Hawking and the Google Zeitgeist

Today is the first day of this year’s Google Zeitgeist gathering of high-powered world leaders and thinkers (described here, it seems that Google either doesn’t believe in having a web presence, or it’s a secret one. Anyway, my attempts to Google it have failed). One of the headline speakers is Stephen Hawking, and the Guardian reports that:

His talk will focus on M-theory, a broad mathematical framework that encompasses string theory, which is regarded by many physicists as the best hope yet of developing a theory of everything.

M-theory demands a universe with 11 dimensions, including a dimension of time and the three familiar spatial dimensions. The rest are curled up too small for us to see.

Evidence in support of M-theory might also come from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva.

One possibility predicted by M-theory is supersymmetry, an idea that says fundamental particles have heavy – and as yet undiscovered – twins, with curious names such as selectrons and squarks.

Confirmation of supersymmetry would be a shot in the arm for M-theory and help physicists explain how each force at work in the universe arose from one super-force at the dawn of time.

They got him to respond to some questions posed in advance, and one of them has the Guardian’s Ian Sample puzzled. Hawking’s answer to “What is the value in knowing “Why are we here?'” was:

The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can’t solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.

Sample’s reaction to this:

On reading it I had one of those familiar, sinking moments of realisation that my brain is so spectacularly inferior to the interviewee’s that all I can do is hold up my hands and say: “Huh?”

At best I might have an inkling of what this means, but I am by no means sure. In this situation, it might take a while to clarify the answer, but other bright minds out there might well be able to unravel it for me and anyone else who might be interested. If you can help, post your thoughts below and put me out of my misery.

To me, it feels as though he is referring to the idea that there are many possible universes and that we can use Darwinian ideas of natural selection to work out which might be most hospitable to life as we know it, and because they are habitable in some sense we value them more highly. That’s my best guess, but I have minimal confidence in it being right.

I will do my best to clarify the answer this week.

My contribution to explaining this is that I see two possibilities:

1. Hawking has signed on to Lee’s Smolin’s ideas about cosmological natural selection.

2. Hawking has realized that once you’ve decided to trade in science for pseudo-science and head down the Multiverse Mania path, there’s no longer any point in worrying about whether what you say makes sense or not, and is behaving appropriately.

This entry was posted in Multiverse Mania. Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to Hawking and the Google Zeitgeist

  1. Perhaps he is prepping in his mind for a laudatory speech to EU bankers and Eurozone types who believe they will survive their own self-inflicted wounds like some Darwinian super-beast. The man may be experiencing the onset of the structural changes in the brains of some elderly men which explains their rapid and vapid and vigorously angry old codger syndrome. I personally think he has been deified for so long that perhaps he believes his eternal consciousness resides in some supermassive black hole.

  2. Bernhard says:

    I think option number 2 is more likely. Hawking has thrown in the towel, probably has given up that someone will ever detect his radiation that (according to him) would presumably make him win a Nobel prize. What´s left is make misleading public statements about multiverses and M-“theory”as if they were traditional science. He is responsible for a huge scientific disservice, as people like Sample really think he still has something to say. Pathetic to say the least.

  3. DB says:

    History teaches us that spent theoretical physicists, i.e. virtually all over the age of 45 – engaging in speculative musings are rarely worth listening to. They may sell popular books to bamboozle an already bewildered public, but for science, their value for all practical purposes is nil. Indeed they are often Worse Than Useless, since they undermine their own prestige and that of the field they are undermining when they should be providing valuable and inspirational mentoring service to up-and-coming young talent – from where new discoveries invariably emerge.

    Although never as egregious example of this phenomenon as many String Theorists, Hawking has been slithering down the road towards WTU status for some years now.

  4. Chris Oakley says:

    I must admit, I cannot see what Sample’s problem is. Hawking is losing it, going senile, going off the rails, losing his grip, losing the plot … whatever. What further explanation does he require?

