The Downside of ET Contact

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Much to the chagrin of many who eagerly await the arrival of extraterrestrials to solve the problems of Earth, astro­physicist Stephen Hawking caused considerable excitement in April by warning that, rather than seeking such con­tact, we should be trying to avoid it.

The British theoretical physicist is no stranger to the limelight. His scientific career spans over forty years. His books and public appearances have made him a kind of academic rock star. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Hawking has neuro-muscular dystrophy that is re­lated to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a condition that has progressed over the years and has left him almost completely paralyzed. He speaks only with the aid of a computer. His mind, though, remains one of the sharpest to be found in this sector of the galaxy.

It is not that Hawking thinks there is no life out there. On the contrary, he thinks that, given the odds, almost cer­tainly there is. It is just that there is, as he sees it, no telling what that life may be like, and prudence would dictate that we do what we can to stay out of its way, at least, until we know a great deal more than we do now.

Hawking’s thoughts come in a new documentary series for the Discovery Channel, Stephen Hawking’s Universe, where, as one of the planet’s leading scientists, he sets out to tackle some of the world’s really great mysteries, includ­ing space and time travel. “To my mathematical brain,” says Hawking, “the numbers alone make thinking about ali­ens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”

Most alien life, he thinks, is probably microbial or simple animals. Any intelligent, and even civilized, life may very well view Earth as a target for colonization or some other form of exploitation. He thinks the first contact with arriv­ing ETs might be very much like that of the American indians greeting European explorers. That didn’t work out very well for the indians, he reminds us. One also can’t help but recall the unfortunate experience of the cargo cults of the south Pacific during World War II. Interplanetary travelers, he points out, could very well be nomads or pirates out to raid Earth to extract its re­sources and then to move on.

If Hawking is right, then someone should warn the folks over at NASA who seem to think it would be good idea to broadcast our presence to the universe and have been attempting to do just that. And what about some politicians who have complained that Hollywood portrayals make aliens look unflatteringly threatening? For this school of thought, the politically correct treatment of aliens is considered to be more like ET than Independence Day.

Probably none of these have ever been abducted by an interplanetary spacecraft. But then, again, maybe they have. That would certainly explain a lot.

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