dburrows/ blog/ entry/ Should we be scared of the future or not?

I recently received an email from Sigma Xi with various news items. One of them mentioned a Hawking quote:

Science fiction is useful both for stimulating the imagination and for diffusing fear of the future.

-- Stephen Hawking?

Now, Sigma Xi is generally a pretty reputable organization, but I wondered: is a scientific organization really encouraging fear of the future? Mind, I think a certain degree of concern about the future is healthy, both individually and societally, and there is a long tradition in science fiction of writing novels about terrifying futures. But Sigma Xi is usually upbeat about the wonders of science and technological progress. Besides, there's a real dissonance in that quote between becoming more creating and imaginative, and becoming more afraid of the future. Maybe it was intentional, but it seems very out-of-place. So, I started to wonder whether this was really what Hawking said. Typing a few key words into Google, I looked at where else this quote showed up.

According to the NSF, Sigma Xi's quote is correct.

According to renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, "science fiction is useful both for stimulating the imagination and for diffusing fear of the future." Interest in science fiction may affect the way people think about or relate to science...

ERIC, which is some sort of database of internal government reports, agrees:

According to renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, "science fiction is useful both for stimulating the imagination and for diffusing fear of the future." Indeed, several studies suggest that using science fiction movies as a teaching aid can improve both motivation and achievement.

So, maybe Hawking really does encourage being afraid of the future? Well, here was the third and final reference to this quote that I found, from (of all places) an unofficial transcript of a Larry King Live interview:

HAWKING: I think science fiction is useful, both for stimulating the imagination and for defusing fear of the future. But science fact can be even more amazing. Science fiction never suggested anything as strange as black holes.

So, it looks like this quote comes from a live TV interview. I don't know whether the different interpretations come from different transcripts (this is the only one I can find); defused and diffused are similar enough that it would be easy for either one to be reasonable -- and IIRC, he speaks through some sort of speech-generating machine, which would just make it easier to misunderstand him. But given that Hawking is a crazy-science-guy, I suspect that he would rather defuse fear of the future than spread it around (even if it became more diffuse as it was spread), and that the transcript above is what he meant to say. In which case, I wonder about the versions of the quote that I found everywhere else. Didn't anyone do a double-take when they were typing up those papers, Web pages and news items?

Of course, there is a third possibility, which I rather like: the quote could be a play on words, a sort of slant pun (a phrase that I just invented, which is the funnier cousin of a slant rhyme). What's particularly cool about this particular ambiguity is that (a) both sentences are sensible, (b) they have related but opposite meanings, and (c) somewhat oddly, I agree with both of them: science fiction is good at defusing unwarranted fear of the future, while also diffusing fear where it's entirely warranted. I doubt Hawking was going for the double meaning, but it's a nice thought.


And for the inevitable people who can't figure out what this blog entry is about, here's a hint:

diffuse:

Verb

  1. (transitive) To spread over or through as in air, water, or other matter, especially by fluid motion or passive means.
  2. (intransitive) To be spread over or through as in air, water, or other matter, especially by fluid motion or passive means.

defuse:

Verb

  1. To remove the fuse from a bomb, etc.
  2. To make something less dangerous, tense, or hostile.