Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 6, 1998


The East Room

8:17 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. And Dr. Hawking, you'll have to forgive me, I'm a little hoarse. I hope for some genetic improvement sometime in the next year or so. (Laughter.)

Ladies and gentlemen, this was a stunning event for me and I hope for all of you. Yesterday, Stephen and Elaine came by the White House to see Hillary and me and, as you can imagine, like Hillary, I had reread A Brief History of Time and I was utterly terrified -- (laughter) -- that he would say something like, you know, I went to University College Oxford, too, and then he would ask me some incredible comparative academic question about our experiences there. Instead, he said, was the food just as bad when you were there -- (laughter) -- which was a wonderful relief. (Laughter.)

Albert Einstein once said, because politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity, equations were more important than politics. I don't know about the politics part, but Professor Hawking's insights into equations have altered our notions of time and the very nature of eternity itself. Tonight he's given us a lot to think about, even the ability to imagine a future in which we as humans will have finally captured the Holy Grail of Physics, reconciling the infinitesimal with the infinite; presenting the world with the Ultimate Theory of Everything. Now, when a physicist does that, he can totally ignore politics and buy a newspaper. (Laughter.)

The one thing I liked most about thinking about the future in Professor Hawking's term is that even when we reach the era of Star Trek, which will make a lot of our children very happy, it won't be so static. It will still be human and dynamic. And according to the visuals accompanying the lecture, it will still matter whether you can bluff at poker, which is encouraging. (Laughter.)

I want to get on with the questions now. And again, I want to thank Professor Hawking for the extraordinary clarity and vigor of his presentation and for sharing his time with us tonight, and for placing this particular moment in the larger spectrum of time -- which I think if we all could do more and more clearly every day, we would live happier, more productive lives. Thank you, Professor.

Ellen, would you like to take over and bring in the questions? (Applause.)

MS. LOVELL: Thank you, Mr. President. I would like to begin our question and comments session. Because of the way Professor Hawking communicates and the time it takes him to select words from his screen to assemble his responses, we did give him a few questions in advance. I just learned that we're getting two e-mails a minute from all over the world and have over 300. The students who are here tonight and in the Indian Treaty Room were chosen on the basis of the questions they wrote to Professor Hawking.

But for the first live question, I turn to Dr. Vera Rubin, astrophysicist, in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at Carnegie Institute.

DR. RUBIN: Thank you, Professor Hawking, for this most stimulating and entertaining talk. Our knowledge of the universe comes both from observations and from theoretical studies. I wonder if you would be willing to stick your neck out once again and tell us what you think will be the most exciting discovery in connection with cosmology in the next 100 years.

MS. LOVELL: And while Professor Hawking is responding, I want to turn to Dr. Silvester Gates, past president of the American Association of Black Physicists, to expand on a point Professor Hawking made.

Dr. Gates, for the average listener, like me, how do "super partner species" and "closed loops" of particles cancel each other out? Advanced physics in two minutes. (Laughter.)

DR. GATES: Well, first of all, as we all know, we can't walk through walls. It's a very obvious property. You don't have to teach any student a physics course to know that. In the idea of super symmetry, where we think that there's another part to the universe that we haven't seen, there may be objects for which this isn't true. There may be things, the super partners -- and we don't know how much they are, how many there are, or how they behave -- but if they are there, they will lead to new forms of energy and matter and the possibilities are beyond our imagination at this point. Thank you.

MS. LOVELL: I think I got it. (Laughter.) We got an intriguing question from a University of Maryland student, Daniel Manilow (phonetic), which I would like to direct to Dr. William Phillips, 1997 Nobel Laureate in Physics.

Dr. Phillips, why does the universe obey any laws at all? (Laughter.)

DR. PHILLIPS: Well, that's a really good question, and I really wish I had a really good answer for it. (Laughter.) It's the kind of question that has intrigued and vexed scientists and, I suppose, philosophers and theologians for a long time. It's really quite remarkable.

All of the wonderful things Professor Hawking talked about can actually be described in a very small number of relatively simple equations and then a lot of complicated mathematics. Why is it that the universe is so simple? Why is it that it follows mathematical laws? Well, people have speculated about this, and one possible answer is that if the universe had been any different from what it is, we wouldn't be here. That is, if the laws of the universe hadn't been what they are or if there were no laws at all, it would have been impossible for life to have evolved. It would have been impossible for us to have evolved to the point that we could ask that question. So that's sometimes called the "enthropic principle." Not perhaps to put too much emphasis on people, but it probably applies to amoebas as well, that they wouldn't have been able to evolve either.