  5. Jeff says:

    Well, my take on this when I read it in the Guardian was initially that option 2 was correct, but rereading it I think it parses like this – sentence 2 refers to “equations” that cannot be solved, I take this to be Hawking saying that science can’t tell you why we are here, the equations describing the human condition cannot be solved. Sentence 3 about natural selection is referring to selection between different human societies. Sentence 4 says that people value societies that survive the most, hence those might somehow be the “answer” to why we are here.

    Now, even parsed this way it’s not like it makes much sense, and it’s said in such a way as to make it impossible to tell anyway, so in some sense we’re back to option 2.

  6. MarkoB says:

    What Hawking says makes perfect sense. He is talking about natural selection and evolution of human societies. Why are most countries around the world compelled to adopt “the Washington consensus?” One reason is because those who adopt social democratic policies get out competed by more lean and mean free market societies. That kinda remins me of natural selection. I don’t see what the multiverse has to do with this quote specifically.

  7. Carlos says:

    Why we are here, in the google’s zeitgeist? The universe is governed by science. Read: The universe is governed by scientists, us. But science tells us that we can’t solve the equations, directly in the abstract. Read: But we can’t solve your problems, directly in the abstract, we want cash. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value. Read: The dollar is going the dinosaurs way, give us gold coins. We assign them higher value.

  8. Yaakov Baruch says:

    Carlos – that was funny!

  9. Anonymouse says:

    DB, that statement is worse than idiotic.

    Theoretical physicists taken as a whole have had breakthroughs at all points in their careers. Your ageism is simply indefensible and senseless. I hope whatever field you belong to decides to treat its elder members better than you would seem to do, at least by the time you are one of them.

  10. Well, I suppose there is option 3: his voice synthesizer had a meltdown.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    To be fair to Hawking, the difficult nature of communication for him surely explains why no one seems able to figure out what he was trying to say in this case (was it about the multiverse, about the nature of human society?). If he could easily write more sentences, that would help disambiguate.

    This doesn’t explain though why he thinks it’s a good idea to use his limited abilities to communicate to give talks to business and government leaders about how the answer to our fundamental questions about physics is the pseudo-science of the M-theory anthropic landscape.

  12. marrakesh says:

    I agree that Prof. Hawking has to be very concise in his answers, and that may make them rather cryptic at times.

    On the other hand, it’s clear that chemistry, and biology are effective theories of the underlying fundamental theory. Evolution theory could probably be considered as an effective theory of, say, molecular biology.

    Obviously, trying to explain chemistry, biology or evolution directly from the SM would be impossible, so we use those effective theories instead.

    So, the answer to “why are we here?” should be sought for in evolution theory, not the underlying fundamental theory. I think Hawking’s point is pretty obvious.

    He probably was trying to say something more about societies, rather than individuals, which seems to me to involve moving up one more rung in the effective theory ladder (maybe sociology is an effective theory of evolution theory?).

    But I think that part was partly lost to the mandatory conciseness. Probably just formulating that simple answer took him a good half-hour.

  13. The question is so vague as to be pretty much meaningless anyway. If we knew how he had interpreted it, perhaps we’d understand his answer. 🙂

  14. Kurt says:

    It should be obvious from the first sentence of his reply – “The universe is governed by science” – that he is way out of his depth on such subject matter. The universe isn’t governed by science, science is our study and resulting knowledge of the universe.

    Wasn’t it made clear some time ago when Hawking started pontificating on things like aliens and theology that when answering questions outside of physics he has no idea what he’s talking about?

