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Will it be Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk who is proved right on space exploration?

There are both optimistic and pessimistic visions of our future in space.

In the opening pages of his seminal 1988 work A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking has a cause for concern. “It has certainly been true in the past that what we call intelligence and scientific discovery have conveyed a survival advantage. It is not so clear that this is still the case: our scientific discoveries may well destroy us all, and even if they don’t, a complete unified theory may not make much difference to our chances of survival.”

The search for a singular theory that explains the cosmos, our place in it, where we are going, and why we are here troubles the professor. As scientists continue to come up short in their efforts to explain the grander reality of the universe, while contending with the development of technology at an inconceivably fast rate, the overarching feeling towards the future is one of anxiety, it seems.

It should be of no surprise to hear then, that Hawking’s anxieties have grown; so much so that he believes the human race must leave Earth and find a new planetary home within the next 100 years. Speaking at The Royal Society in London ahead of Starmus IV, a science and music festival set to take place next month in Trondheim, Norway, the professor said: “I strongly believe we should start seeking alternative planets for possible habitation. We are running out of space on Earth and we need to break through technological limitations preventing us living elsewhere in the universe.”

The professor has previously stated that we need to leave planet Earth within the next 1,000 years, but his recent estimation of 100 years adds a new layer of urgency to his claims.

He will expand on this issue in Trondheim, accompanied by the likes of Buzz Aldrin and various Nobel Prize winners, some of who are thought to share this belief. Viewers of the BBC’s new series Tomorrow’s World too will find these remarks reiterated by Hawking. For many, it may seem inconceivable to leave our planetary abode so soon, if at all. It must therefore be asked: is the concern warranted?

A central issue cited by Hawking is climate change, not least because of the overwhelming evidence pointing towards global warming, but also because of the anti-science movement that takes climate change to be a hoax. US President Donald Trump’s administration has repeatedly threatened withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – a move that, if carried through, would severely hamper the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperature rises this century at “well below 2 degrees Celsius”.

However, Nobel Laureate Edvard Moser, who was also present at The Royal Society, may have succinctly summed up the appropriate response to climate change deniers. Speaking on the critical importance of clear science communication, Moser said: “I think what it comes down to is explaining how the data of climate change has been collected and how the scientific process works, and how data is tested over and over again and I think it’s an educational job.”

At a time when establishment ideas and opinions are under scrutiny, Moser’s focus on education is perhaps what the professor too would like to encourage within public discourse. “You have to explain to the public how science works,” said Moser.

And what of artificial intelligence? At various times, Hawking has deemed the rise of artificial intelligence an existential threat. Autonomous robots may prove to be more efficient than humans in certain capacities, with the automation of factories making people redundant an oft-referred to indicator of this. “The rise of powerful AI will either be the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which,” Hawking has said.

But there is a third option, one in which artificial intelligence doesn’t take up a Manichean good or evil position. Instead, it continues on as a tool for societal and cultural evolution. Indeed, it is the unprecedented development of AI and other technologies that will make Hawking’s desire of multi-planetary life a pragmatic possibility.

This brings me to his contention that “we should start seeking alternative planets for possible habitation”. Though the recent discovery of Earth-like exoplanets, particularly those orbiting the dwarf star Trappist-1, has fuelled some speculation about the possibility of life beyond the Solar System, the most obvious “Planet B” for humanity has been Mars. Hawking himself has referred to it as “the obvious next target”.

The most notable mission to take humans to Mars comes from Space X’s Elon Musk, whose Interplanetary Transport System hopes to take a million people to the red planet within the next 20 years. But it seems Musk’s ambitions to make the human race a space-faring civilisation come from a slightly different place to that of Hawking’s.

In a recent conversation with TED’s Head Curator Chris Anderson, Musk was probed on why we need to build a city on Mars. “If the future does not include being out there among the stars, and being a multi-planet species, I find that incredibly depressing,” he said.  Depressing indeed. Journeying to Mars will not only increase the likelihood of humanity’s survival, but it will also offer the chance to search for extra-terrestrial life. The development of artificial intelligence can support our desires to create new colonies and food sources on Mars, to understand terrain other than our own and to move one step closer to knowing whether we are truly alone in space.

Hawking’s pessimism is understandable. The planet is taking on a number of new challenges that it is yet to overcome: overpopulation, antibiotic resistance, overdue asteroid strikes, terrorism, resource depletion and more. The list of threats may be endless.

What cannot be allowed to happen is for humanity to succumb to that pessimism and fear. Of course, these issues will take a lifetime to counter, and many of Hawking’s contemporaries understand this and share a deep concern for the future of the planet. But as the innovators and predictors of the future, it is the scientists who must maintain optimism about the world that humans can create for themselves. As Musk points out, “it’s important to have a future that is inspiring and appealing”.

In a hundred years time, we may still be searching for a unified theory of the universe. We most probably will have a new set of challenges to face. But with a radical rethink of scientific education and inspiration, perhaps one day the human race will feel a lot more optimistic about its future on two planets.

Photo: Getty/New Statesman
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The mother lode: how mums became the ultimate viral fodder

The internet’s favourite joke used to be "your mum". Now it's "my mum".

