To Mars and Beyond

I’m not sure either of these stories from the past week is particularly important in and of itself, but since I try and keep up on trends in theoretical physics, and two is a trend, here’s some news from two of the greats of the field:

  • There’s an interview here (via John Baez) with Gerard ’t Hooft about his role as “ambassador” for the Mars One project, which plans to send people on a one-way trip to Mars in 2023. This will be financed with an associated reality TV show, and already 40,000 people have signed up for a chance to get to go.
  • Stephen Hawking has even more radical ideas, which he talked about in a visit to Cedars-Sinai in LA last week. He believes humanity is guaranteed to trash this planet, so our best hope is to use M-theory to find a way to move on to another one:

    For him, the answers to the largest and tiniest questions lie in M-theory.

    “To understand the universe at the deepest level, we have to understand why is there something rather than nothing,” Hawking said, speaking through a computer program that converts his eye and cheek movements into spoken speech. “Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws, and not some other? I believe the answers to all of these things is M-theory.”

    The theory, he said, combines multiple ideas about math and physics. It suggests that there are multiple dimensions or universes, and offers solutions for the behavior of super-massive black holes and the properties of the fabric of space-time. M-theory is a work in progress, but Hawking said he believes that it’s the most promising lead to a unified theory.

    The payoff to solving M-theory, Hawking said, is understanding where we fit in — and, perhaps, how we can thrive.

    “We must continue to go into space for humanity,” Hawking said. “We won’t survive another 1,000 years without escaping our fragile planet.”

Update: On Tuesday Hawking gave a talk to students at Caltech, with a report here that includes smuggled audio of the talk. Evidently Hawking told students that they don’t need God, but they do need M-theory and anthropics:

During his talk, he cited M-Theory — a wide-ranging and as-yet-incomplete explanation of the universe that attempts to unite the factions within String Theory — as the only workable theory going forward that can explain the true nature of the cosmos.

M-Theory suggests that the multi-dimensional “strings” of the universe are bound together by a strange material sometimes called membranes, but also known by other names. It suggests that matter, space, time and every possible history exists simultaneously across dimensional planes that were created out of nothing at the moment of the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago. Only in very few of these dimensions can a species like humanity come into being.

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45 Responses to To Mars and Beyond

  1. NLR says:

    This is absurd. The whole point of going to Mars is to get away from all the nonsense going on on Earth. If they have a reality TV show then we’re just bringing it with us. Also, perhaps the reason to study M theory (or any other fundamental theory) is not, as Hawking suggests, to help humans thrive, but to learn about something about an aspect of reality that has nothing whatsoever to do with humanity and that we cannot tamper with.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    I think the main problem with the reality TV show would likely be too much reality. When an oxygen/food/waste processing system fails and spare parts are 140 million miles away, the show might still have viewers, but maybe not advertisers.

    I don’t really understand Hawking’s logic. Either humanity can’t be stopped from trashing its environment, in which case we should hope that M-theory won’t allow us to leave and go wreck the rest of the universe, or this can be stopped, in which case working on that should be the goal, not making plans for leaving.

  3. CIP says:

    This reminds me of a conversation which a couple of slightly famous physicists had after seeing a lecture by Eddington in his eccentric age:
    Physicist A: “Oh my gosh, is that going to happen to us when we get old?”
    Physicst B: “Don’t worry, a genius like Eddington may go nuts, but guys like you just get dumber and dumber.”

  4. Maciej says:

    I coudn’t agree more with CIP. Physics is not about “why laws of Nature exist” but about “what they are”. Hawking clearly confuses that, which is embarrassing. This is not the first time he does it.

    Let me also add something else. M-theory will not, of course, answer the Leibniz’s question “Why there is something rather then nothing”. There is a good reason for that namely, M-theory has got nothing to do with our Universe (except the fact that some people study it – which is ok I think).

    Imagine however (but this requires a huge doze of imagination) that M-theory describes our Universe. But M-theory itself assumes some laws e.g. principles of quantum mechanics. Therefore it will not be able to explain them anyway.

    The statement that any, not only M-theory, can answer Leibniz’s question is in my opinion close to lunatism.

  5. GM says:

    I don’t understand Hawking’s logic either.

