tell you. (Granted, there weren't any humans then, but we're a lot better equipped to deal with changing climate than the dinosaurs were.)

As for social and political chaos, I just don't see it. Socially, the 1960s were much more chaotic, and yet all us old folk lived through them. Political "chaos" is a very vague notion as well, and it isn't always bad. Things were less chaotic during the Cold War, when you knew who the bad guys were and where they lived, but I wouldn't want to return to those days.

The possibility of a world-wide exchange of nuclear weapons (talk about your environmental chaos) is much lower now than it was fifty years ago. Put yourself in the place of a public savant in the Fifties, professor. "How can this possibly go on?" he might've asked. The answer was: it didn't. And yet we're still here.

It's instructive to review secular apocalypta (have I just made up a word?) from bygone eras. I remember watching a film in sociology class showing a playground full of happy children in which the narrator wrung his metaphoric hands about what the future would be like if these were test tube babies! Aieeee! How would your child feel knowing she was conceived in a glass tube? How would the other children treat her, knowing she was this inhuman horror?

As you might expect, the film was from the Sixties[*]. I could've been one of the playground children; I was the right age for it. And test tube babies? A total non issue. No one cares, except people grateful to be able to have children.

(If there's not an entire academic subfield built around past episodes of future anxiety, and predictions of DOOM, there oughta be.)

So the answer, genius, is to rest on your physics laurels for a few minutes and read more widely in history and paleontology. Then relax and take up physics again, secure in the knowledge that your legacy will survive you.

And try not to think of yourself as a public savant, because those guys always end up looking like idiots.

NOTE: Niles says that Hawking's not looking for answers, but only trying to stir people up, which makes him a giant troll.

Troll-fest noted by smart guy Tim Blair.

[*]Hmm. It occurs to me that Louise Brooks, the world's first test tube baby, wasn't born until 1978, by which time I was in high school, and no longer frequented playgrounds. So the film must have been addressing some other horrible scary medical possibility that, by the time I saw it (c. 1982), nobody gave a damn about.

This badly formatted site says that IVF was first performed on rabbits in 1959, so the film could just have been anticipating the specter of the Brave New World of evil robotic test tube babies.