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What If Stephen Hawking Had Unlimited Time?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Professor Stephen Hawking was one of the most influential and inspiring scientists of his time. In this video, we explore Hawking's remarkable life, looking at the massive breakthroughs he made in science, his world-changing theories on everything from black holes to time travel, his tireless work to raise awareness for various charities, and his warnings about global warming, climate change and even the dangers of artificial intelligence. What if the great Stephen Hawking was given unlimited time?

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What If Stephen Hawking Had Unlimited Time?

Humankind has always been enchanted by the wonders of the universe. The stars and planets, distant moons, and the great mysteries presented to us from beyond the aether. But few have been able to capture and bring the cosmos to the masses like renowned author, scientist, and all-round genius, Professor Stephen Hawking.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if Stephen Hawking had unlimited time?

In his life, Hawking had been defying medical professionals for decades before his death in 2018, aged 76. When he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS – also known as motor neurone disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease – at just 21, doctors only gave him two years to live. Of course, that was in 1963, and everybody knows that that diagnosis simply didn’t stop him. Looking at what he accomplished in his lifetime, his living on infinitely would have gifted the world with an incomprehensible amount of knowledge. In fact, when discussing with The Guardian his baffling longevity in 2011, Hawking said, “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first”.

Perhaps surprisingly, Hawking was a pretty rebellious student at school and university. He didn’t study much and considered himself a difficult student, though it was obvious to most of his tutors that they had a genius in their midst. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s he made a name for himself in science and academia, especially with his early work on black holes. It was in 1974 when he first theorised that black holes emit radiation. This discovery directly disagreed with Einstein’s early theories that absolutely nothing can escape a black hole, not even light. While it’s true that light can’t escape a black hole, Hawking suggested that black holes emit radiation in the form of leaked energy, and this energy would eventually lead to them closing up and disappearing. It was named Hawking radiation, and its existence remains contested in physics today. Perhaps, if he’d had more time on Earth, he’d have eventually been able to help prove, or at least see proven, Hawking radiation.

His work on black holes goes deeper than that, though, as Hawking also came up with theories about singularities. Singularities are points of infinite density at the heart of a black hole; of course, we can’t see into a black hole, but if we could, Hawking suggests what we would see is a long funnel eventually leading to this singularity, where all the matter the black hole absorbs is crushed. He even said himself that he hoped he’d be remembered most for his seminal work on black holes; so it would have certainly been something to see him continue to unravel the universe’s biggest mystery.

All of these papers were published in the ‘70s but, remarkably, Hawking didn’t hit the mainstream until 1988 when he published “A Brief History of Time”. It wasn’t his first book, but in a lot of ways it was his most important, establishing his idea that science should be for everyone and not just an elite group of academics. Hawking wanted a book on the inner workings of our universe which catered to everybody, and wasn’t full of convoluted jargon and ideas you’d need a degree in theoretical physics to understand. This is why “A Brief History of Time” became a worldwide hit, staying on the “Sunday Times” bestseller list for five years.

Following this success, Hawking continued to write about cosmology in an accessible way, and thirty years later, in 2018, his final popular book “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” was published posthumously. It brought the wonders of space to the masses again, inspiring the kind of widespread interest beyond our own planet that Hawking became known for. In an alternate world where the man miraculously lived forever, he’d surely have continued to write more engaging, bestselling and inspiring books.

On the topic of alternate worlds, that was another theory he significantly contributed to: the multiverse. Hawking actually had two different multiverse ideas, revising his own initial theories in a paper published in collaboration with Thomas Hertog only weeks before his death. Hawking had scrutinized the Big Bang theory for most of his life, as well as the theory of cosmic inflation, which solves what’s commonly called “the horizon problem” in physics – the idea that light doesn’t travel fast enough to have reached all the points of the observable universe.

His old multiverse theory spoke of unique “pocket universes” separated by an inflating expanse. But, his and Hertog’s new multiverse theory appeared much less liberal in terms of what these “pockets” could look like – limiting every possibility to Einstein’s uniform laws of physics. A radically new theory formed so close to the time of his passing, with unlimited time Hawking could have developed it further, and ultimately, someday, given us definitive evidence of the multiverse.

It wasn’t just space that Hawking sought to conquer, though. It was also time. Back in 1983, he and James Hartle suggested that – were time travel possible – we’d never be able to go as far back as to witness the actual dawning of the universe. The pair said that we could never see the beginning of time because, at the beginning of everything, there was only space and no time at all. In fact, for Hawking, the entire concept of the beginning of the universe is meaningless.

While going back to the very start of existence is impossible, Hawking did believe that time travel might not be entirely science-fiction. He mused that travelling back in time could be possible, and famously once held a party for time travellers, in which the invitations weren’t sent out until after the party was over. Unfortunately, nobody showed up… But that could’ve been because any genuine time traveller would’ve certainly blown their cover if they’d attended a party specifically for time travellers, held by one of the most famous people on the planet – or maybe people in the future are just plain rude.

Regardless, Hawking believed in time travel to an extent because of “M theory”, which was a topic in one of his other books, “The Grand Design.” “M theory” says that there might actually be eleven hidden dimensions in the universe, as opposed to the four dimensions we generally believe in. The idea is that by somehow utilising these dimensions, travelling back in time might be possible.

There’s no doubt that Hawking is best remembered for his contributions to science and theories on the universe. But, he didn’t spend all of his time looking at the stars. He was also a tireless campaigner on a number of issues. Given another opportunity, he’d have continued to raise awareness for people with all kinds of disabilities, not just ALS, aiming to make the world a more knowledgeable and inclusive place for disabled individuals.

He was also a vocal commentator on climate change and the danger it poses, continually listing global warming as one of the major threats against humanity. His environmental activism even led him to theorise that mankind would ultimately destroy itself by the year 2600, after it uses so much energy that the Earth turns into a ball of fire. This belief wasn’t all doom and gloom, as he did think that humans could be saved via interplanetary expansion, moving out into space and beyond, and colonising other worlds. Clearly, Hawking could have continued to provide insight and advice, as well as dire warnings, about the environmental impact of climate change had he been given more time. As a man with so much knowledge, and as a respected voice all over the world, he likely would have even have led the charge to change human behaviour for the better.

Hawking’s achievements and contributions to science and culture were widely recognised during his lifetime as well as now, after his death. His early discovery of Hawking radiation led to him being elected into the Royal Society of London, as one of their youngest ever fellows, in 1974. Elizabeth II awarded him a CBE in 1982, before the release of “A Brief History of Time” – though, nearly a decade after its publication he reportedly turned down a knighthood in protest over the British government’s poor science funding. Elsewhere, he even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, among many dozens more accolades. Were Hawking still with us, he’d have surely gone on to be even more decorated, continuing as one of the most honoured individuals in world history, and perhaps even collecting that knighthood if the British government finally made STEM education more of a priority.

Ultimately, this great genius had no fear of dying, and already lived for five decades longer than the best doctors thought he would do, for which the world will always be grateful. His thoughts, theories and papers continue to provide a basis for centuries more scientific progress. And that’s what would happen if Stephen Hawking had unlimited time.

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