    It is absolutely true that we’re on a path towards self-inflicted extinction and we’re going to take most of the rest of the planet with us. The main reason for this is that we have exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet, which is a problem that could be solved in two ways – (1) we reduce our population and consumption so that we are back safely within the carrying capacity of the planet, or (2) we find an unlimited source of energy that would allow us to solve most of our environmental problems and colonize the rest of space. As far as we can tell at present, (2) is physically impossible and if there is a way to somehow circumvent the laws of physics as we know them, or perhaps find out that they are in fact different, it will take many decades, centuries, maybe thousands of years to do the research and figure it out. Unfortunately, the projected timeline for the coming global Malthusian catastrophe is much shorter than that, and if that happens, not only is that research not going to be done, but with quite a high probability, we will lose a lot of the knowledge we have worked so hard to acquire. I don’t expect string theorists to fare well in the kind of world we can expect after the collapse of industrial civilization, and if anything, Hawking himself, who would not even be alive if it wasn’t for the very complex support system around him, is the epitome of how dependent the existence of the scientific elite of today is on its largess. So the only practical solution is (1) so that we can give ourselves a chance to take a shot at (2) in the indefinite future, fully knowing that the chances of success are quite small.

    However, claiming “M-theory will solve the problem” seems quite counterproductive to me, because most people will simply take it as another magic solution, when they should instead face reality and do what we know will work.

  6. Bernhard says:

    “Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws, and not some other?”

    Hawking forgot one important question:

    “What is M-theory?”

  7. the sleep of reason says:

    What is more likely: Stephen Hawking believes M-theory will help us colonize space, or a journalist misunderstood something? The article has already had one error corrected.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    the sleep of reason,

    The idea that advances in fundamental physics far in the future will provide new technology making things like long-distance space travel feasible isn’t exactly an unusual one among physicists. For Hawking or anyone else putting their money on M-theory as the source of such advances, it’s not implausible they would suggest this as a possibility.

  9. N. says:

    Hawking is right. Not about theM-theory, methinks, but this planet is fragile indeed. It takes just a piece of space junk weighing a couple of thousant tons at ten clicks per second or maybe a real good blowout of a supervolcano like Yellowstone to make us and the rest 90% of living matter join the dinosurs – history. It has happend before, it will happen again.

    It’s not if, it is when. And if, perhaps, we may have means – in the next 100yrs maybe – to divert the naughty asteroid, there is no way to stop a supercaldera exploding.

    The only solution is to move on, to colonize planets.

    We do not need the M-theory (or N, O, P, Q…), what we need is warp drive!

    So, my dear theoretical physicist, get to work!

    I am only half joking.

  10. N. Nakanishi says:

    Prof. Bernhard:

    Of course, M-theory means Mad theory!

  11. emile says:

    There is something I’m missing here: if a supervolcano explodes, or we get hit by a big space rock, or we pollute the planet to the point where life is threatened, we’d still be in better shape here than on Mars. Not easy to make Earth more of a hostile environment than Mars.

  12. John says:


    I think Venus would be worse than Mars, and also more likely than any of the other cinematic disasters listed if you listen to James Hansen.

  13. CIP says:


    I think you are off by a factor of a million or so on the size of the required cosmic interloper. The recent Russian meteorite was several thousands tons, I think.

  14. Nathalie says:

    Hawking is a great physicist who, unfortunately, never fails in failing to predict the future of physics. A good example of his failed prophecies is found in his 1980 Inaugural Lecture “Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics?”

  15. Kasuha says:

    The fragile thing on this planet is the humanity and that’s also the thing we need to care about. The planet doesn’t care what we do with it, it’s just a ball of cosmic dust. We need to care about what we do with it and how to improve our chances of survival in this hostile universe.
    Finding a way how to travel to distant worlds will not save our planet and will not save people on our planet. Only tiny fraction of people will be able to travel that far and they’ll most probably never return. But finding other planets to inhabit will improve chances of intelligent life and life in general persisting. And that’s the ultimate purpose and reason why life is here at all.

  16. Paul Titze says:

    Stephen has mentioned before in past articles that things will get bad for us in the future (200 years onwards would be more accurate though). Think Mysterious-Theory isn’t the solution either. To “thrive in space” one needs to be able to get large amounts of hardware into orbit without relying on chemical rockets, that would be a good start.

    Cheers, Paul.

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  18. Volunteer says:

    Is NASA proceeding with an M-theory spaceship? There are probably a few technical challenges to overcome.

  19. Cloud says:

    A good theory about M-theory.

    [If] humanity can’t be stopped from trashing its environment, [then] we should hope that M-theory won’t allow us to leave and go wreck the rest of the universe …

    I don’t think this follows. The environment is being trashed because Earth is overcrowded — it turned out, topologically, to be a closed surface, whereas the ‘blind watchmaker’ essentially made humans (or any mammal) to treat the world as an unbounded plane.

