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Should We Phone E.T.? Hawking Says No

Noted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking raised some eyebrows this past weekend when he made some statements about extraterrestrial life that were as unexpected as they were frightening.

A scientist mentioned in the same breath as Einstein, Hawking weighed in on the debate over the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in a program he helped write and produce on the Discovery Channel. Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking is airing over the next two weeks and will feature the paralyzed scientist's thoughts on aliens, time travel, and other cosmological subjects.

“To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," he says on the episode dealing with aliens. “The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”

Indeed, the emerging science of astrobiology is tasked with hypothesizing how aliens may appear to us. But it is a speculative field of inquiry, with one planetary scientist calling astrobiology "a field of natural philosophy, grounding speculation on the unknown, in known scientific theory." With a pedigree like that, the astrobiologists have a hard time being taken seriously when they stray beyond studying the chemical and physical properties that allow for life to exist.

Hawking went beyond stating his belief in intelligent life when he injected himself into the debate over passive SETI inquiry, where scientists employ radio telescopes to "listen" for signs of life, versus active SETI, which takes a more proactive approach and advocates various measures to make Earth stand out in the cosmos as a planet harboring life.

He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky.” He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

Hawking reflects the views of most SETI astronomers in this matter. But it has been a couple of decades since SETI began in earnest and scientists have nothing to show for their labors. According to David Brin, this has led to some frustration within the community and some scientists have proposed taking matters to another level by lighting the Earth up like a Christmas tree in the darkness of space and attracting the aliens' attention:

Their intention is to change the observable brightness of Earth civilization by many orders of magnitude, in order to attract attention to our planet from anyone who might be out there.

A sci-fi writer and scientist, Brin has served the SETI community in a wide variety of positions. Notably he serves on a SETI subcommittee of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) charged with developing protocols and policies regarding our SETI efforts. It was this subcommittee that came up with the very first SETI protocol ("Declaration Of Principles Concerning Activities Following The Detection Of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”) -- a great read if you are at all interested in this stuff.

Brin thinks that the active SETI proponents are being, if not irresponsible, then misguided in their efforts at this kind of interstellar outreach. In an article for Seed magazine, David Grinspoon quotes SETI pioneer John Billingham, a senior scientist at the private SETI Institute in California, as advocating that we adopt a Hippocratic Oath when it comes to reaching out to the cosmos: "First, do no harm." Billingham believes that “[a]t the very least we ought to talk about it first, and not just SETI people. We have a responsibility to the future well-being and survival of humankind.”