  15. Bernhard says:


    I think excusing Hawking for his communication limitation is a big problem. He’s receiving much of attention and every single word he types has a direct influence on society and this is a responsibility. One could say is difficult for him to express himself clearly but if we assume this, we have to take from him this right of being someone people look up to or as an authority on science matters. If on the other hand we accept he is capable of making meaningful statements via his computer we have to right and to criticize him for what he says as anybody else. No excuses, and I think we even show him more respect doing so. If I believe the following is more or less accurate:

    “In the talk, he will argue that tiny quantum fluctuations in the very early universe became the seeds from which galaxies, stars, and ultimately human life emerged. “Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in,” he said.”

    then I repeat, he’s down the road. If he can use his limited speech capability to say such a thing (m-“theory” might predict multiverses, science certainly does not) I have no desire in trying to find any deep meaning in what he’s saying. From the very beginning is clear he embarked in the pseudo-science journey, so farewell.

  16. John Baez says:

    I like this quote:

    One possibility predicted by M-theory is supersymmetry, an idea that says fundamental particles have heavy – and as yet undiscovered – twins, with curious names such as selectrons and squarks.

    So M-theory makes a prediction after all! It predicts that these heavy and as yet undiscovered particles will have curious names.

  17. chris says:

    the universe is governed by science?


  18. zomarz says:

    I suppose Hawking is just reasoning in effective theory sense. I think he meant that it doesn’t make sense to use particle physics to describe life (too complicate equations with too many variables), but rather one has to use the “effective theory” of Darwinism. In other terms, he found a new way out of the question “about (the meaning of) life?” a scientist is often asked, that cannot be asked within science itself.

    And yes, the universe is ruled by science, because it tells you “how”, while not “why”.

  19. Bernhard says:

    At least now m-“theorists” are discussing in the proper arena (i.e. far away from physics):


    “Hawking is happy to discuss the M-theory, in which the universe is said to have 11 dimensions, why then could the universe not have a 12th spiritual dimension?’

    This guy seems to be an advanced m-“theorist”.

  20. chris says:

    “And yes, the universe is ruled by science”

    yeah, about as much as the surface of earth is ruled by google maps.

  21. fairy story says:

    SWH is on CNN now “Heaven is a fairy story”, reported by the CNN Religion Editor, no less.


    Then again, back in the 19C, Napoleon Bonaparte famously inquired of the Marquis Pierre Simon de Laplace (who had presented the Emperor a copy of his book on Celestial Mechanics) that Laplace’s book nowhere mentioned the Almighty. Laplace equally famously replied “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese”. (I had no need of that hypothesis.)

  22. Peter Woit says:

    fairy story,

    I guess it’s a good thing that Hawking has decided to go on about religion. Everyone then just pays attention to this and ignores the business about M-theory.

  23. Bernhard says:

    Ignore the business of m-string-theory is unfortunately not going to happen soon. It seems now, ST is an alternative to the Higgs or something like that:

    “Theories have been suggested as alternatives to the Standard Model that do not require a Higgs boson.

    One of the leading ideas is string theory, which proposes that elementary particles are not ‘points’ but ‘strings’ with curled up higher dimensions.”


  24. I was at the Zeitgeist this afternoon and listened to Professor Hawking presentation. I had not read his latest book in advance and it came quite as a shock/surprise to see that he unmistakenly said “I believe we have a final answer, it is M-Theory and I believe this theory is right”. I am quite familiar with Lee Smolin’s ideas and there was definitely no hint whatsoever to cosmological natural selection. By the way, by the sounds in the audience it was quite clear that there was more compassion than attention or interest in what Professor Hawking had to say. On the positive side there he praised data driven cosmology!

    Professor Hawking video is not up yet but if the organisers publish it it will be found here http://www.youtube.com/user/zeitgeistminds

  25. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks, although that’s rather depressing news.

    While some string theorists embrace the M-theory anthropic landscape as an excuse for not admitting failure, I can’t help thinking that in Hawking’s case the unconscious motivation is that he wants to feel that he has found a final theory before he passes away. This is the ultimate final theory, it says that the laws of our universe are essentially random artifacts of an array of solutions so complicated we can’t really analyze them and compare the results to what we see. Signing on to this is doing what David Gross accurately described quite a few years ago when this started: giving up. Maybe someone should read Churchill’s speech to Hawking to give him some inspiration…

  26. imagine says:

    What did John Lennon/Imagine say? Who needs heaven?

