Stephen Hawking's beautiful sense of humor

He was one of the most intelligent men on the planet. But he had a knack for making people laugh, and it helped him spread his message of science and discovery.

On June 28th, 2009, one of the most famous people on the planet — Professor Stephen Hawking — threw a party. Nobody arrived. Because of this, Hawking was pleased. 

It proved a central point for Hawking: time travel isn't really possible. The party had been thrown in honor of time travelers and none had materialized... quite possibly because, as Hawking had hypothesized, time travel could warp the space-time continuum itself and possibly cause a rift that could end the known universe. 

It was a prime example of Hawking's sense of humor, a skill of his that I think was lost in many of the many hundreds of eulogies that followed in the news of his death. Stephen Hawking had a fundamental understanding of not just the universe itself, but of people.  A time-traveler themed party sounds like the B plot in a Big Bang Theory episode, but Hawking knew that the hook alone — that a party for time travelers where none showed up — would prove his point beyond any scientific paper published in a stuffy journal. It was also a great visual for him: one of the smartest men in the world threw a party and nobody came. Womp womp

Hawking was no stranger to comedy. He appeared on The Simpsons, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and even 5 episodes of the aforementioned The Big Bang Theory (7 if you count voiceovers). Most people of his stature would assuredly never let these ideas get past their agent, let alone go on TV with them. Putting it politely, you're very unlikely to see Richard Dawkins shed his carefully crafted public intellectual persona, much less go on a comedy show and prank call Jim Carrey. Even Christopher Hitchens, in his day, rarely let the inebriated-smoking-intellectual image slip enough to poke fun at himself any longer than a few sentences (and I say that as someone that likes the guy!). In the end, it is to their own detriment. Hawking knew perhaps from his own illness that the concept of the ego itself was absurd and that he had nothing to lose by making his incredibly intricate theories as accessible as possible. “I am probably better known for my appearances on The Simpsons and on The Big Bang Theory than I am for my scientific discoveries,” he said in 2013. And for this, he was feted beyond measure.

And rightly so. Because it gave a human element to intelligence that is frequently missing in popular culture. You can be incomprehensibly intelligent but still play practical jokes — Hawking was well known to run over the feet of people he didn't like with his wheelchair. (Even in denial of that fact, he still joked "I'll run over anyone who repeats [that rumor]," he said). Besides... which other great mind admits to watching Dumb and Dumber?

There's a famous photograph of Einstein where he's sticking his tongue out at the camera. Hawking took the image — and the message behind it, that life and indeed oneself perhaps shouldn't be taken too seriously — and rolled with it his whole life. 

Orson Welles once said "Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing." It speaks to the transient nature of art, and that ultimately we'll all fade into the gray at some point. But I have a feeling that Stephen Hawking's name won't be forgotten for a long, long time. And when people look back, they'll see that he cared enough about his passion — about science and discovery — that he was willing to make people laugh with him to help spread his message. 

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

Surprising Science
  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

Harvard scientists suggest 'Oumuamua is an alien device

It's an asteroid, it's a comet, it's actually a spacecraft?

(ESO/M. Kornmesser)
Surprising Science
  • 'Oumuamua is an oddly shaped, puzzling celestial object because it doesn't act like anything naturally occurring.
  • The issue? The unexpected way it accelerated near the Sun. Is this our first sign of extraterrestrials?
  • It's pronounced: oh MOO-uh MOO-uh.
Keep reading Show less

Study: The effects of online trolling on authors, publications

A study started out trying to see the effect of sexist attacks on women authors, but it found something deeper.

Surprising Science
  • It's well known that abusive comments online happen to women more than men
  • Such comments caused a "significant effect for the abusive comment on author credibility and intention to seek news from the author and outlet in the future"
  • Some news organizations already heavily moderate or even ban comments entirely; this should underscore that effort
Keep reading Show less