What did Stephen Hawking mean?

Reduced to its basics there is nothing hard about journalism. You find people to talk to about interesting things and in some way or other record what they say. All you have to do then is put it in context and blog it, broadcast it or print it. Job done.

There’s more to it than that, but let’s move on. The process, of course, requires a lot of checking, not least to make sure you understand things correctly. Invariably, you will come back with more queries and follow-up questions to explore an issue more fully. A conversation is crucial.

For obvious reasons, a genuine two-way discussion is impossible with Stephen Hawking, who kindly agreed last week to answer some questions for the Guardian. He put a lot of hours into formulating and typing out the answers, over a few days when he was also writing a talk for the Google Zeitgeist meeting that begins in London today.

We were allowed to pitch six questions to Professor Hawking and we asked readers to provide two of those. Unfortunately we ran out of time before all of them got answered. For the one that made it, thanks to johncummings for asking: “What are the things you find most beautiful in science?”

Professor Hawking’s talk is entitled “Why are we here?”. With my first question I hoped to get his view on why the answer might be valuable to us. Put another way, I wondered what humanity gains from knowing how we came to be here, specifically at the level of detail that might be described by M-theory, the underlying idea that incorporates string theory. Plenty of obvious answers come to mind, but I wanted to hear Hawking’s thoughts on the issue.

Here is the answer Professor Hawking gave:

“The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can’t solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those Societies most likely to survive. We assign them a higher value.”

On reading it I had one of those familiar, sinking moments of realisation that my brain is so spectacularly inferior to the interviewee’s that all I can do is hold up my hands and say: “Huh?”

At best I might have an inkling of what this means, but I am by no means sure. In this situation, it might take a while to clarify the answer, but other bright minds out there might well be able to unravel it for me and anyone else who might be interested. If you can help, post your thoughts below and put me out of my misery.

To me, it feels as though he is referring to the idea that there are many possible universes and that we can use Darwinian ideas of natural selection to work out which might be most hospitable to life as we know it, and because they are habitable in some sense we value them more highly. That’s my best guess, but I have minimal confidence in it being right.

I will do my best to clarify the answer this week.

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