    So if we did have ‘warp drive’ (or ‘tesseracts’), we could always move on to other planets before the colonies get crowded. The colony planets would for the most part not get trashed like Earth.

    But generally I’m a pessimist, because there (almost surely) is no warp drive, and the decline (not sudden collapse, note) of industrial civilization will not magically transform people into gaia-loving eco-nomads. If you want a picture of the globe five centuries hence, think: almost all biodiversity destroyed, all old-growth timber consumed, and society a mass of peasants malnourished on maize and rice diets, ruled by a small mandarin class.

  20. Cloud says:

    As for physics, I think we can safely predict its continued ossification into what J. Horgan calls ‘ironic science’: into a post-empirical, doctrinaire, even theological mode.

  21. Stephen says:

    Hawking’s oversight is that figuring out M theory, like other advances in physics, would simply give us more efficient means of destroying the planet.

  22. Surely the desire to understand the laws of Nature and the desire to explore and colonize interstellar space can be pursued at the same time, they do not conflict at all. Knowing more physics would surely help with space travel, and surviving a planetary catastrophe in colonies, whether that catastrophe were self- or other-inflicted, would surely help with fundamental physics.

    Ecological problems caused by us here on Earth have been going on since we started killing large mammals and cutting down forests. This is a real, terrible problem that is getting worse fast but it is not at all likely to kill us all off, or even cause a fall back in technological level. Even a substantial decline in human population is very unlikely to cause a fall back in technology. If there were any big wars, that would probably even speed things right up again. A ridiculously tiny number of scientists, engineers, farmers, and manufacturers are keeping this immense wheel spinning right now, and the knowledge they need is scattered all over the world and will never be destroyed.

    No, the real question here is one that has not yet been answered properly, what kind of world shall we build for ourselves to live in?

  23. johnnythelowery says:

    Bill Stone has already volunteered to go with a one-way propellant payload to Shackleton Crater on the moon. Because it costs @ $20,000 per KG to get into space, and that 90% of the weight of space craft is the propellant, what is needed is a gas station in space. HE is proposing collection of hydrogen and storage of it in orbiting inflatables. Here’s his TedTalk.

  24. Spencer Tracy Jr. says:

    The bad news is that the mission is tied to reality TV. The good news is that some reality TV enthusiasts will be leaving the planet. If the ship were big enough to transport all involved in reality TV, Stephen Hawking might have a little less to worry about here. (However, Elton John once said: Mars aint the kind of place to raise your kids – in fact it’s cold as hells).
    The part I don’t understand is how can it not be cheaper and easier to perfect a meteor/asteroid defense system here than to pack up and move to another planet that by the way, they can guarantee will have a far less chance of being in the path of something?
    Lastly – I must say that I did have the opportunity to talk quantum mechanics with Gerard ’t Hooft a couple of years ago after one of his talks in NY. Very nice guy, very generous with his time.

  25. Not a Physicist says:

    It does seem that advances in fundamental physics, while they may seem entirely removed from practical application at their time of inception, may lead to real-world applications soon therafter that may facilitate our exploration of the universe. For example, quantum mechanics aided in the development of the transistor, which was essential to the Apollo missions. Thus, while perhaps M-theory in particular may not prove useful, cutting-edge physics in general will surely find practical application, perhaps in space travel, at some point in the future.

  26. dark says:

    Does Stephen Hawking have good science-based reasons to endorse M-theory, in light of the null results @ LHC?

  27. Bob Jones says:

    “Does Stephen Hawking have good science-based reasons to endorse M-theory, in light of the null results @ LHC?”

    At the moment, M-theory does not say anything about physics at the LHC or any other experiment, so these experiments are not a reason for studying this theory. However, I do think there are good reasons for studying M-theory. At the very least, it’s a unique extension of quantum field theory and a rich source of ideas in physics and mathematics. In particular, it’s closely related to a quantum field theory in six dimensions with (2,0) supersymmetry. This theory is responsible for fascinating dualities between various mathematically interesting QFTs, and these ideas have important applications in pure mathematics.

  28. Maciej says:


    the statement “M-theory is a unique extension of QFT” is a wishful thinking. First define M-theory please. Does it (the theory) exist anyway? (I mean, can one construct it by specifying the field content and their interactions explicitly?). Then explain what do you mean by “extension”. Then we can talk about uniqueness if you like.

