Stephen Hawking: “I have learned not to look too far ahead, but to concentrate on the present”

The physicist and author has died aged 76. Read here an exclusive interview he granted to EL PAÍS in 2015

Video: Stephen Hawking interviewed in Tenerife (Spanish captions).Video: Álvaro de la Rúa | Photo: Gorka Lejarcegi

“Merry Christmas.” The unmistakable robotic voice belonging to the most famous scientist on the planet rings out along the promenade at El Camisón beach in Tenerife, prompting laughter among the tourists gathered round him. “It’s Stephen Hawking,” they whisper to each other, as they jostle to see him.

“It’s a joke he likes: it makes people laugh,” says Pat, one of the team that follows him everywhere, to explain the rather un-seasonal greeting. The 73-year-old Hawking is visiting the Canary Islands to promote the third biennial Starmus festival, a unique international gathering focused on celebrating astronomy, space exploration, music, art and allied sciences such as biology and chemistry founded by Garik Israelian, an astronomer at the Canarian Institute for Astrophysics in Tenerife. The 2016 edition will bring together around a dozen Nobel laureates, along with many other famous figures from the worlds of art and science, astronomy and space exploration.

Hawking, who recently saw his remarkable life portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie The Theory of Everything, is able to write using a sensor in his cheek, one of the few muscles he is still able to move. He uses several software programs to help him communicate, but it can sometimes still take him up to two hours to answer a simple question – although he does have a special button that cracks jokes.

A woman in a bathing suit approaches Hawking, saying: “Thanks for your sense of humor, Stephen.” This happens all the time, says one of his team: “His books about astrophysics and his work have made him popular around the world.” He is accompanied by seven people on the trip, among them doctors and close friends. Hawking agrees to answer EL PAÍS’s questions, and discusses the need to conquer space if humanity is to survive, as well as the dangers that artificial intelligence poses, and the future for science in Spain.

Question. Despite the difficulties involved, you’ve increased your public appearances. You keep a dizzying schedule of trips, lectures, interviews, festivals… almost like a rock star. Why do you do it?

Answer. I feel a duty to inform the public about science.

Q. Is there anything that you would like to do in life and still haven’t?

A. Go into space with Virgin Galactic.

Q. In one of your most recent books you focused on the theories that could unite relativity and quantum physics. What will the next one be about?

A. Go into my life against the odds.

Q. Spain, like many other countries, has cuts its science budget, prompting many young scientists to go abroad to continue their work. What would you say to a Spanish youngster who is considering whether or not to become a scientist?

A. Go to America. They value science because it pays off in technology.

Q. You recently launched a very ambitious initiative to search for intelligent life in our galaxy. A few years ago, though, you said it would be better not to contact extraterrestrial civilizations because they could even exterminate us. Have you changed your mind?

A. If aliens visit us, the outcome could be much like when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach. To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.

Q. You have said information can survive a black hole. What does that mean for the average person, especially if he or she ends up falling into a black hole?

A. Falling into a black hole is like going over Niagara Falls in a canoe, if you paddle fast enough, you can get away. Black holes are the ultimate recycling machine, what comes out is the same as what went in but it’s reprocessed.

Q. In 2015 the theory of relativity turns 100. What you would say to Einstein if you could speak to him, and what do you expect from science in the next 100 years?

A. Einstein wrote a paper in 1939 in which he claimed matter couldn’t be compressed beyond a certain point, ruling out black holes.

Q. Why should we fear artificial intelligence?

A. Computers will overtake humans with AI at some point within the next 100 years. When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours.

Q. What do you think our fate as a species will be?

A. I think the survival of the human race will depend on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe, because there’s an increasing risk that a disaster will destroy Earth. I therefore want to raise public awareness about the importance of space flight. I have learned not to look too far ahead, but to concentrate on the present. I have so much more I want to do.

Q. What would you say to the Spanish prime minister, who has approved major cuts to science spending?

A. The Spanish are very interested in science and cosmology. They were great readers of my book, A Brief History of Time. It is important that we all have a good understanding of science and technology. Science and technology are changing our world dramatically, and it is important to ensure that these changes are in the right directions. In a democratic society, this means that we all need to have a basic understanding of science, so we can make informed decisions ourselves, rather than leave them to the experts. Of course you have to simplify. Most people don’t have time to master the very mathematical details of theoretical physics. But I believe everyone can, and should have a broad picture of how the universe operates, and our place in it. This is what I have tried to convey in my books and lectures.

Q. Do you think one can be a good scientist and believe in God?

A. I use the word, God, in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature.

Q. You said God is unnecessary to explain the universe as it is. Do you think humans would one day abandon religion and God?

A. The laws of science are sufficient to explain the origin of the universe. It is not necessary to invoke God.

Q. People who use wheelchairs face many difficulties in leading a normal life. Having experienced difficulties yourself, what is your message to people who have to use wheelchairs?

A. Although I was unfortunate enough to get motor neuron disease, I have been very fortunate in almost everything else. I was lucky to be working in theoretical physics, one of the few areas in which disability was not a serious handicap, and to hit the jackpot with my popular books. My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Theoretical physics is one of the few fields in which being disabled is no handicap. It’s all in the mind. I must admit, I do tend to drift off to thinking about physics or black holes when I get left behind in the conversation. In fact, my disability has been a help in a way. It has freed me from teaching or sitting on boring committees, and given me more time to think and do research.

Q. What’s so important about Starmus?

A. Starmus 3 is not only about black holes, a subject I have done important work on, but it also includes music and the arts. Starmus 3 is where serious science finds a wider audience where intellectual thought, nuance and complexity are celebrated, where the way scientists work is explored and where new ideas are harnessed.

Starmus: a forum for the future

Starmus 3 will take place between June 27 and July 2, 2016, in Tenerife and La Palma in the Canary Islands, and will be titled Beyond the Horizon – Tribute to Stephen Hawking.

“Starmus,” says Hawking, “has become a unique forum for discussion about the future of humanity.”

Along with astronauts such as Spain's Miguel López Alegría and Canada's Chris Hadfield – who famously sang David Bowie's Space Oddity in space – no fewer than 12 Nobel Prize winners will be in attendance at Starmus 3, among them economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz. Also present will be Neil deGrasse Tyson, who hosts television series Cosmos. Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, will also attend.

One of the other main attractions of Starmus 3 will be the “Teide Starmus Party,” a night of stargazing in the company of professional astronomers accompanied by live music in the lunar-like landscape of the Teide National Park and under the canopy of the Milky Way. The park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is one of the world’s best stargazing locations because of its clear dark skies, high altitude and low pollution. The site is recognized as a “Starlight Tourist Destination.”