On the other hand, there is another answer, which isn't actually that far from that answer, and if you're a person with religious faith, as I am, you could answer that the reason we have a universe that follows laws is because God decided to make the universe in that way because God wanted us to develop the way we have and to evolve in the way that we have; and that this is, of course, a philosophical and theological answer and it has more to do with one's faith than one's scientific conclusions, but it's an answer that I like very much and that I don't find very different from the first one.

MS. LOVELL: Thank you. Professor Hawking raised the question of redesigning our DNA. Dr. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, is here.

Dr. Collins, what would be the implications of genetic engineering of the human race?

DR. COLLINS: Well, I appreciate the question and certainly Professor Hawking's presentation was very thought-provoking in this regard -- having physicists speculate about biology is welcome, indeed. (Laughter.) No, I mean that. I mean that.

Certainly, the proposal about the widespread application of genetic engineering to human beings raises a couple of points. This kind of knowledge is, in itself, neither good, nor evil -- it's knowledge. It's the use to which we put it that determines sort of the moral character of it. To what extent are these improvements in human beings moral or immoral is a question that we, as society, will have to wrestle with. If, in fact, the goal is to wipe out a dread disease, then I think that's entirely consistent with our moral obligations as human beings to try to alleviate suffering. And if that could be done without inducing other harms, then I suspect many of us would celebrate it.

If, on the other hand, it is to achieve improvements, you quickly begin to wonder who defines what an improvement is, and does that, in fact, allow one group of people to decide that their characteristics are more improved than others and, therefore, more in need of being transferred to various recipients. And that puts one into a bit of an ethical dilemma.

Furthermore, I think, as the President has recently said, science should not be a line that allows us further to discriminate between the haves and the have-nots. And one would worry very much about a technology which allowed this kind of improvement only to be available to certain people.

Finally -- and I echo what the preceding speaker said -- this does get us into an area where you begin to wonder about our view of ourselves, especially our view of ourselves as it relates to God. If we are to transform our species in this wholesale way, what do we end up with?

So there's plenty of things to think about there. I actually, along with Winston Churchill, have a great deal of confidence in our ability as a species to make sure that our technologies are our servants and not our masters. But it will take a great deal of public involvement to make sure that that is the outcome.

MS. LOVELL: Thank you very much. We're ready for Dr. Hawking's reply to Dr. Rubin.

PROFESSOR HAWKING: The most exciting discovery will probably be something we don't expect -- that is, such surprising discoveries that have led to the great revolutions in the past.

MS. LOVELL: Mrs. Clinton, we have a question from the Internet.

MRS. CLINTON: This is a question from Candra, in Washington: Do you ever lose your place while solving mathematical equations in your head? And, if so, how do you handle that? (Laughter.)

DR. HAWKING: It is difficult to handle complicated equations in my head. I, therefore, avoid problems with a lot of equations or translate them into problems in geometry. I can then picture them in my mind.

MRS. CLINTON: This question is from Larry in Denver: How does it feel to be compared to Einstein and Newton? (Laughter.)

DR. HAWKING: I think to compare me to Newton and Einstein is media hype. (Laughter.)

MRS. CLINTON: I must say, you did look good at the card table.

DR. HAWKING: I fit the popular stereotype of a mad scientist or a disabled genius or, should I say, a physically challenged genius, to be politically correct. (Laughter.) I am clearly physically challenged, but I don't feel I am a genius like Newton and Einstein.

MS. LOVELL: Mrs. Clinton, there is a special message for you, the President, and Professor Hawking.

MRS. CLINTON: And is that message on the Internet?

MS. LOVELL: You're going to see it on the screen behind you. It comes from very far away.

MRS. CLINTON: Oh, this is a special message, Professor Hawking, from your friends in outer space.

ASTRONAUT THOMAS: Good evening, Mr. President, Mrs. President and Professor Hawking. I'm the NASA astronaut presently orbiting the Earth on the space station Mir. I want to thank you for the opportunity to join you briefly tonight as I explore the universe up here on the space station -- the universe that Professor Hawking has so clearly elucidated to us in his writings. I'm delighted that students are able to participate in this event. It gives us a way of honoring the past and imagining the future, and encouraging students to believe in -- I think is the future for us.

Thank you all for your participation and good evening. (Applause.)

MS. LOVELL: Well, I have to bring us back to Earth. (Laughter.) Sakhile Moyo, from the University of the District of Columbia, I know you have a question.

