Genius theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said some inspirational things in his 76 years, including famously reminding people to “look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” And, no doubt, his entire life’s work, which continued on for decades despite the debilitating symptoms of ALS, is an inspiration.
This post, however, isn’t about building you up in all your human specialness. As cosmologists often are, Hawking was a master at making you realize just how tiny and insignificant we are in this vast, sublime universe.
Here are a few examples.
On the significance of humans
“The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. That would be like saying that you would disappear if I closed my eyes.” - From a 1995 interview with Ken Campbell on Reality on the Rocks: Beyond Our Ken
We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special - Speaking to Der Spiegel in 1988
On what happens when you die
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.’ - Speaking to the Guardian in 2011.
On what will happen if aliens ever visit us
“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach. If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.” - In a 2011 Discovery channel special
On getting off this planet ASAP, before an asteroid, global warming or overpopulation kills us
“Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years. By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.”
“However, we will not establish self-sustaining colonies in space for at least the next hundred years, so we have to be very careful in this period.” -Speaking at an audience Q&A during the BBC Reith Lectures in 2016.
On artificial intelligence, which he said ‘could spell the end of the human race’
“The real risk with AI isn’t malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”
“You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice, but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green energy project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, too bad for the ants. Let’s not place humanity in the position of those ants.” - During a Reddit AMA in 2015
On all that really important day-to-day stuff you’re so worried about
“When I gave a lecture in Japan, I was asked not to mention the possible re-collapse of the universe, because it might affect the stock market. However, I can re-assure anyone who is nervous about their investments that it is a bit early to sell: even if the universe does come to an end, it won’t be for at least twenty billion years. By that time, maybe the GATT trade agreement will have come into effect.” - From Hawking’s 1996 book The Beginning of Time