Scientists weigh in on Stephen Hawking's alien warning

May 11, 2010 By Amina Khan

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking set off chatter in late April when he posited the existence of intelligent aliens on his new TV series, "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking" -- adding that it would be best for human beings to avoid contact with them.

Hawking speculated that such aliens would likely be nomads, living in ships after sucking their own planet dry of resources, and hopping from one interstellar refueling station to the next.

"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," he said.

Hawking has made such statements for years - in a 1996 essay, for example, he said humans should be "wary of answering" aliens until our species has become more sophisticated.

Though most of the show focused on what alien life -- even primitive alien life -- might look like, it was the comment on alien invasion that captured public attention.

The Journal of compiled responses from a dozen scientists and has published them online. Some criticized Hawking's use of human behavior to predict what aliens would do, but others said that human behavior was a reasonable yardstick. Few, however, questioned the premise of Hawking's statements -- that alien life forms probably exist and we are likely someday to encounter them.

The commentaries can be read at journalofcosmology.com/Aliens100.html . Here's some of what the scientists had to say:

Blair Csuti, a biologist at Oregon State University, defended Hawking's trepidation, arguing that the principles of evolution would have shaped those beings just as they did life on Earth, selecting for self-preserving behavior. "Aliens visiting newly discovered planets, like Earth, would place their own interests above those of unsophisticated indigenous residents."

Robert Ehrlich, a physicist at George Mason University agreed, further imagining that the aliens would be "adaptable robots whose mental processes reflect those of their senders."

Others, like Chandra Wickramasinghe of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom and B.G. Sidharth at the B.M. Birla Science Centre in India, took a more low-tech view of alien invasions. They argued that the threat would come not from green people with fancy stun guns, but from pathogenic microbes that could infect life on Earth.

"When Columbus was followed by the Spanish conquistadors, it was not advanced weaponry which destroyed the native civilizations, but disease," Sidharth wrote.

Randy D. Allen, a biologist at Oklahoma State University, argued that a smart-enough species could develop a quantum computer and eventually transfer their consciousnesses into it.

""Perhaps ... they can "see" or "feel" the entire universe. Maybe they've gained the ability to manipulate elementary particles and can control its evolution and its fate. They would have become, by any human definition, gods."

GianCarlo Ghirardi, a physicist at Italy's University of Trieste, asked why intelligent aliens should have negative intentions toward earthlings. "If Hawking's aliens are anything like humans, then I am optimistic ... that their scientific development should be accompanied also by an ethical development, and (they) might value life," he wrote.

Stephen Freeland, an astrobiologist at the University of Hawaii, didn't focus on the likely intentions of invading aliens. Instead, he blasted Hawking for speaking out of turn. He noted that the Astrobiology Science Conference ran the same week as Hawking's TV program. "I doubt that any of (the astrobiologists) will be opining about the origin and early evolution of the universe as if professor Hawking's field of science did not exist," he said.

The most whimsical reaction was also the shortest -- a limerick, courtesy of biologist John Menninger of the University of Iowa:

"Aliens, as perceived by Hawking

"Could soon visit Earth for some gawking.

"They might do good, but Oy!,

"They might wish to destroy!

"We'll more likely be bored by their talking."

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otto1923
4 / 5 (3) May 11, 2010
Robert Ehrlich, a physicist at George Mason University agreed, further imagining that the aliens would be "adaptable robots whose mental processes reflect those of their senders."
Agreed. Why come here themselves when they could send probes designed for the task?

As Hawking said they might be nomads in search of resources. If they have reached the point where they can consume everything of value in a system, they would find plenty of stuff out in our oort cloud without having to venture any farther down the gravity well. Its very chaotic down here- lots of solar wind, radiation, noise, clutter. They would most likely settle far out and consume what they wanted.Theyve probably become very tidy, quiet, and efficient and so we may not be able to detect them out there.

We still have an oort cloud; theyre probably content for the moment. But they would want to at least keep tabs on us, in which case they might send interactive probes for their enlightenment and our entertainment
Caliban
4.3 / 5 (6) May 11, 2010
Why would they be nomads, if they had the technology to visit other worlds? and if they were some kind of locust-like organism, that stripped everything, you would think that, again, they would have the technology to do it all- even utilize the elements of stars.
No- I disagree with Hawking- if they have the knowledge to accomplish interstellar travel- much less intergalactic- I doubt they'll be visiting for the purpose of enslaving us, or taking our resources. They won't be human, you know.
PinkElephant
5 / 5 (5) May 11, 2010
Why come here themselves when they could send probes designed for the task?
Are those the droids we're looking for? (sorry)
As Hawking said they might be nomads in search of resources.
I think Hawking's watched Independence Day a couple times too many.

I still maintain that for a sufficiently advanced life form, we and our entire solar system are about as interesting as a footnote in some obscure research paper regarding some archaic proto-bacterium.

