The Guardian posted yet another "very rare" interview with physicist Stephen Hawking today. While kept necessarily short, the interview provides some characteristically quotable phrases sure to become cannon fodder for the religious community, which has surely grown wearing of Hawking's persistant statements against the existence of God. Nestled in a between a question about the meaning of life and beauty in science, interviewer Ian Sample asked the Cambridge professor about his 2009 brush with death and Hawking's answer is calculated, emphasis ours:
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. 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.
Since it takes Hawking quite a bit of time to formulate answers--past interviews tend to be limited to six or ten questions sent to the scientist and his assistants days ahead of time--it seems safe to assume that he means what he says. Fighting words for a man who also wrote in his 2010 book, The Grand Design, "One can't prove that God doesn't exist, but science makes God unnecessary." To believers, Hawking's idea of heaven as a "fairy story" must sound outlandish or offensive, but that's kind of the point. In fact, interviews with Hawking aren't all that rare. There are typically a couple big interviews or appearances every year, often with The Guardian, in which Hawking will produce a headline-stealing catch phrase to get everybody talking.
In April 2010, the flurry of commentary swirled around Hawking's warning about aliens. In a Discovery Channel documentary, Hawking said:
If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet.
In 2009, Hawking weighed in on the health care debate in the U.S. After critics of socialized medicine speculated that that National Health Service (NHS) would've deemed Hawking's life worthless because of his handicap, the physicist told the The Guardian:
I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.
The Guardian's 2008 interview was on the familiar religion theme. Wrote interviewer Rachel Cooke:
Is the study of philosophy and theology a waste of time? Hawking, a notorious atheist, looks at his screen, and grimaces. More beeping. 'Yes,' he says, finally. 'Most of it is based on a complete disregard of observational evidence and modern science.' Nuance and a Hawking sentence are, by necessity, strangers.
Jumping back a bit, Hawking weighed in on the controversy around women in science sparked by Larry Summers' remarks that eventually led to his departure as president of Harvard University. Hawking didn't think Summers was off base. He told The Guardian in 2005:
It is generally recognised that women are better than men at languages, personal relations and multi-tasking, but less good at map-reading and spatial awareness. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that women might be less good at mathematics and physics. It is not politically correct to say such things and the president of Harvard got in terrible trouble for doing so. But it cannot be denied that there are differences between men and women.
Hawking's tendency towards provocative sound-bites could be partly due to the mechanics of the interview. As The Atlantic Wire noted last week, Hawking, constrained by his communication mechanism, usually has questions submitted in advance, and when an impromptu question was floated at the end of a New York Times interview, the 44-character response took 5 minutes to compose. Maybe he's just gotten very good and making each time-consuming sentence pack maximum punch.