Stephen Hawking may not be in the far corners of the universe, but he seems to be everywhere else these days: On the bookshelves with a new memoir, My Brief History; in a documentary, Hawking; and as the host of Stephen Hawking’s Brave New World, a Discovery World show about the frontiers of science, which begins its second season on Friday at 8 p.m. (ET). He answered questions about the projects via e-mail, through his assistant.
When you consider the dozens of scientific breakthroughs covered in Brave New World, and their practical applications, is there one in particular that you’re most excited about?
I am excited by 3-D printing of body organs. This is not a reality yet, but if it could be achieved, it would solve a large number of medical problems. There would be no need to wait for organ donors, failing or cancerous body parts could simply be printed out. It would make humans almost immortal. This would raise great social problems, and the 3-D printing process is controversial because it uses stem cells.
In your new memoir, My Brief History, you suggest that you were attracted to cosmology in part because “if you understand how the universe operates, you control it in a way.” That’s an intriguing notion – especially for someone with a physical handicap such as ALS, who most people would think can exert little control over the physical world. How would you say you’ve exerted control?
Many disabled people have little control over their lives, and are often ignored, or hidden away from view. But I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford to employ my care team and have the same control over my life as if I were able-bodied. My work on cosmology has caused several magazines to call me Mr. Universe, and they weren’t referring to my physique.
Richard Feynman, with whom you studied at Caltech, left a social legacy (especially in regard to his investigation into the cause of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster) as well as a scientific one. What would you like your social legacy to be?
I think my social legacy is my example that it is possible to have a full and satisfying life, even if you are paralyzed and on a ventilator.
Why did you write your memoir? What lessons do you believe your life story holds for readers?
I hope my book will help people facing difficulties or disability. It’s no good being sorry for oneself. There’s no fairy godmother to wave a magic wand. One has to make the best one can, with the abilities one has, in the situation in which one finds oneself. Never lose hope.
In the memoir, you suggest that faculty politics at Cambridge University's Caius College in the mid-1960s were “reminiscent of something out of the novels of C.P. Snow.” Do you read much fiction?
I read C.P. Snow for what he said about college politics, not for his literary merit. His characters have no depth, unlike those of Jane Austen or George Eliot. On a lighter note, I also enjoyed the novels of Evelyn Waugh, especially Brideshead Revisited, which I read when I was at Oxford, along with a fantasy, Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm, which was great fun. As a boy, I enjoyed the books of Jules Verne and Rider Haggard. The latter made me want to visit Tibet, an ambition I now won’t realize, because I couldn’t cope with the altitude. Among modern authors, I have enjoyed J.K. Rowling and Ian McEwan.
C.P. Snow famously gave a 1959 lecture in which he decried “The Two Cultures” – the division between the sciences and the humanities – which he declared to be an obstacle to solving the world’s major problems. What do you make of his assertion?
The idea that there are two competing cultures, science and the humanities, is a peculiarly British idea, brought about by the British public (that is to say, private) school system, with its emphasis on Latin, Greek and ancient history. This was supposed to train the boys for the civil service, and to rule the empire. However, the idea that someone with a classical education need know nothing of science is now discredited. Science shapes the modern world, so everyone needs an understanding of science.
You recently told a British newspaper that you supported assisted suicide because, as you said, “We don’t let animals suffer.” Upon hearing this, some people made the chilling assumption that you’ve considered taking that step in the past, or indeed that you might do so if your ALS continues to progress. Have you considered it?
I think assisted suicide is justified only if one is in great pain, and there’s no prospect of relief. I would not consider assisted suicide. While there’s life, there’s hope.
This interview has been edited.