Don't Talk to Strangers? Stephen Hawking, Active SETI and Hostile Aliens

SETI 1Stephen Hawking may have been the only person to play himself on Star Trek, but that doesn't mean he's ready to sign Earth up for the United Federation of Planets. The world's most famous living scientist recently reiterated his warning that the search for intelligent life on other worlds could lead to a scenario not unlike the one found in a less optimistic sci-fi staple: Independence Day. The fear--resource-hungry ETs will find us easy pickings--is far from an alien concept; Hawking says his rationale is rooted in human history. Needless to say, there's been some disagreement about Hawking's conclusions, including over at Starts with a Bang! But the question of aliens' intentions belies bigger ones: where are they all, and what can we say that they could possibly understand?

And since posting The Buzz this morning, both PZ and ERV weighed in on whether extending our electronic arms into the dark will result in a handshake or a bloody stump:

SETI 2PZ also points out two other takes on the subject: those of Phil Plait, Sean Carroll. And Jill Tarter, director of the SETI Institute, has directly responded to Hawking's warning over at CNN.

This topic is a perennial favorite over at SeedMag. In addition to the question of Who speaks for Earth, we had Jill Tarter over to discuss astrobiology with game designer Will Wright as part of our Salon series, and an essay that outlines a potential solution to Fermi's Paradox: aliens are too busy amusing themselves in virtual worlds to find ours. Sound familiar?

The most astute observation on Fermi's Paradox comes from everyone's favorite anthropomorphic computer system, John Hodgman. To vouch for his scientific bona fides, I once had a brief Twitter conversation with him (on the subject of obscure lucha libre masks) and I can attest the man is a gentleman and a scholar, and one of the more talented speakers you could hope to spend twenty minutes listening to:

SETI 3In discussing these concepts with Lee Billings, I find he comes down more on Hawking side, favoring caution, and I come down more on the Star Trek side. Not so much because I think that aliens will act as our benevolent elder brothers, but because the two assumptions this debate is predicated on--aliens will detect our communications and and are capable of hurting us over the intervening gulf of space and time--necessitate a species advanced enough to make our civilization, species, and planet totally insignificant.

That doesn't preclude Lee's most compelling argument, that an even more precautionary intelligence might preemptively throw a relativistic kill vehicle at us, just in case we were on track to compete with them in a million-or-so years. But again, we're talking in time frames that dwarf anything we've ever known, so it might be more of a thought experiment than a serious debate. Speaking of which, there are great comment threads going on in all of the linked blogs, but feel free to comment on any of the Seed articles (or anything else) right here.


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