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Stephen Hawking in "Into the Universe" on Discovery Channel
British physicist Stephen Hawking delved into cosmic mysteries in a Discovery Channel series titled “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking.” (Credit: Discovery Channel)

British physicist Stephen Hawking has warned repeatedly that Earth could well be doomed, but his latest warning gives us no more than 583 years before we get burned on Earth.

During a video clip aired at the Tencent WE Summit on Sunday, the 75-year-old scientist said that humanity would have to deal with exponential growth in the centuries ahead. He noted that the world’s population has been doubling every 40 years.

“This exponential growth cannot continue into the next millennium,” Hawking, who has been coping with neurodegenerative disease for decades, said in his computer-synthesized voice. “By the year 2600, the world’s population would be standing shoulder to shoulder, and the electricity consumption would make the Earth glow red-hot.

“This is untenable,” Hawking said as a planet-sized ball of fire blazed on the screen.

You can catch his talk starting at about the 3:45 mark in this video:

Hawking sees the physical limit to growth as a factor that will force humans to find new homes beyond Earth. During Sunday’s talk, he touted the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, which plans to send beam-powered, nano-sized spacecraft on a reconnaissance mission past Alpha Centauri, the nearest star beyond our sun.

“Such a system could reach Mars in less than an hour, or reach Pluto in days, pass Voyager in under a week, and reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years,” he said.

There are a couple of caveats to Hawking’s plan: Sending humans beyond the solar system, or even settling them on Mars, will require bigger and more sophisticated spaceships than Breakthrough Starship’s nano-probes. And back on Earth, Hawking’s 40-year doubling rule won’t necessarily hold true for the next five centuries. Middle-of-the-road projections suggest that population growth will level off sometime after 2100, well before we’re standing shoulder to shoulder.

This isn’t the first time Hawking has given us a deadline to reach for the stars. In a BBC documentary, Hawking says the human race has only 100 years to colonize another planet, and this summer he recommended beginning the job with a base on the moon by 2020. Although we’re not likely to make that 2020 timetable, the Trump administration is apparently picking up on that page in Hawking’s playbook.

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