Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Circus or Zoo?

There's been some buzz lately about Stephen Hawking's comments that alien life almost certainly exists, but we should be doing everything we can to avoid it.
[A] few life forms could be intelligent and pose a threat. Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity. [...] 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.”
This of course raises the age old question, for when our alien overlords arrive:

It seems slightly ironic that Hawking's warnings come at the same time that we celebrate the Hubble Telescope's 20th anniversary - a tool whose breath-taking pictures have undoubtedly inspired many people to wonder what, and who, else is out there.

I've been watching a lot of Doctor Who lately, catching up on the new series, and re-enjoying the old. It's impossible not to revel in his awe and joy and wonder as he travels space and time unravelling mysteries and encountering new species - in a universe he knows to be full of monsters and bad guys. In that spirit, I have to side with optimism and Ethan Siegel:
But what irks me most of all is the cowardice behind a viewpoint that we shouldn't rush to meet a peer in this Universe. It would be like forgetting the best part of being human: our bravery, our sense of adventure, our will to explore, our thirst for learning and discovery, our curiosity, and our desire to experience all that existence has to offer.
And if we're swept up and forced into an intergalactic zoo, circus or worse, at least I'll get to ride in a spaceship.


Rob said...

Also it was the 50th anniversary of SETI recently. I also agree with you that contacting intelligent alien life seems more consistent with our nature. The anniversary of SETI, I think raises other questions that are perhaps more relevant. It's not too interesting to talk about whether or not to contact aliens when we can't detect them.
The most sobering explanation that I have heard to explain the lack of detectable intelligent life in the universe is that technologically advanced civilizations capable of detection exist only for short periods of time. Negative results of SETI may therefore unexpectedly serve as a warning about our future.
I enjoy thinking about this stuff. It's cool that Dr. Hawking also thinks about these types of questions.

Kamel said...

Re: SETI, one possibility is that everybody else is just listening too.

Plus, if we're willing to anthropomorphize alien life and imagine they'd treat us the way colonists treated Native Americans (or other examples from human history) then why shouldn't we also suppose that they might also have the same fears about reaching out? But I agree, the combination of interstellar distances and potentially short civilization existence is probably a better explanation. They are cool things to think about.

On the subject of listening vs. active broadcasting, this is a pretty interesting article about Active SETI. Some of it is a bit heavy on the planetary security mindset, and in the end I still come down on the side of adventure and inquisition, but it does raise some interesting questions.

Anonymous Coward said...

Here is my take on it:

1- Even if life is abundant, it takes a long time to evolve a civilization (it took us 3.5BY), and our universe is relatively young.
2- Distances are far too great and the speed of light far too limiting to allow any true contact between 2 distant civilizations.
3- Any rational agent would not expect to ever hear a message back, in fact you can assume that if you detect a message the civilization is probably already extinct, and so there is no incentive to broadcast a message.