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Stephen Hawking waxes dismal on time travel and the afterlife

In a new BBC documentary, the astrophysicist suggests that it simply isn't possible to go back in time. And there's not much to look forward to, either.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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Stephen Hawking didn't offer much basis for dreaming. BBC/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

We leave so much unresolved in our past that we often wish we could just go back and fix things. Or, at least, change the way everything turned out.

We want to believe it's possible. We want to believe that science will make it possible. This is partly because we see far too many science fiction movies.

We also want to believe in an afterlife, just in case we need to atone for the things we've left in the past and couldn't get back while we were here.

However, in a BBC documentary that aired this week, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking offered nothing but bad news.

Hawking was speaking with Dara O'Briain, a comedian who also happens to have studied theoretical physics.

O'Briain was keen to know whether time travel was possible, especially the back-to-the-future kind. He mentioned that in 1992 Hawking had offered the "chronology protection conjecture," which insisted that if time travel were possible, it certainly could never be backwards time travel.

O'Briain, therefore, sniffed that Hawking had ruined the Terminator movies.

Hawking wasn't impressed. He wasn't impressed with the idea that we might one day be able to use black holes to travel back in time, either. He said: "If you jump in a black hole, you will meet an unpleasant fate."

Not even messages, said Hawking, could be sent back in time. This led O'Briain to muse, as Hawking was sitting there: "All science fiction is dead. Thank you, Stephen Hawking."

Hawking wasn't any more optimistic about humans reaching distant planets. He said: "The present breed of humans won't reach the stars." The distances are too great. The radiation exposure would be too severe.

The only hope he offered -- one that surely excites many at Google -- is to "genetically engineer humans or send machines."

But then O'Briain reached the subject of God. Hawking explained he wasn't persuaded that the Earth was created by God in seven days. He prefers the scientific explanation of the Big Bang.

Hawking has previously declared that he doesn't believe in God. But what about an afterlife? Couldn't we still believe in that? Couldn't we hope that there might be something beyond this absurd existence?

Hawking sniffed: "I think the afterlife is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

Now there's a thought to rock your kids to sleep with.