Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hush, Aliens are Coming!

I’ve enjoying Stephen Hawking’s new TV series “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking” because I see it as a rare opportunity to learn some science from arguably the most famous living physicist. I also make sure I attend Hawking’s lectures in Los Angeles each time he visits, never sure when it may be my last chance given his age and physical condition.

A recent episode of the show that aired in April 2010 set off some controversy around his comments about intelligent aliens. Hawking speculated that such aliens would likely be nomads, living in ships after depleting their own planet of resources, and hopping from one interstellar refueling station to the next.

Hawking posited, “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn our very well for the Native Americans.”

I know that Hawking has been making such comments for years; like in a 1996 essay when he said humans should be “wary of answering” aliens until our species has become more sophisticated. But hiding from alien civilizations seems like an odd concept given my long-time participation in the SETI Project with the prime goal of detecting signals from far-off intelligent life and ultimately communicating with them. I don’t think we can play a head-in-the-sand game with establishing our place in the galactic community. This is more than a global policy decision; this is about science and the pursuit of nature’s truth.

The Journal of Cosmology compiled commentaries from a dozen scientists. Some like me criticized Hawking’s use of human behavior to predict what aliens would do. I’m totally on board with this criticism. It is all too human-centric to believe aliens would plunder worlds in a manner like the Conquistadors and their minions.

Perhaps the best response to Hawking's notion comes from Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson: "Somtimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."

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