Hawking: Man must leave planet Earth
London Telegraph | November 30, 2006
Mankind will need to venture far beyond planet Earth to ensure the long-term survival of our species, according to the world's best known scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking.
Returning to a theme he has voiced many times before, the Cambridge University cosmologist said today that space-rockets propelled by the kind of matter/antimatter annihilation technology popularised in Star Trek would be needed to help Homo sapiens colonise hospitable planets orbiting alien stars.
And he disclosed his own ambition to go into space. "Maybe Richard Branson will help me," he said, a reference to the space tourism plans of Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson, using the privately built SpaceShipOne to take people into space from 2008.
Prof Hawking, who is confined to a wheelchair by motor neuron disease, MND, was commenting using a muscle below his right eye to operate - via a switch on his glasses - his voice synthesiser.
He was speaking ahead of the presentation of Britain's highest scientific award, the Royal Society's Copley Medal, previously granted to Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, and Albert Einstein.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that scientists still have "some way to go" to reach his prediction in his bestselling A Brief History of Time that mankind would one day "know the mind of God" by understanding the complete set of laws which govern the universe.
This set of laws, which will probably rely on theory that requires more than three dimensions of space and one of time, could be uncovered within 20 years, not least because next year the giant LHC atom smasher will go into operation in the CERN nuclear physics laboratory in Geneva to provide new information for that quest by simulating conditions not seen since the birth of the universe as well making antimatter in a special factory.
Prof Hawking said that this knowledge may be vital to the human race's continued existence.
"The long-term survival of the human race is at risk as long as it is confined to a single planet," he said. "Sooner or later, disasters such as an asteroid collision or nuclear war could wipe us all out. But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe.
"There isn't anywhere like the Earth in the solar system, so we would have to go to another star.
"If we used chemical fuel rockets like the Apollo mission to the moon, the journey to the nearest star would take 50,000 years. This is obviously far too long to be practical, so science fiction has developed the idea of warp drive, which takes you instantly to your destination. Unfortunately, this would violate the scientific law which says that nothing can travel faster than light.
"However, we can still within the law, by using matter/antimatter annihilation, and reach speeds just below the speed of light. With that, it would be possible to reach the next star in about six years, though it wouldn't seem so long for those on board."
The science fiction series Star Trek has used matter/antimatter annihilation as an explanation for the warp drive. But, in reality, he said that scientists believe that the flash of radiation produced when matter and antimatter are brought together and destroy one another could in fact one day be used to drive craft to close to the speed of light.
Prof Hawking today said that his own ambition was to take part in a more conventional form of space travel. "I am not afraid of death but I'm in no hurry to die. My next goal is to go into space," said Hawking, who was diagnosed with MND at 21 and told by doctors he had only a few years to live.
He told The Daily Telegraph that he has offered to give his own DNA to a project to scan the human genetic code for clues to the cause, in an initiative backed by the Motor Neurone Disease Association.
"Motor neurone disease is as common as multiple sclerosis, but it has received much less public attention and awareness," he said.
"This may be because it often kills its victims in two or three years from the first appearance of symptoms, so they aren't around to be noticed. I am one of a few long term survivors, so I have a duty to call attention to this terrible disease, and to press for research into its causes, so we can find ways of curing it, or at least preventing it in the future.
"We know that biological processes are controlled by DNA, so a natural first step is to study the DNA of those with motor neurone disease, and compare it to the DNA of those without. For this reason, I strongly support the Whole Genome Project, and will be contributing my own DNA to it."
The project will be led by two clinical geneticists working in the field, Dr Ammar Al-Chalabi of King's College London and Prof Robert Brown of Harvard University, near Boston. At the moment, doctors do not know the cause of over 97 per cent of cases of the disease, though they do know that genetic factors play an important role.
In 10 per cent of cases, where the disease run in families, genetic mutations in the DNA are totally responsible for causing the disease.
In the remaining 90 per cent of so-called sporadic cases, such as that affecting Prof Hawking, genetic mutations are still believed to be a major factor in predisposing people to the disease. The trigger, Prof Hawking believes, is "likely to be the result of exposure to infection or toxins. There may well be a variety of causes that give rise to similar symptoms, but the Genome Project should provide the clue to the mechanism, and help find ways to repair the damage, or prevent it in future."
"The problem is that the genetic information contained within our DNA is like having 200 volumes of the London telephone directory - and we are searching for the equivalent of single spelling mistakes," said Dr Al-Chalabi.
"The 'Whole Genome Scan' is a means of rapidly narrowing the search to 'hot spots' of the equivalent of a few pages."
Once this has been done, the information will be made available to scientists all over the world, allowing them to conduct painstaking 'letter-by-letter' analysis to find the disease-causing genetic mutations, potentially saving many years of fruitless research.
To do this research successfully, large numbers of DNA samples from people with MND and unaffected individuals are needed. The researchers already have access to samples from 5,200 individuals in total (including samples from the MND Association's own DNA Bank) and Prof Hawking is among those who have offered to help.
The researchers will collaborate with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to use a 'gene-chip' , which attaches chemical 'markers' at almost 320,000 sites across the whole length of each sample of human DNA. The project is also backed by a number of US-based charities. If many more of these chemical markers are found sticking to particular regions of the DNA in MND samples compared to non-MND cases, it indicates that the genetic mutation is likely to be somewhere within these region, allowing researchers to quickly focus in on these regions and perform further detailed hunts for 'candidate' genes.
The disease attacks the upper and lower motor neurones, causing weakness and wasting of muscles, increasing loss of mobility in the limbs, and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing.
It can affect any adult at any age but most people diagnosed with the disease are over the age of 40, with the highest incidence occurring between the ages of 50 and 70.
The incidence or number of people who will develop the disease each year is about two people in every 100,000 The prevalence or number of people living with MND at any one time is approximately seven in every 100,000.
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