Steven Hawkings and Alien Life

9 Jul

Steve Hawking and Alien Life

Recently the world renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking created a stir by saying, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.” Hawking said this in a forthcoming documentary made for the Discovery Channel. He argues that, instead of trying to find and communicate with life in the cosmos, humans would be better off doing everything they can to avoid contact.

Hawking believes that, based on the sheer number of planets that scientists know must exist, we are not the only life-form in the universe. There are, after all, billions and billions of stars in our galaxy alone, with, it is reasonable to expect, an even greater number of planets orbiting them. And it is not unreasonable to expect some of that alien life to be intelligent, and capable of interstellar communication.

However, Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI (standing for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California, the world’s leading organization searching for telltale alien signals, is not so sure. “This is an unwarranted fear,” Shostak says. “If their interest in our planet is for something valuable that our planet has to offer, there’s no particular reason to worry about them now. If they’re interested in resources, they have ways of finding rocky planets that don’t depend on whether we broadcast or not. They could have found us a billion years ago.”

Paul Davies, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University and chair of SETI’s post-detection taskforce, argues that alien brains, with their different architecture, would interpret information very differently from ours. What we think of as beautiful or friendly might come across as violent to them, or vice versa. “Lots of people think that because they would be so wise and knowledgeable, they would be peaceful,” adds Stewart. “I don’t think you can assume that. I don’t think you can put human views on to them; that’s a dangerous way of thinking. Aliens are alien. If they exist at all, we cannot assume they’re like us.”

Several more arguments by Paul Davies are proposed as to why the scenario of hostile aliens visiting earth is inaccurate and they include the following:

Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and there were stars and planets around long before the solar system even existed. Assuming intelligent life is likely, as Hawking suggests, then some alien communities would have emerged a very long time in the past. If resources are the motivating factor, then at least one group of aliens would surely have spotted Earth as a desirable destination millions of years ago, and come here when they could have had the planet for the asking, without pesky humans to complicate the takeover.

Another problem with Hawking’s picture is the sheer distances involved. The galaxy is huge by human standards. The nearest star is over four light years away -– about 25 trillion miles. Within the scientific community, even the optimists believe the nearest civilization could well be hundreds of light years away. Because nothing can travel faster than light, the Hollywood image of aliens plying the vast interstellar voids in star fleets is absurd. It’s far more likely that alien civilizations would limit contact to radio communication rather than engage in the sort of close encounters favored by movie makers.

Suppose by some fluke aliens did come to visit Earth in the near future, then comparisons with Columbus are in any case wide of the mark, and reflect the rampant anthropocentrism that pervades much speculation about alien life. Just because we go around wiping out our competitors doesn’t mean aliens would do the same. A civilization that has endured for millions of years would have overcome any aggressive tendencies, and may well have genetically engineered its species for harmonious living. Any truly bellicose alien species would either have wiped itself out long ago, or already taken over the galaxy.

Other responses were mixed in their agreement or not of Hawking’s warning.

The Journal of Cosmology 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 — which alien life forms probably exist and we are likely someday to encounter them.

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.

Another physicist wrote several years before Hawking’s warning, a different but I think much more sophisticated and reasonable hypothesis about us humans communicating with extra-terrestrials. This scientist is Wolfram Schommers. In his book ‘The Visible and the Invisible’, Schommers uses an example of a turkey as a non-human life form in a discussion on perception and world views. If we think extra-terrestrial instead of his turkey, the results are the same discussion. He writes the following: ‘Objective’ does not mean that a certain fact actually exists in (basic) reality in the form experienced by an observer (whether the observer is a turkey or a man). In what form a certain entity (e.g. a chick) exists in objective reality is something that we can principally know nothing about and make no pronouncement upon…Since however a turkey’s (alien) experiences in everyday life are fundamentally different from those of the human observer, the particular questions which a highly developed turkey (alien) brain would raise, can be expected to be fundamentally different from those of the human observer. We should not forget that experiences at the level of everyday experience are the basis of any science. …The turkey (or organism which evolved from it) will possibly know very little about ‘our’ cosmos or ‘our’ elementary particles. Accordingly it could also hardly recognize the sense of a radio telescope (SETI uses radio waves to try to communicate with extra-terrestrials) or a particle accelerator. Instead of these devices the turkey (alien) would possibly construct and manufacture devices whose deeper sense remained hidden to human observers. …We can never recognize fundamental reality, but only versions dependent on the particular biological species and system.

So what I take from this particular argument (and this is only one aspect of a much deeper analysis of matter and mind in physics) by Schommers is that an extra-terrestrial, having evolved in a very different manner than humans will have a very different brain structure, perception system, etc. and understanding of objective reality. They probably won’t have developed the same constructs or technological instruments to correspond with human ones.

Therefore, the previous anthropomorphic descriptions of possible alien motivations, world views and technologies by Hawking et al. – except Paul Davies- are in the end naïve and unsuccessful. While most astrophysicists and astronomers agree that alien life forms are likely in the vast universe, I suggest they become more sophisticated in their understanding of evolutionary biology and its effect on systems of perceiving, worldview construction and, therefore, comprehension of this mysterious cosmos of which we are a part.

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