  29. Suzanna E-J says:

    I feel for Hawking’s sense of urgency. He has a devastating disease and the only available treatment is palliative care. Clearly he was very impresssed with the persistence and innovation of molecular biologists investigating ALS at Cedars-Sinai labs. Their ongoing work will benefit future patients. His argument was that fundamental physics should should also pursue a unifield theory with just as much vigour. But I don’t think you have to solve the unified theory first before you can appreciate humanity’s place in universe! One can begin to apprecaite humanity’s place right now. For example, Feynman, Hawkings, Weinberg, Smolin and of course Peter Woit etc have done much to explain their work to a lay non-technical audience. No mater how basic the understanding or politcal inclinations, at this time people know that there is a universe, there are galaxies, we live in the MWay galaxy, space is expanding, we have ongoing telescopic surveys of astronomical objects and that a unifed theory is ultimate goal etc There needs to be an even bigger engagement between scientists and the public. This is not just restricted to cosmology/particle physics but in every other scientific discipline. So I agree with Hawkings that we can inspire each other and we can step up research in our respective fields. But Hawkings should realise that stem cell research would not be a promsing area of research if did not pass at least the proof of concept. Mtheory struggles with this aspect.

    To Stephen who commented:
    Hawking’s oversight is that figuring out M theory, like other advances in physics, would simply give us more efficient means of destroying the planet.

    Sounds very Grothendieck-esque! Alexander Grothendieck’s disgust with the mathematical community stemmed from a distorted view of the application of science. But he could have used his academic position, charisma and intellect to pioneer solutions to these concerns. Hope this is not off-topic but look at the recent controversy around the publication of the mutated influenza virus genome (the H5N1-H1NI hybrid). Two separate experiments showed that this hybrid enabled the virus to be highly transmsissable. The submission to Nature in 2011 sparked debate about ‘dual-use’ research which involves weighing up the benefits of sharing reasearch with the scientific community vs risk to public safety via rogue individuals. The matter was referred to a biosecurity advisory board in USA. The board ruled against publication initially but after some months decided that in the interests of public health both manuscripts can be published although one of the manscripts had to go through a more revised version. This example shows that although difficult, there are ways to handle scientific reasearch that fall in the dual-use category.

  30. Bob Jones says:


    What I’m saying is that if you want to extend quantum field theory by replacing point particles by extended objects, you will inevitably be led to string and M-theory. There are five a priori different ways of doing this consistently, and they all turn out to be related by duality.

    Of course nobody knows how to rigorously construct M-theory, but there are lots of partial results. My point is that we can learn a lot about quantum field theory and mathematics by unraveling the structure of this theory.

  31. Raizonator says:

    For those who understand German:
    with an interesting interview with E. Witten on M-theory, the landscape, etc.
    E.g. “Was halten Sie von der Hypothese der Stringlandschaft?
    Ich wäre froh, wenn es keine Stringlandschaft gäbe. Denn ich bevorzuge Einsteins Vision, dass es möglich ist, alle dimensionslosen Quantitäten der Natur aus ersten Prinzipien zu berechnen.”

  32. Carl says:

    The sun is going to trash this planet anyway. Good that people are thinking about ways
    to leave and save some of the life on Earth. It is shame that some people here think it is ok to let millions of years of evolution go to waste. Btw, humans are part of nature and whatever humans do is also part of nature.

  33. Tmark48 says:

    M Theory is not going to help us engineer “Bussard Engines” nor build generational ships that will give us the possibility of real interstellar travel. Let science do its thing, and keep “physicists having jumped the shark” hidden lest they ridicule themselves. But maybe they don’t care anymore…

  34. Tammie lee Sandoval says:

    Look at what happened to global warming. They made 15 year predictions. Dumb move.

    By contrast, Dr Hawking has shown deep wisdom
    When you predict a disaster, to get funding today, make sure the disaster in far in the future. 1000 years, Dr Hawking should be safe.

  35. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks, I’d be curious to see the whole thing. It’s not surprising that Witten says he’d prefer no landscape, but I wonder whether he would be willing to abandon string theory if convinced it led to a landscape with no predictions.

  36. Giotis says:

    “…so our best hope is to use M-theory to find a way to move on to another one”

    I guess this is your interpretation. Such assertion is nowhere stated (or even implied) in the actual text.

    I noticed that ever since Hawking embraced M-theory as the most promising way for a unified theory, you try to present him as an unreliable eccentric fool.

    What you do is not right…

  37. Peter Woit says:


    What I wrote seems to me a reasonable interpretation of Hawking’s talk, as described in the article (I don’t have access to an actual transcript, or something more detailed). In any case, as usual, I quoted completely the text I was talking about, so people can make up their own minds.

    No, I don’t think Hawking is an unreliable eccentric fool. His views on M-theory are not eccentric, but widely held, and shared by many very smart, rather conventional people. I happen to think he’s wrong that M-theory, the landscape and anthropics have any promise as a unified theory and that he’s unwise to promote them to the public, for scientific reasons that I’ve often explained here.

