Keep quiet… there might be aliens listening

Stephen Hawking’s warning to avoid contact with extra-terrestrial life reveals his pessimism towards humanity.

Stephen Bremner

Topics Science & Tech

Oh dear. It is always sad when someone who is associated with innovative thinking, as theoretical physicist and mega-selling author Stephen Hawking undoubtedly is, loses the plot. Yet Hawking, if his recent pronouncements are anything to go by, seems to have done just that. In a new documentary series for the Discovery channel, in which he discusses whether we should try to make contact with extra-terrestrial life, Hawking shows that he has succumbed to the fashion for excessive caution and misanthropy.

During the documentary, Hawking issues a series of dire warnings about the possible consequences of humanity trying to contact alien life and concludes that trying to do so is ‘a little too risky’. He reaches this conclusion on the basis of an entirely negative and pessimistic interpretation of humanity’s development: ‘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.’

Hawking’s image of aliens in huge ships fleeing their own devastated planets is clearly inspired by his own views on why humans might need to explore space. Back in 2006, he argued that humans may have to ‘spread out into space’ to escape the many threats to life on Earth (see Hawking, we have a problem, by Joe Kaplinsky). Presumably, then, we’ll need to do this while staying well below the radar of other lifeforms.

It is clear that Hawking is influenced more by the spirit of the age than actual evidence. His comments reflect the popular view that humanity is, far from being something to celebrate, more like a destructive plague. Take, for example, his aside on the development of America: ‘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’. American history is reduced one-sidedly to the abuse of Native Americans with the assumption that history could only ever repeat itself. This is not the kind of rational scientific thought with which Hawking is associated, but the irrational anti-humanism that pervades the modern era.

Hawking even reproduces the modern fear of large-scale technological projects by suggesting that aliens might have ‘massive ships’, as if large-scale technology is something that we should automatically be afraid of. It is clear that, with regards to space exploration, Hawking’s views represent a retreat from a ‘can-do’ spirit of exploration.

Sadly, he is not alone in his views. Although not as totally fearful as Hawking, Lord Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, warned in a lecture earlier this year that aliens might prove to be beyond human understanding: ‘I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive… Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains.’ For Rees, therefore, aliens may not be actively dangerous – humans will simply be too dim to comprehend them.

Environmentalists, whose ideas are rooted in a diminished view of humanity, embrace such thinking. As the Guardian’s Leo Hickman commented: ‘I’m with Stephen Hawking on this one. Even if we were to show them we can calculate pi to a billion decimal places, aliens are bound to be trigger happy when they meet us for the first time. And given our past form, who would blame them?’ Hickman also endorses the precautionary principle when it comes to METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) projects, which transmit radio messages into the cosmos hoping to make contact and communicate with alien life, claiming that it is sensible to develop rules to regulate potential communication with extraterrestrial life.

The danger of these fearful arguments should be clear. If humanity really were to adopt this cowed attitude, then we would have abandoned the spirit of adventure and exploration that has characterised much of human history, as symbolised by the Apollo missions in the Sixties and Seventies. We will, instead, be hiding ourselves away from imagined dangers for ever.

Hawking may be right; there may be great danger lurking in the depths of space. There is currently no way of knowing. Rather than speculate about unknown dangers, however, it would be wise to act on what we actually know and leave the creation of imaginary deep-space monsters to Hollywood. His precautionary outlook would not only hold back space exploration. If adopted wholescale, such a view would stunt human ambition, drive and creativity in the here and now, while denting faith in the human potential to overcome barriers and difficulties, no matter what they might be.

A more positive view of our relationship to the cosmos came from Giancarlo Ghirardi, a physicist at the University of Trieste in Italy. Ghirardi questioned why intelligent aliens should have any negative intentions toward earthlings at all. Responding to Hawking in the Journal of Cosmology Ghirardi wrote: ‘If Hawking’s aliens are anything like humans, then I am optimistic, in a certain sense, that their scientific development should be accompanied also by an ethical development, and (they) might value life.’

This is still a somewhat tentative endorsement of space exploration, but it has the virtue, at least, of seeing something positive in humanity. Sadly, Hawking – one of the most high-profile thinkers of his generation – seems to have given up on his fellow man.

Stephen Bremner is a writer and teacher based in London.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen argued that backward attitudes have tainted our view of lunar exploration. He also looked back on the launch of Sputnik, and with it, the beginning of US self-doubt. Henry Joy McCracken reckoned that there should be more to space travel than delivering groceries to the international space station. He also advocated a a mission to Mars. And in 1997 he wondered why we still haven’t walked on Mars?  Joe Kaplinsky criticised Stephen Hawking for his fear-mongering defence of space travel. Or read more at spiked issue Science and technology.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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