    “Imagine there’s no Heaven
    It’s easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people
    Living for today “

  27. Cosmonut says:

    I agree with Claudio.

    After two decades of making grandiose proclamations about being on the verge of “complete understanding of the Universe”, Hawking seems to be having trouble digesting the fact that the unified theory is nowhere in sight, and when its found, his name won’t be on the discovery.
    So, he keeps pretending that it has either already been discovered, or it never will be.

    Hawking’s latest popular book, “The Grand Design” is a good example.

    He starts off by saying that there *is* no unified theory – only multiple observer-dependent theories (whatever that means).
    Then he contradicts himself by saying that
    M-theory is the unified theory (never mind that nobody knows what M-theory really is).

    Then he muddies the waters even further by saying that M-theory predicts that the Universe can spontaneously appear from Nothing
    (No way. M-theory hasn’t made a single testable prediction. The spontaneously appearing Universe is a pure speculation based on quantum field theory)

    That, of course, allows him to bring in God, and make headlines, and also pretend that he has “Explained Everything”.

    With all due respect, I’d say its time to relegate Hawking to his rightful position of scientific museum relic.

  28. Paul says:

    When was the last time Hawking published a paper?

  29. Bernhard says:

    I just saw this:


    “Speaking to Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire, the author of ‘A Brief History of Time’ said that fundamental questions about the nature of the universe could not be resolved without hard data such as that currently being derived from the Large Hadron Collider and space research.”

    and at the same time:

    “In a 40-minute speech, Prof Hawking said that the new “M Theory” of the universe was the “unified theory Einstein was hoping to find”. He compared the idea to the computer programme Google Earth, saying it was a “map” of theories, but added that a new, bigger Hadron Collider the size of the Milky Way was needed to collect more data to prove it. ”

    So, at the same time that we need hard data and that philosophy is dead (here he’s probably excused for not really knowing what he’s talking about anyway) what comes to the rescue is a theory that makes no predictions and that we have no idea to extract anything meaningful or to get any of the hard data he himself claims is needed.

    Hawking must be really sad to see he will die not knowing the truth but this way out is really depressing.

  30. Amateur Scientist says:


    The last publication of Stephen Hawking was written by J. Hartle and T. Herzog, and it came out on the 8th Apr. this year, in PRL 106 141302 (2011).

  31. Amateur Scientist says:

    Oops! I meant, of course, that the paper was written WITH Hartle and Herzog, not “by” them. Sorry!

  32. tate says:

    i don’t know m-theory from animal magnetism; on the other hand, i find the statements about using science to assign differential “value” to different societies to be extremely creepy. some here have suggested that there is a level of unrepresented nuance to his statement or that he is being imprecise, but i don’t see any indication why we shouldn’t take him at his word that he believes his own statement (except for wishful thinking). why should anyone read this as anything other than an explicit endorsement of eugenics?

    also, if science was vested with the exclusive right to “value” certain societies over other societies or certain individuals over other individuals–based on whether they are “likely to survive”–would we have had a stephen hawking in the first place?

    and does no one else here see the problem with hawking making such statements to elite members of government and the private sector?

  33. Nabla says:


    Just wrong key. Hawking sent his answer number two, to Ian’s question number three.

  34. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    Has anyone considered the possibility that Hawking is not in fact “writing” these speeches at all? He’s 69 and in pretty bad shape anyway. There have been several cases of carers of highly disabled people effectively writing their words for them. I know nothing about the professors current condition, but the paragraph quoted seems too incoherent to be written by someone with or without their faculties.

  35. speeches says:

    Even if someone else writes the speeches, Hawking has to approve them. One can hardly proclaim “Heaven is a fairy story” to an international audience and not realize that it will grab headlines.