The Fermi paradox is resolved easily enough: they ARE here (and there, and over there) -- or at least they have been, and probably not just once -- but they just simply don't give a crap about us, our still pathologically over-inflated sense of self-importance notwithstanding.
Eric_B
4.5 / 5 (2) May 11, 2010
You know, at the risk of being banned from this thread, I might dare to (hypothetically) weigh in on the side of UFO conspiracy theorists in response to stuff like what Hawking said. It's ridiculous.

Any culture that can travel interdimensionally/FTL can find its own minerals, I think.

What would they care to take from us? And if they did want a piece of us, wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that all they would have to do is get some genetic samples and make clones of us. Then they would have slaves, food, etc that could be trained for their purposes, free of the influence of T.V. and such.

Waitaminute...now I AM starting to sound like some wingnut UFO abducteeeeeee..
Caliban
2 / 5 (2) May 11, 2010
@ Eric B

DUDE- I told you to KEEP the tinfoil hat ON at ALL TIMES!!!!!
trekgeek1
5 / 5 (1) May 12, 2010
I still think that a species that can traverse light years quickly would:

1.) Already know we're here whether or not we answer the door. We are already detecting other planets from earth with our primitive technology. I'm sure they know where everything is already.

2.) Have learned to use their technology responsibly. The evidence for this would be not destroying themselves with it generations earlier. The article makes it sound like evolution means killing everything and taking all you can get. Advanced species would have realized that survival success depends on responsible co-existence with your surroundings and other species.

I think the universe operates so elegantly that no species could be nearly all powerful and simultaneously malevolent. The safety mechanism is destroying yourself if you are powerful and violent.
ubavontuba
3.5 / 5 (4) May 12, 2010
Hawking might like this, as it relates to his own black body radiation hypothesis:

I wonder if a civilization, sufficiently advanced, might simply conjure matter (and anti-matter) from the vacuum in sufficient quantity to support any purpose to which they desire?

In other words, they might simply create what they need, as they need it.

See? We can imagine anything. Why waste time imagining being scared?
nuge
4.5 / 5 (2) May 12, 2010
This debate on whether there are aliens has been going on for centuries. Who cares if some other dude comes up with an opinion? No-one is any closer to an answer and we probably won't be for millenia.
hard2grep
3 / 5 (1) May 12, 2010
I was once told that it is not how smart you are, but how well you use your resources. We should not fear whether or not they can dominate us, but whether they will.

I shure hope they are lazy...
Doug_Huffman
4 / 5 (1) May 12, 2010
Hawking's caution sounds like a fine application of the precautionary principle.

Science is a way of thought. It is better to instantly discount the opinion of a self-proclaimed 'scientist'.
frajo
2 / 5 (2) May 12, 2010
We still have an oort cloud; theyre probably content for the moment. But they would want to at least keep tabs on us, in which case they might send interactive probes for their enlightenment and our entertainment
Oh, thanks. :)
But our enlightenment doesn't stem from consuming ressources - it is generated by interactive analyses.
danlgarmstrong
5 / 5 (3) May 12, 2010
As much as I admire Hawking, I have no idea why he would be afraid that a space traveling race would want our resources. Ours is a very small planet - there are far more resources more easily available just floating around out there than down at the bottom of our gravity well.

Maybe one of these days some greedy capitalist will realize that and spend some billions to really get us out there to use those resources!
Possibilus
4 / 5 (1) May 12, 2010
It is strange that an esteemed thinker such as Hawking would assign a malevolent intent to an advanced race. It seems contradictory as our own history indicates that more advanced societies tend to become more appreciative of diversity, and more protective of less advanced cultures (not always, but generally). So, even accepting our own oscillations between civilized and barbaric cultural behavior, it is hard to imagine that any race or culture would achieve spacefaring technology without being able to achieve peacemaking behaviors.
NeptuneAD
not rated yet May 16, 2010
There may be a risk of coming across aliens with an attitude but there is risk in most things and we could benefit from any visit, sharing technology and culture would be a very rich reward indeed and in my opinion the richest, for both sides.
LivaN
not rated yet May 17, 2010
@trekgeek1
Advanced species would have realized [...] surroundings and other species.


No, an advanced species would realise the biggest threat to their survival would ultimately be themselves. Next in line would be an adequately advanced race, or a race with that potential.

What of a machine race? Will they have (it) emotions? Will it have any moral compass?

I think the universe operates [...] simultaneously malevolent.


What of a black hole moving through our solar system? Is that malevolent?

@ danlgarmstrong
Ours is a very exceptional planet that can acomidate life. Why would a space traveling race not want another home? Why should they not dissinfect out plannet and use it as a nursery?

@Possibilus
It is strange to think that an advanced race would need to have a malevolent intent, for us to be destroyed. Their very existance is variable of such magnitude that it makes perfect sense to avoid them, untill we can equal them.