“I was like: oh my.”

Terri Squires is describing her reaction to the news that she had gone viral. Last month, more than 213,000 people shared a tweet about Terri – but it wasn’t sent from her account. The 50-year-old Ohioan was propelled to internet stardom by her son, Jeff, who had tweeted about his mother.

“I didn’t really realise what it meant at first until he was like: ‘Mum, you do realise that millions of people have looked at this?’ … When I started seeing those numbers I was like: ‘Oh boy’.”

It’s a funny story – and Terri laughs heartily all she tells it. After coming out of a meeting, she checked her phone and noticed a picture of a missing – white – dog on Facebook. She quickly texted 17-year-old Jeff to check that the family dog, Duey, was safe. “That’s not Duey… Duey’s face is brown,” replied her son. “OK – just checking,” replied Terri.

More than 600,000 people “liked” Terri’s mistake after Jeff shared screenshots of the text message exchange on Twitter. But Terri is just one of hundreds of mums who have gone viral via their sons and daughters. Texts mums send, mistakes they make, things they fail to notice – these have all become the ultimate viral fodder.

In the last three months alone, Gerald’s mum went viral for a microphone mishap, Adam’s mum shot to Twitter fame for failing to understand WhatsApp, Lois’ mum got tricked by her daughter, Harry’s mum was hit in the head with a football, Hanna’s mum misunderstood a hairstyle, and Jake’s mum failed to notice her son had swapped a photo in her home for a portrait of Kim Jong-un.

But how do the mothers behind these viral tweets feel?

“I'm pretty much a mum that everybody wants to talk to these days,” says Terri, with another warm laugh. The mum of three says going viral “is not that big of a deal” to her, but she is happy that her son can enjoy being a “local superstar”. But is she embarrassed at being the punchline of Jeff’s joke?

“Believe me, I have thick skin,” she says. “I kinda look at what it is, and it’s actually him and his fame. I’m just the mum behind it, the butt of the joke, but I don't mind.”

Not all mums feel the same. A handful of similar viral tweets have since been deleted, indicating the mothers featured in them weren’t best pleased. A few people I reach out to haven’t actually told their mums that they’re the subject of viral tweets, and other mums simply don’t want any more attention.

“I think I’ve put my mum through enough with that tweet already,” says Jacko, when I ask if his mum would be willing to be interviewed. In 2014, Jacko tweeted out a picture of his family writing the word “cock” in the air with sparklers. “This is still my favourite ever family photo,” he captioned the tweet, “My mum did the ‘O’. We told her we were going to write ‘Love’.”

“No one ever expects to call home and say ‘Mum, have you heard of something called LADbible? No, you shouldn’t have, it’s just that a quarter of a million of its fans have just liked a photo of you writing the word ‘cock’ with a sparkler’,” Jacko explains.

Although Jacko feels his mum’s been through enough with the tweet, he does say she was “ace” about her new found fame. “She’s probably cooler about it all than I am”. Apart from the odd deletion, then, it seems most mums are happy to become viral Twitter stars.

Yet why are mums so mocked and maligned in this way? Although dads are often the subject of viral tweets, this is usually because of jokes the dads themselves make (here’s the most notable example from this week). Mums, on the other hand, tend to be mocked for doing something “wrong” (though there are obviously a few examples of them going viral for their clever and cunning). On the whole: dads make jokes, mums are the butt of them.

“We all think our mums are so clueless, you know. They don’t know what’s going on. And the fun thing is, one day we come to realise that they knew way more of what was going on than we thought,” says Patricia Wood, a 56-year-old mum from Texas. “People always kind of make fun of their mums, but love them.”

Last year, Patricia went viral when her daughter Christina tweeted out screenshots of her mum’s Facebook posts. In them, Patricia had forgotten the names of Christina’s friends and had candidly written Facebook captions like: “My gorgeous daughter and her date for formal, sorry I forgot his name”. Christina captioned her tweet “I really can't with my mom” and went on to get more than 1,000 likes.

“I felt, like, wow, it was like we’re famous, you know. I thought it was really cool,” says Patricia, of going viral. Her experiences have been largely positive, and as a part-time Uber driver she enjoys telling her customers about the tweet. “But I did have one bad experience,” she explains. A drunken passenger in her car saw the tweet and called Patricia an “asshole”.

Another aspect of viral fame also worried Patricia. She and her daughter were invited on a reality show, TD Jakes, with the production company offering to pay for flights and hotels for the pair. “I have too many skeletons in my closet and I didn't want them to come dancing out,” says Patricia, of her decision not to go. “By the time I got off it, it would be the Jerry Springer show, you know. I’m kind of a strange bird.”

On the whole, then, mothers are often amused by going viral via their offspring – and perhaps this is the real beauty of tweeting about our mums. Since the moment they earn the title, mums can’t afford to be fragile. There is a joy and relatability in “my mum” tweets – because really, the mum in question could be anyone’s. Still, from now on, mums might be more careful about what they tell their sons and daughters.

“When I send Jeff a text now I make sure I’m like: ‘Is my spelling correct? Is what I’m saying grammatically correct?’,” says Terri, “Because who knows where the words are gonna end up?”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.