Don’t Talk To Strangers…Or Aliens. So Says Stephen Hawking. So Say We All!

Who's your daddy?

This blogger was innocently trying to find something interesting to watch on T.V. last night when she stumbled upon Discovery’s new special: Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. As a…fan? Nerd? Devotee? of Stephen Hawking I instantly perked up, until I realized that it was yet another excuse by Discovery to spend way too much money on hypothetical CG aliens.

However what Hawking had to say about the possible existence of alien life, and how humanity should approach it, was still interesting, despite the theoretical cartoon fish-face aliens of Discovery Channel budgeting.

Instead of ripping on Discovery anymore, I’ll just quote from the Times Online article which paraphrases Hawking:

“Alien life, he will suggest, is almost certain to exist in many other parts of the universe: not just in planets, but perhaps in the centre of stars or even floating in interplanetary space.

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.

One scene in his documentary for the Discovery Channel shows herds of two-legged herbivores browsing on an alien cliff-face where they are picked off by flying, yellow lizard-like predators. Another shows glowing fluorescent aquatic animals forming vast shoals in the oceans thought to underlie the thick ice coating Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter.

Such scenes are speculative, but Hawking uses them to lead on to a serious point: that 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 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.”

The completion of the documentary marks a triumph for Hawking, now 68, who is paralysed by motor neurone disease and has very limited powers of communication. The project took him and his producers three years, during which he insisted on rewriting large chunks of the script and checking the filming.

John Smithson, executive producer for Discovery, said: “He wanted to make a programme that was entertaining for a general audience as well as scientific and that’s a tough job, given the complexity of the ideas involved.”

Doubtless most of what’s featured on the Discovery channel special is a logical extrapolation of mathematical statistics combined with human experience. It’s still fun (and worth snarking) if you’re a space/science nerd.

As a bonus, I’ve included the Symphony of Science video featuring Hawking (and of course, his holiness Carl Sagan) describing the vast reaches of the universe:

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~ by K. Ritcheson on April 26, 2010.

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