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April 25, 2010

Hawking on Extraterrestrial Life

Grabbing headlines on a slow-news weekend is Stephen Hawking's Discovery Channel series in which he repeats the Sagan view on the likelihood for extraterrestrial life:

Hawking’s logic on aliens is, for him, unusually simple. The universe, he points out, has 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. In such a big place, Earth is unlikely to be the only planet where life has evolved.

“To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” he said. “The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”

The answer, he suggests, is that most of it will be the equivalent of microbes or simple animals — the sort of life that has dominated Earth for most of its history.

He's far from the first to come to that conclusion. Scientists have long been conjecturing that extraterrestrial microbes are present in our own solar system. For the past decade, scientists have been trying to prove that meteorites that originated on Mars contain evidence of such life.

However, he also thinks that some extraterrestrial life may develop to intelligence that can travel between stars. His advice on that issue is, well, alarmist:

Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity.

He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

Well, it's definitely not my area of expertise, but his discussion seems contradictory. He goes from saying that there are likely billions of planets out there (read "resources"), but that aliens might target Earth because planetary resources are scarce.

I'm not buying that. Any species that has viable interplanetary travel isn't going to need any specific resource that's found only on Earth or that can only be made from elements found only on Earth (ain't no such thing).

No, the real danger from contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life is cultural. Finding out your kind is a late-developing and not very advanced one-of-many tends to derail your development.

Hawking's comparison to the "Big Oops" when Columbus ran into America and called it India is apt. Culturally, the societies of the Early American Immigrants (as I like to call them) ended up stressed until they broke, even aside from the things that came with colonization of the Americas. The introduction of new ways of thinking and, especially, new technologies irrevocably altered the culture and would have destroyed what existed in the Americas regardless of whether colonization occurred. In short, what we should worry about is the introduction of alien thought...

Except not. Because there ain't no aliens coming to visit. Even if you buy into the idea that extraterrestrial intelligences exist or will exist and that extrasolar travel is feasible at some level of development, the distances between stars are so incomprehensibly vast that interplanetary species aren't likely to come across each other within the lifetime of their species. The same "numbers alone" that Hawking hawks to infer the existence of life out there work against him when considering the possibility that some of that life will ever be in a position to make contact.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 04:27 PM

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