I’m a little surprised at the vehemence of some of the negative reactions to Stephen Hawking’s comments about aliens. Not so much in blogdom– Ethan’s response is pretty reasonable, for example– but there was a flurry of Twitter traffic yesterday of the form “Where does Stephen Hawking get off pontificating about aliens?” which strikes me as kind of silly.
As all the news stories point out, Hawking’s comments were made in the context of a Discovery channel series based on filming Stephen Hawking pontificating about stuff. And, really, if the Discovery Channel called me up and offered to film me holding forth on whatever damn fool thing I felt like talking about, it’s not like a lack of relevant professional expertise would stop me. I mean, look at the archives of this blog… (Next on Discovery: Uncertain Principles: The Series… It could work, guys. Call me.)
And despite the numerous attempts to paint this as just “Hawking thinks aliens are all bug-eyed monsters,” his position doesn’t need man-eating space bugs to be reasonable. Even contact with the sort of benevolent aliens that are a staple of a certain class of SF could be really wrenching. The “Columbus meeting Indians” example is really unfortunate as it’s too loaded, but even historical examples that didn’t result in subjugation and exploitation of the lower-technology society show serious consequences. Look at Commodore Perry and the Black Ships, for example– Japan never got stomped on in a colonial manner, but that first contact set in motion of chain of events that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate, led to wrenching changes in Japanese culture and society, and set them on the course that led to WWII and the utter devastation of their country.
Contact with any alien civilization capable of reaching us would be a dramatic change, and might very well involve things getting worse before they get better. History shows lots of examples of major societal disruption brought about by the discovery of new technologies here on Earth– imagine what would happen if we instantly got access to alien technology vastly beyond our own. Things could get really messy.
This is an issue that is sometimes dealt with in SF– the only examples that come immediately to mind are John Barnes’s A Million Open Doors (Jo’s review doesn’t emphasize it, but that’s the aspect I remember from that book), and there’s kind of a gonzo variant in Charlie Stross’s Singularity Sky. I’m sure people will suggest a half-dozen other books on the subject in comments.
So, in the end, I’m probably with Sean on this one. I think the faith Ethan and Paul Davies have in the ultimate benevolence of aliens is charming, but probably a bit naive, but it doesn’t require the aliens to be monsters or imperialists for contact with them to be problematic in the short term. It’s probably prudent to not make any more noise than we already do.
(On the other hand, if Hawking really does base this on a “used up resources” argument, as Davies says, that’s just silly. Any civilization capable of traveling interstellar distances at sub-light speeds doesn’t need Earth’s resources to survive. And if we’re going to allow magic FTL drives, we might as well go ahead and posit the magic ability to create breathable air out of vacuum energy and pixie dust.)