Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hawking's Invaders

Adding to a conversation I have always found fascinating, brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking of A Brief History of Time fame (great book), in his new television program Stephen Hawking's Universe, has chimed in on intelligent life on other planets. What Hawking had to say is interesting - that contacting aliens would be dangerous, using the analogy of Christopher Columbus and the Native Americans.

His remarks initially had me scratching my head because if we indeed have the planned (by them) Independence Day style "hard encounter," we're had. Apparently Hawking is suggesting that the best preparation for this is to get ourselves out there and diversify our locations, which he is known to support. Still, I think he's up to something else.

The inevitable first encounter between civilizations almost certainly occurs when the more advanced finds the less advanced. In this circumstance, the find will occur without the latter's awareness, and if the more advanced choose to make contact, as in Contact, it will likely occur in accordance with an established protocol, which will be a very "soft encounter" unlikely to make headlines for quite some time. One would like to think that a civilization lasting long enough to develop the means for interstellar or intergalactic travel would have its act together and the means to obtain the resources it requires from far closer planets that aren't covered with soft warm bipeds and kitty cats. There's a lot of planets between us and them.

This entire conversation stays inside a certain paradigm which may or may not apply. The best break outside this box that I've encountered in film is Andrei Tarkovski's extraordinary Solyaris, slower but superior to the (also pretty good) Soderburgh Solaris.

I wonder if this segment of Hawking's program is saying more about humanity and its treatment of Earth than the aliens who may want it (and so shortly after James Cameron's Avatar). Perhaps Hawking is showing us his version of Cameron's film by suggesting that perhaps to someone out there in the deep black ocean, someone nasty like Columbus, we're the blue people.

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Blogger Sirocco said...

The problem isn't aliens needing the resources of our planet ... the problem is the need to run a galactic highway through here.

It was an interesting episode. I haven't watched the second one yet (it's on my Tivo). I agree Hawking's assessment says more about us than it perhaps does about any other species we are likely to meet, but so far we are the only example we have to draw on - and our record of dealing with technologically less sophisticated societies is less than ideal.

4/27/2010 4:18 AM  
Anonymous Observer said...

Aliens are the least of our concerns. In addition to outrageous distances, as shown by the Drake Equation, we are also separated by time. In the hundreds of millions, even billions, of years, the chances of two civilizations spanning the same 10 or 20 thousand years is miniscule. Obviously we don’t know if we’re a good sample of what happens when sentient life happens to develop, but if we’re even close, then I think 10 or 20 thousand years is about right.

We get to where we have all this technology, which gives us the ability to destroy the fragile ecosystem that sustains us, and then Republicans hand the place to corporations who torch everything in less than a century. Game over. I don’t know about December 11, 2012, but I doubt humanity has even 200 years.

Life as life is extremely resilient, but life in a particular form is very fragile. We almost nuked ourselves (and still might). We might intentionally or accidently spawn a living bio bug or a nano-electromechanical bug that proliferates exponentially and wipes us out. Then again, maybe we’ll just sauté ourselves in fossil fuels while birthers bitch about pills for grandma.

We’re going to do ourselves in long before any aliens will reach us.

4/27/2010 10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Tarkovsky film is outstanding and considered one of the best treatments of "alien" in a movie.

Obviously there's a lot of good science fiction literature as well, including the original "2001" that was both a book and a movie.

"Sphere" wasn't too bad.

Your use of "paradigm" is exactly right. This is the capital A alien conversation where the other could have evolved in a completely different circumstance, including how their consciousness formed, or even if their sentience / consciousness is like ours at all.

I tend to agree with Observer that it's not going to happen.

The asteroid scenario is another way we could be wiped out.

4/27/2010 11:53 AM  
Blogger The Navigator said...

Interesting stuff here. What I find a little odd about Hawking's statements is that I don't see us really choosing / trying to contact anyone save our radio/television transmissions, which didn't start until mid-1900s.

I completely reject the Columbus/Native American analogy for reasons similar to what is mentioned above. Columbus was a prospector deliberately seeking fortune and completely rooted in the self-righteous arrogance of European conquest.

I think the entire "resource paradigm" is obliterated at the level where they can go faster than light. They probably have a command of matter and energy that allows them to produce whatever they want.

While most may wipe themselves out, Observer, I would think that some evolve to a higher level than us (less susceptible to greed, malice, religious nonsense..) and organize sustainable systems that can last almost indefinitely. These more advanced societies would then start (as we have a little) to use science to keep improving medicine and advancing knowledge of aging to where their lifespans would increase, which would further enhance capacity for wisdom, and so on.

Like the Matthew Effect.

And here we are, stuck on a rock with teabots, birthers, and Scientologists.

4/27/2010 1:27 PM  
Anonymous Tom said...

We could also find ourselves snuffed out by a brainless tiny alien bug, like in Andromeda Strain.

Life that evolves in separate ecosystems are each potentially dangerous to the other. War of the Worlds is the threat going the other way.

4/28/2010 1:33 PM  

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