Stephen Hawking may be one of the greatest theoretical physicists in history, but I’m not terribly impressed by his recent warning about making contact with aliens:
In a series for the Discovery Channel the renowned astrophysicist said it was “perfectly rational” to assume intelligent life exists elsewhere. But he warned that aliens might simply raid Earth for resources, then move on.
“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he said.
I certainly agree that any extra-terrestrial aliens visiting Earth within the next thousand years or more would almost certainly be light-years ahead of us in terms of technology. And rather than being like Native Americans in relation to Columbus, we could be like ants to are in relation to human beings. Given that the Sun was born more than eight billion years after the Big Bang, there has been more than enough time for alien civilizations to be millions, or even billions of years ahead of us in technological prowess.
Thus Hawking’s concerns that aliens might want to raid Earth for its resources would appear to be misplaced. What does Earth have that isn’t available in abundance elsewhere? Not water, not minerals, not energy sources—they can be all found throughout the Solar System. So there’s really no need to trash our planet to get at stuff that’s freely available in places like the asteroid belt, Mars, or Jupiter and Saturn and their moons.
Now, there is one asset that Earth has that could be of great interest to a passing alien fleet—organic life. But, again, it’s highly unlikely that they are going need to rape the planet in order to get what they want. Why collect and transport whole specimens when millions of tiny samples of DNA from each species would give them everything they need in a much more convenient form? And while slavers are a popular staple of the science fiction genre, it would seem unlikely in the extreme that highly advance aliens would be at all interested in rounding up billions of reluctant and rebellious human beings as slave labor.
Aside from life itself, we do have one other asset that might be of immense value to our passing alien fleet—information. Not scientific data—though they might find a small amount of passing interest—but cultural and historical information. If the evolution of intelligent life is rare in the galaxy, it could be our own history and culture that they prize most highly, since it will likely be the most unique thing about us and our planet.
Even to an alien civilization that has spent millions of years exploring the nature of the Universe, our literature, media, and historical records will seem new and fresh, and the most efficient way to obtain it all is by a free exchange of ideas and information, not violence. Even if they only gave us a fraction of their accumulated knowledge, I’m sure we would be more than ready to part with just about all the cultural and historical information we have.
Prof Hawking thinks that, rather than actively trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, humans should do everything possible to avoid contact. He explained: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.
In the past probes have been sent into space with engravings of human on board and diagrams showing the location of our planet. Radio beams have been fired into space in the hope of reaching alien civilisations.
Hawking is wrong here too. First, there is nothing we can do that is likely to betray our presence more than the simple fact that we live on an planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere in the middle of our system’s habitable zone.
For example, NASA Kepler mission is expected to detect extrasolar planets with the same size and orbit of Earth up to several thousand light years away, and we are barely 50 years into our Space Age. Just imagine what a million-year-old space faring alien civilization should be able to do.
Anyone looking our way from up to a thousand light years away (at least) will immediately suspect there is life on Earth, and they might eventually detect signs of industrial activity too by analyzing Earth’s atmosphere for pollutants. Therefore, the odd stray radio signal broadcast into interstellar space is hardly going to add our chances of being discovered.
As for using our own history as a guide, I don’t believe that’s of much use either. Looking back at the worst excesses of our conquering past, we see that they were almost all about gaining control over some type of limited resource—land, people, precious metals, slaves, energy sources, even religious assets.
And as I have already mentioned, there is no reason to expect that visiting aliens will be driven by the same acquisitive desires, or that they will find Earth a particularly juicy target. So, while it is certainly possible to dream up plenty of worst-case scenarios, there is every reason to believe that our first alien encounter, should it ever happen, will be peaceful and mutually rewarding.
Prof Hawking said: “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”
The programme envisages numerous alien species including two-legged herbivores and yellow, lizard-like predators. But Prof Hawking conceded most life elsewhere in the universe is likely to consist of simple microbes.
Sadly, I agree with Professor Hawking on this last point. If intelligent life was commonplace, then unless there is some kind of real-life Prime Directive in place barring all alien life from contacting Earth, we should probably have heard from someone else by now.
While the Milky Way is a massive place, even at sub-light speeds it should still take an advanced alien civilization less than a million years to expand across the entire galaxy. Perhaps they are watching us from a safe distance—waiting for the right time to come and say “Hello!”—but I suspect not, and it may well be that we are the only intelligent life in the Milky Way right now.
Either way, Stephen Hawking’s concerns are overblown. Even in the highly unlikely event that aliens are heading in our direction and are implacably hostile, there is very little we can do about it. Maintaining radio silence isn’t going to help us remain undetected, and once they get here, they aren’t going to be stopped simply by slipping a computer virus into their mainframe while they aren’t looking.
So really, there just isn’t any point in worrying at all. Were either doomed or we’re not, and there is very little we can do change that.
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