MS. MOYO: Hi. My question to Professor Hawking is: If you believe that the galaxies around the universe will collapse once again, do you predict this as being another Big Bang?

PROFESSOR HAWKING: We don't yet know how much matter there is in the universe. The observations at present suggest that there isn't enough matter to stop the expansion of the universe, and so it will continue to expand forever. But if there is extra dark matter that we haven't detected, the universe could collapse again to a Big Crunch. However, the Big Crunch would be the end of the universe and of time itself. There doesn't seem to be any way one can continue through the Big Crunch to a new Big Bang. But don't worry, the Big Crunch won't come for at least 20 billion years. That will last my time and even that of the President, who is a bit younger than me. (Laughter.)

MS. LOVELL: Dr. Andrea Dupree, I'm going to put you on the spot for a short comment on the lecture.

DR. DUPREE: Thank you. Well, during this marvelously eclectic and imaginative lecture, I couldn't help but think about the enormously rapid pace of our understanding and our development in things that we couldn't even anticipate. I know when I started out in training as an astrophysicist, I never thought that I would be able to use the Hubbell space telescope to actually look at the surface of a star, a star where the light is coming to us when Christopher Columbus arrived in our country. These are just wonderful things that we've been able to do.

And I really draw from much of this that we really have to prepare for the unexpected. And that's what basic research is all about; that we are looking for things and we're not always sure what we're going to find other than a magnificent, better understanding of where we are and who we are and where we are going. And I'm sure if we keep up the momentum that we've heard about tonight that the next millennium will be magnificent and will have wonderful scientific rewards.

MS. LOVELL: Another optimist. (Laughter.) Thank you.

Mrs. Clinton, the last question comes from the Internet.

MRS. CLINTON: Oh, this question is from Al in New Hampshire. (Laughter and applause.) That is, for our British guests, Al Gore, who is never without his computer and, therefore, can log on anywhere, and was very sorry that previous obligations kept him from being here. So here is the Vice President's question:

Within the past month, we have seen evidence suggesting a strong, repulsive force in the universe -- an anti-gravitational force causing the universe to expand, surprisingly, at an accelerating rate. How surprised were you by this finding? What are it's most important implications? And how could your national cosmology supercomputer help to prove or disprove these implications?

DR. HAWKING: What the Vice President is referring to is some observational evidence that suggests that there may be an anti-gravitational force that would cause the universe to expand at an increasing rate. The existence of such an anti-gravitational force is very controversial. Einstein first suggested it might exist, but later regretted it and said it was his greatest mistake. If it is there at all, it must be very small. It is difficult to understand why it should be so small, unless it were exactly zero.

We probably won't know if there's a small anti-gravitational force until observations come in from new satellites that the U.S. and Europe will put up in the first years of the millennium. But the data analysis of this satellite observations will require a supercomputer like the national cosmology computer we have in Cambridge. If it turns out that there really is an anti-gravitational force, it will mean that inflation is a law of nature. (Laughter and applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Dr. Hawking, my position is we have repealed that law. (Laughter.)

Let me say, first of all, in defense of my Vice President, you will all understand that he would love to be here, but there is a peculiar gravitational force in New Hampshire that manifests itself with a remarkable regularity. (Laughter.) Let me also say that in the visual presentation accompanying Dr. Hawking's lecture, there was that remarkable project stamped "canceled" on it. This administration opposed the cancelation of it, I'm proud to say. (Laughter.) But we hope that the Swiss project will take up the slack.

There's so many questions I know you would all like to ask. We have hundreds of questions coming in, and one of the questions I wish there were time to explore is, if we do, in fact, acquire a general understanding that time and space are more multidimensional than we have imagined, and computers become ever more sophisticated, even if people will never be able to travel at the speed of light, will we be able to communicate some day in some ways that destroy our common notions of time?

I've thought about it a lot and I'm not smart enough to know what the answer is, but I'd love to -- that's one of the reasons I enjoyed re-reading the book.

Let me also say one other thing to close -- since our Nobel Laureate talked about his faith about how the world began -- the First Lady started tonight by talking about the marvels of technology which enable this astonishing man to communicate with us. And it is true that he is here and we did this because of the marvels of technology. It is also true, in my mind, that he is a genuine living miracle because of the power of the heart and the spirit. And we can only hope that all the advances that he has foreseen for us tonight in human knowledge will serve to amplify the heart and the spirit that we have humbly witnessed this evening.

Thank you and God bless you all. (Applause.)

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