Life at the SETI Institute

“Hawking Hawking”

By Dr. Mark R. Showalter
Planetary astronomer at the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, SETI Institute

It was just a few months ago that Stephen Hawking was making headlines with his bold assertion that extraterrestrial beings, if they exist, are best avoided. His argument was based in part upon the fact that the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the “New World” didn’t work out so well for the Native Americans who were already here. However, upon closer inspection, Hawking’s ideas fell apart. Even if nomadic tribes of ETs are really out there looking for a handy source of protein, the probability that they would crave Earth’s particular blend of amino acids is essentially nil. If they are just looking for energy, then our own meager Sun is an unlikely pit-stop. And besides, we cannot exactly hide from them; I Love Lucy re-runs have already been propagating outward through the Universe for 59 years.

I work at the SETI Institute, which is surely Ground Zero in the flight plan of those hungry extraterrestrials. Nevertheless, I take great comfort in Stephen Hawking’s words. Not because I believe them—far from it, in this case—but because they provide a welcome reminder that even profoundly brilliant people can have really silly ideas. Especially when they veer out of their own fields of expertise.

Stephen Hawking has been in the news again recently. His latest book, The Grand Design, is a brief and (relatively) readable treatise about the M-theory. What the “M” stands for is under debate, but this is a description of recent ideas about how the Universe came to exist. For Dr. Hawking to present the latest ideas from the most advanced fields of modern physics in such a readable form is remarkable. He and his co-author, Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, rightfully deserve our praise for making such difficult material so accessible.

However, the M-theory itself is not what is making the news. As an astronomer, I can only dream of a day when scientific ideas would reach the headlines based upon their own merit. Instead, the news reports center around Hawking’s most provocative assertions, which are that Philosophy is obsolete and that God is unnecessary.

I’m just a rings guy. I study the dynamics of planetary systems. The laws of physics that arise in my day-to-day research harken back to Newton, not even Einstein. If you want to know the latest news from Jupiter or Uranus, I’m your guy, but black holes and the Origin of the Known Universe? Not so much. Astrophysicists sometimes deride us planetary astronomers as the ones who merely study “rocks.” So perhaps I should heed my own advice and not veer out of my own field of expertise.

(Perhaps this is also a good time for me to note that I am speaking for myself, not the SETI Institute or any of its diverse research scientists.)

Think back for a moment to recent history. It is February 2002, the war in Iraq is raging, and Donald Rumsfeld is Secretary of State. In a speech, he describes the situation there as one involving “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” For this painful contortion of the English Language, Rumsfeld is excoriated by the press. With so many lives at stake, no wonder. However, as a scientist, I understood exactly what Rumsfeld meant. Many times during my career as an astronomer have I seen the most elegant scientific explanation collapse, not because the math was wrong, but because a theorist overlooked one obscure physical process that rendered the whole exercise irrelevant. I could cite many examples of these unknown unknowns. I have been on the losing end of several such scientific debates myself; it is a humbling place to be.

This brings me back to Dr. Hawking. It would be silly for me to challenge him on the subtleties of the latest version of M-theory. If our Universe is but one of an infinitude within the broader “Multiverse,” so be it. If the Universe exists merely because “nothing” and/or the laws of gravity require it, fine. Nevertheless, one of the things I have learned from my studies of rocks is that even painfully simple Newtonian physics continues to hold surprises. We should never be too bold in our claims when we live in a Universe (let alone a Multiverse) where the unknown unknowns abound. How lucky we are that they do.

Comments

  1. #1 Dan
    September 14, 2010

    Carl Sagan would certainly disagree with Dr. Hawking about any concerns of alien aggression too. I don’t have my copy of Cosmos in front of me, but from what I remember Sagan’s argument was that:
    1) Any alien species able to find us is no doubt experienced in living peacefully with other alien species or they wouldn’t have got this far, and
    2) If they are indeed hostile then there’s no need to worry either… if their technologies are advanced enough to get them to us, then their weapons would be far too powerful for us to stand any chance of fending them off (i.e. don’t worry, because there would be nothing you could do to prevent it).

