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.”

And that’s the bottom line. Hawking, Brin, Billingham and others in the passive SETI community are upset that the active SETI proponents are refusing to even discuss their plans either at meetings or in the more formal setting of the IAA. They are dismissive of concerns about the nature of extra-solar intelligence and whether, as Hawking speculates, it may be hostile.

Incredibly, the major resistance to discussing the issue is coming is coming from a small group of Russian scientists who believe that it is perfectly logical to assume aliens would be benign due to their adherence to “universal altruism”:

In Russia, the pro-METI [Messages to Extraterrestrial Intelligence] consensus is apparently founded upon a quaint doctrine from the 1930s maintaining that all advanced civilizations must naturally and automatically be both altruistic and socialist. This Soviet Era dogma — now stripped of socialist or Lysenkoist imagery — still insists that technologically adept aliens can only be motivated by Universal Altruism (UA).


The Russian METI group, among the most eager to practice active SETI, dismisses any other notion as childish “science fiction.”

One Russian scientist in particular has become identified with METI. Alexander Zaitsev, chief scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, has made a name for himself at international SETI conferences with his passionate advocacy for beaming messages into the void. At a UN-IAA sponsored event in 2008 in Paris that brought together both active and passive SETI researchers and enthusiasts, Zaitsev labeled concerns about evil aliens “superstition.” He has been beaming messages from his array for several years, believing that the effort is “part science, part artistic endeavor.”

In any other context, Dr. Zaitsev’s efforts may seem whimsical. But as Stephen Hawking points out, the potential for catastrophe in making contact with an alien civilization — no matter how small the odds — deserves at least a thorough discussion before any major effort is undertaken.

The question isn’t so much: are there evil alien monsters out there bent on death and destruction of any planet luckless enough to come to its attention? The question is: why take the chance?

Should it be our position that all alien races are benign and would mean us no harm? That position could be dangerous not just because aliens might be hostile. They may have the best of intentions. As Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, points out in his book The Third Chimpanzee, any contact with an alien race is likely to resemble the contact made here on earth between advanced civilizations and primitive ones to the catastrophic detriment of the primitives. It may be best that until we have reached a level of technology more equal to our neighbors, we remain passive observers of their civilization.


This is Hawking’s position and it has come under some criticism, most notably for its reliance on an anthropomorphic view of aliens. Some astrobiologists have speculated that we might not even recognize alien intelligence as life because it would be so different from anything we are familiar with. Others posit the idea that such advanced civilizations could easily remain invisible to our backward efforts at detecting them.

There doesn’t seem to be any potential meeting of the minds between the active and passive SETI camps anytime soon. Indeed, it might be a moot point sooner than we can imagine. How long will it be before active SETI enthusiasts will be able to buy their own powerful dishes and start sending messages out into space? By mid-century, there could be hundreds of thousands of these private, individual efforts to shake hands with aliens.

Given the consequences if they’re wrong, we can only hope that any intelligent life that becomes aware of us will share at least some of the values and morals our species holds dear.


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