    About his views on humanity needing to leave this planet, again, I think such views aren’t eccentric at all, but widely held by people who worry about the distant future of humanity. My own attitude is that it’s best to worry about the immediate future, then the distant one will take care of itself, but, to each his own…

  38. QSA says:

    QG theories (string, LQG,AS…..) do not address full unification properly(including space-time), the origin (prediction) of the SM constants or the nature of QM. So I think these theories need to be saved first before they save us.

    But anyway, I don’t think earth is the problem. It is the people, you know, you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. There will be a problem even if each person had a mountain of gold.

  39. Not a Physicist says:

    Perhaps Hawking was not referring to M-theory in particular when he commented on future space travel. Rather, he might have been referring to advances in fundamental physics in general. It seemed from the interview that he was simply emphasizing that a general conception of our place in the universe can aid in future technology. I don’t think he was referring to string theory in particular but rather to fundamental physics and cosmology in general. Perhaps there was a slight misunderstanding on the part of the journalist.

  40. Peter Woit says:

    Not a physicist,

    I don’t see any reason to believe the journalist was misunderstanding Hawking (for one thing, because of the challenges he faces in communicating, Hawking is careful in choosing his words and in making sure they are understood). From the article it seems to me that Hawking was just saying two speculative, but not very surprising things: maybe advances in fundamental physics will provide technology that makes colonizing space possible, and M-theory is his current best bet for where advances in fundamental physics will come from. He wasn’t saying anything about having a specific idea along these lines, just engaging in some speculation of a sort that seems to me not at all unusual among physicists.

  41. G P Burdell says:

    As someone who knows a bit about how Reality TV is produced, shot, and edited: those shows are mostly a sham, often semi-scripted, even employing stunt doubles if necessary. Locations are scouted and prepped before any of the “stars” arrive. If there are kooks who think the moon landings actually took place on a stage in the Nevada desert — maybe this Reality TV Mars “trip” really will! If not, there are going to have to be a whole bunch of camera, makeup, hair, and lighting crew going along on the ride. Sort of adds to the weight of the payload.. 🙂

    As for those who worry about the Sun wiping out humanity — the only life that has lasted anywhere near as long as we have before that happens are bacteria. I expect that evolution will have taken care of wiping out pretty much any recognizable traces of the human genome well before then. As for the probability of teraforming Mars, or any other planet or moon in our solar system, into someplace even remotely habitable for humans: seems incredibly remote. And if all you could do was live out your life in some extra-terrestrial underground bunker, might as well do that here on Earth. We seem to forget that Star Trek is science fiction in more ways than just warp drives and teleporters.

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  43. Not a Physicist says:

    G P Burdell,
    I do not think that Feynman was referring to initiating a mass “migration”, so to speak, of humans to places outside of Earth. Rather, I think he was talking about having a small colonization population outside of the Earth, perhaps of a few hundred space colonists or so. As such, it would not be nessesary to terraform an entire planet to make its surface habitable for a large number of humans; all that would be needed is a small space colony. And I don’t think he was talking about the end of the sun, either, when he talked about the end of humanity; he was probably referencing nuclear war, or some other human-caused threat. As such, it would always be useful to have a small “space colony” population elsewhere to ensure that humanity continues to exist, even after catastrophic events.

  44. Not a Physicist says:

    Error in previous comment-replace “Feynman” with “Hawking”.

  45. tommyboy says:

    I agree with Hawking and disagree with those who fail to see the importance of his point regarding the colonization of space. Let me illustrate why this is so with the following line of thought: Peter Woit presumably enjoys his profession/subject area, values a future continuation of his career in research and academia, takes pride in his blog, and the same can be said of most of us in our respective life situations. Further, Peter Woit would probably continue to behave in a way that promotes and maintains the things he values most in life. Different people may value other aspects or facets of living, but the one thing most of us have in common is that we strive to uphold our existence despite the challenges involved. In fact, challenges are what make life exciting and worth-living to a great many out there. Also, where there is life there is possibility. Thus, what could be more important than the civilization using at least some resources to ensure that the death of possibility itself does not occur, as human extinction represents the ultimate death of possibility: no more literature, no more science, no more philosophy, no more fine art, no more blogging, no more debating/sharing ideas, no more love, and so on. Species that remain in one area exclusively for too long eventually succumb to an extinction event—I think part of what Hawking is saying that human beings are in a unique position to prevent this from happening to our species and we should be actively pursuing this agenda and, of course, not to the exclusion of others.

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