  36. Hi again,

    by the way the original video has been uploaded, so you can all see by yourself the presentation and the speech




  37. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Claudio,

    I’m watching the video, it really is appalling. Hawking attacks philosophers as not knowing anything about modern science, then goes on to aggressively promote pseudo-science and make misleading claims about testing M-theory about at the LHC. Very sad.

  38. Peter Woit says:

    Just finished watching the video, and, as the video showed the audience I noticed something about the Google Zeitgeist: women aren’t part of it. Besides the woman in charge of taking care of Hawking it looked there were just a handful of women in a room of a couple hundred people, with none of them in the front rows.

  39. Giotis says:

    Be careful Peter, by using the word appalling some may think that you refer to his physical appearance which I don’t think is the case.

  40. Fallen Angel says:

    I don’t know what’s the big deal. Everybody know that heaven actually IS a fairy tale.

    Now, are they going to forbid Hawking from entering the US like they did with Bertrand Russell ?

  41. spirit of russell says:

    When was Bertrand Russell denied entry to the USA? Russell was resident in the USA during WW2, and was appointed as a professor at City College in New York in 1940, but it was annulled on the grounds that he was “morally unfit”. Look it up, it’s a famous case.
    Russell also participated an anti-Vietnam war marches in the 1960’s. He was in his nineties when he did that.

    Paul Erdos was denied a reentry visa to the USA.

  42. lun says:

    Actually, the M-theory multiverse, together with Poncaire cycles, makes the existence of the after-life inevitable precisely because our branes are computers with a finite amount of degrees of freedom.

    All string theory needs to become a true religion is an afterlife, and Hawking might be trying to fill gaps 😀

  43. cycles says:

    If the Multiverse is indeed ruled by Poincare’ cycles, then surely we must all return to our origins, and be reborn in eternal cycles? So Hawking may indeed be correct that “Heaven is a fairy story”. Is Hawking also a Hindu?

  44. D R Lunsford says:

    Attacking philosophy this way was patented by Feynman, but apparently the patent has expired.

    And you are right Peter – the only word is appalling. Any sympathy one feels is erased by contempt for the disservice done to what once was called “natural philosophy”.


  45. Peter Woit says:


    If you’ve just discovered how to make sense of QED and do calculations in it, you quite reasonably could taunt philosophers for not keeping up with you. If on the other hand, you’ve just announced that an empty bit of pseudo-science is the grand-unified theory of everything, you might want to not abuse philosophers, who could teach you a thing or two.

  46. bonk says:

    To Hawking’s credit, his Brief History of Time is much worth reading than any of latest books by Greene or Sussikind. It has a wide range of topics, with only the last 4 chapters being complete speculation (which still presents a very physical picture).

  47. willi says:

    I think it’s bad if one of either stientist has more importance in science than other scientists. It’s nothing bad done by Hawking, but it’s not good for science. He can be manipulated. People look up to him and too much importance is given to his speech. Every word which is left from his mouth can change air in science world. For example Einstein has done great theories of relativity / and Hawking has made a lot of good theories too. Einstein “has a very forceful word” in science in that time as Hawking now. Einstein thought Quantum Theory is wrong and now it’s one of the best teories we have. Hawking can do the mistake too and can be inteligent how you want…. Some people think that everything what Hawking said is holy right….that’s bad!

  48. Anon says:

    Willi, Einstein did not say that Quantum Mechanics was “wrong”. His objections regarding QM were way subtler than that, and really have never received a satisfactory answer. The best we have collectively been able to do so far, to quote Feynman, has been to admit that “…nobody understands quantum mechanics”. To Einstein this state of affairs was, quite rightly, unsatisfactory, and any thinking Physicist today in his right mind would consider that to be to Einstein’s credit. It is only certain science journalists who have no deeper understanding of the issue continue to criticize Einstein for it.

  49. willi says:

    Ok. Maybe I used a wrong parable, but my opinions on Hawking and his strong word in science still stay. Do you agree?

Comments are closed.