  2. #2 Douglas Watts
    September 14, 2010

    His argument was based in part upon the fact that the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the “New World” didn’t work out so well for the Native Americans who were already here. However, upon closer inspection, Hawking’s ideas fell apart.

    Given that you don’t even attempt to factually rebut Hawkings’ claim, your assertion that his is groundless is … well …

    Hawking’s argument is based solidly upon every factual aspect of every life form which exists on Earth, especially homo sapiens. The least you could do is offer a cogent counter-argument.

  3. #3 Jose Garcia
    September 15, 2010

    “The least you could do is offer a cogent counter-argument.”

    He posits severals, not the least of which is the fact that we have already advertised our location 60 years ago.

    In any case I think it’s a bit of a reach to expect ETs to behave like 16th century Europeans. Even we don’t behave like that anymore.

  4. #4 frog
    September 15, 2010

    Yeah — Hawking’s says (blinks?) some stupid things outside his field from time to time. An alien invasion wouldn’t be at all analogous to European colonialism per se.

    On the other hand, it could be highly analogous to our current ecological catastrophe. It’s much more reasonable to assert that the aliens will build a hyperspace bypass through the earth complete unaware and uncaring about our existence. I wouldn’t worry about them coming to get us because we send out messages — I’d worry more about Horton Hears a Who situations developing.

    On the gripping hand, his statement regarding Big Brother — it’s simply a restatement of Laplace’s ‘Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la’ It’s not at all arrogant to take that position — it’s the sleazily ambiguous “we can just throw that in this corner to satisfy some of the heathen” that is terribly arrogant.

  5. #5 g724
    September 15, 2010

    Mark-

    I’ll stick my neck out and say I disagree with Hawking about ET and agree with him about God, as follows:

    1) ET: I’ll call this “the Warm Fuzzy ET Hypothesis” (to be deliberately provocative:-)

    In order for ETs to reach us, they will have to develop and carry out a successful interstellar space program. Assuming that the laws of physics are uniform at least throughout our local universe, and assuming an absence of “magic” (technology that violates our known laws of physics) this necessarily means that they will have had to work at it for the equivalent of thousands of our years. In order to do that, the following things will necessarily have to be true:

    One, they will have to overcome their own crises of sustainability in order for their civilization to last long enough to do the job. This means overcoming the twin perils of overpopulation and overconsumption. Having done so, they will not be in the position to have a rapacious need for new planets and resources to colonize and exploit.

    Two, they will have overcome their own crises of conflict: wars. An interstellar effort requires the development of science and technology over an extended period of time: these are assets that are easily sacrificed and/or destroyed in war. If you have wars, you don’t have the resources to devote to big science over long timeframes, and you end up destroying scientific assets, so you never get out of your own star system (arguably, you never get off your home planet). Thus, to go interstellar, they will have lost the trait of warlike aggression (though they might and probably would retain purely defensive capabilities given the potential risks of encountering a hostile planetary civilization).

    Three, they will have had freedom of scientific inquiry over the span of time needed to develop the base of theory and technology needed to do the job. It is more likely that freedom of scientific inquiry occurs within a culture that values freedom of thought and belief in other respects as well, rather than in a culture that carves out science as its only (or one of few) exception(s) to a general practice of despotism. So it’s unlikely that they will be space-nazis.

    Further, whatever technology they use to reach us, will have to depend on the use of nonliving space-objects as sources of raw materials and energy: so Earth with its lovely ecosystems provides no greater benefit in that regard than any asteroid nearby that doesn’t have natives to fight back.

    And last but not least, if you have the technology to cross interstellar space, you have no need of the highly unreliable form of labor known as slavery.

    So for those reasons, I say not only would they “come in peace,” they will most likely regard us as dangerous barbarians to be observed from a distance but not interacted with too closely. By analogy, humans, despite their technology, also seek to avoid interacting too closely with animals that are known to be dangerous, even as we study them.

    If I were ET pondering how to run an ambitious space program, I wouldn’t start isn’t with live-crewed missions, but with robotic devices that could send data back via a mesh network. And as a matter of fact I think the option of “lots of cheap drones acting as a mesh network” could be useful for our own exploration of the outer planets. But that’s a different item for another day.

    (I’ll take up Hawking in my next posting.)

  6. #6 g724
    September 15, 2010

    Part 2: agreeing with Hawking about God.

    The way I read Hawking’s point is that one can develop a theory of the universe and its origins, that does not require a deity as a first cause or underlying cause.

    This should not be surprising, because science typically seeks to avoid setting foot into theological territory (and wouldn’t it be nice if the reverse was also true:-).

    But I want to spell out why science can’t do theology, just to make this clear:

    Any entity having the capacities of omniscience and omnipotence that are central to the definition of God, can confound any experiment performed to test its existence. For that reason, no such experiment can be valid. Therefore the question of the existence of a deity will always remain outside the scope of science. And although reasoning by inference may be permissible, it really does not get us anywhere in the complete absence of empirical findings.

    For example imagine a hypothetical God Detector with a green light for “God detected,” and a red light for “No God detected.” Now imagine a hypothetical deity looking in on the humans building the device. God looks down and says “Oh, those silly humans, look what they’re up to! I don’t think I want to play along just yet, they need to get a bit wiser first.” So God goes and hides while the humans flip the switch on their machine and await the results.

    The machine registers No God, and God as a chuckle over it.

    And since science can’t confirm or even support the existence of God, science deliberately chooses to not “go there,” and sticks to explanations based on observables.

    This may mean that we forego certain conveniences and admit limits to our knowledge: For example “what caused the Big Bang?” implies a preceding state of affairs with causality, and since we can’t get back beyond the first infinitesimal fraction of a second, we stand there pausing and puzzling. It would be most convenient if we could posit a black box wherein resided a deity, who could act as first cause: but we can’t do that because we can’t empirically determine whether or not such a deity exists in the first place!

    I’ll gladly take a pause and a puzzle over an overweening certainty, any day of the week.

    And those of conventional faith shouldn’t be offended by Hawking, since they too can find comfort in the thought that science can’t “go there.” A deity may not be necessary to a scientific theory of the origins and operations of the universe, but faith should not need to rest upon necessity.

    Re. Newtonian astronomy: one can find Einstein’s “sense of the mystical” (don’t misinterpret that phrase: Einstein was also basically an atheist in any conventional sense) in contemplating the beautiful precision of Newtonian clockwork, just as one can find it in contemplating quantum paradoxes. There is something truly awe-inspiring in the fact that we can launch an object toward the outer planets, and know to within approximately a half hour and a small increment of the measurement of a sphere, exactly when it will arrive and where it will first approach the planet that is its first destination.

    One doesn’t have to “believe in” physics (whether classical or quantum) in order for it to work. And there’s beauty in that fact as well.

  7. #7 Ron Krumpos
    September 15, 2010

    In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that the M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate and later abandoned. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

    In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

    E=mc², Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

  8. #8 AE
    September 15, 2010

    Just FYI regarding the “known unknows,” Mr. Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense, not State, in the Bush administration, the comment was made at a press conference not in a speech, and the United States did not invade Iraq until March, 2003. But it is an interesting concept.

  9. #9 Keith Cook
    September 15, 2010

    Eloquent as some of the above comments are, when it comes to ET’s one could speculate, formulate, procrastinate and over debate as much as one likes but the fact remains alien life is an ‘known unknown’ and will remain so until proven otherwise. I’m not holding my breath… this is not dissimilar too the god, no god debate.
    As a Darwinian the god debate is not an issue it’s a distraction so bash away all you like.. but the alien question, are we all alone in the universe? bad arse or good guys? the question have been asked… now we wait.

  10. #10 smb12321
    September 17, 2010

    If I actually believed other intelligent species existed I would lean toward Hawking’s views. But after a lifetime during which I examined both sides, I’ve sadly concluded that the conditions for the rise of intelligence are quite singular. (“RARE EARTH” makes a cogent argument for our uniqueness.)

    As for speaking outside his domain, this is more the rule than the exception. Mathematicians hold forth on climate change, cosmologists argue economics, biologists lecture us on religion or worse, Hollywood idiots blather about a host of subjects without experience or knowledge. We all think we are experts.

  11. #11 tao4now
    September 24, 2010

    In support of Hawking’s stance, I’d like to advance two simple postulates: 1) Where c cannot be exceeded, all resources are necessarily finite; and 2) “The thing about aliens is, they’re alien.”

    As has been shown elsewhere, all other things being equal, organisms dedicating 100% of resources into resource acquisition will always outcompete other organisms.

    It wouldn’t take whiz-bang tech to send out self-replicating probes, and eventually put a presence in every system in the galaxy, just some resources and a great deal of patience. We ourselves might be able to launch such as probe with existing tech.

    If others have already done so, and there’s no in-built failsafe to bypass inhabited systems, or such failsafes don’t identify us as inhabitants, we could be outcompeted in our own system. We might never see it coming until it was way too late.

    The originating species might even be long dead. It wouldn’t matter. It would be the nanotechnological “grey goo” problem, writ large.

    Perhaps the Fermi Paradox and the fact that the vast majority of the mass-energy of the universe is virtually unknown to us are strongly correlated. We could be swimming in alien life and never know it, locked as we are away from perceptions of dark matter/energy.

    t4n

  12. #12 Adam
    September 26, 2010

    While largely in agreement with Mark’s elegant and eloquent post, I would like to carry on with his logic a little further.

    Aliens capable of interstellar voyage and reaching earth from distant galaxies (so distant in fact that they have still eluded observation from earth) would almost certainly not reveal their arrival to us for – well grounded – fear of disturbing the natural evolutionary curve in progress on earth. I cannot imagine any good for mankind coming from the realisation that a powerful and technologically superior alien race has just landed in Manhattan.

    On the other hand should they come with ill-disposed intentions for any number of reasons, the advanced technology at their disposal to cause us harm does almost certainly not require for them to reveal themselves before they decide hitting us.

    Therefore I propose the following conclusions:
    1. Benevolant or neutral aliens may well be here and observing us for a time now;
    2. We will never see coming malevolent aliens;
    2. For these reasons in case we see an alien spaceship howering above the Statute of Liberty it is certainly not of ET origin. The sensible thing to do therefore is to run for your life.

  13. #13 priyanka singh
    October 18, 2010

    can u say what is black hole?

    its does not define any thing black hole mean a place where all matter are shrink but it can be define in another way still mr. Hawkins can’t define it so at last he called black hole

  14. #14 md
    November 10, 2010

    I agree that the author should further explain why “Hawking’s ideas fell apart”

    Amino acids are only a small part of Earth, they could want/need many other resources including water for their fusion reactors! And if we get in their we would most likely be swatted like flies. I fully support Hawking in saying that an encounter could prove to be a disaster for mankind

  15. #15 AlooParota
    February 5, 2011

    I think in a way you may have taken Hawkings out of context here. He certainly does advise caution when making contact with aliens- we do not have a planetary defence system, nor are all countries cooperative with each other (as much as we’d like), we’d be no match for those hostile aliens!

    Humans still wallow in superstition, we have proselytising ideologies which justify (and people use to justify) atrocities against one another. Many humans see other humans not of the same “tribe” as animals. How would we know if aliens do not possess these problems too? How do we know if these aliens don’t want to spread THEIR life whilst vanquishing others as we have done? Intelligence doesn’t guarantee being peaceful. Earthlike planets aren’t too common, and those who’d want galactic domination (seriously, if we have nutters who want GLOBAL domination, what’s to stop those nutters from continuing to GALACTIC domination), Earth would just be another planet in its target sites.

  16. #16 eskort
    March 31, 2011

    I agree that the author should further explain why “Hawking’s ideas fell aprart”

    Amino acids are only a small part of Earth, they could want/need many other resources including water for their fusion reactorrs! And if we get in their we would most likely be swatted like flies. I fully support Hawking in saying that an encounter couldr prove to be a disaster for mankindde

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