Sunday, April 25, 2010

Taking "Excess Risks"

Nope... this isn't about Wall Street banks. This is about a worry by Stephen Hawking. From a Times article:
THE aliens are out there and Earth had better watch out, at least according to Stephen Hawking. He has suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist — but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact.


Hawking’s logic on aliens is, for him, unusually simple. The universe, he points out, has 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. In such a big place, Earth is unlikely to be the only planet where life has evolved.

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

The answer, he suggests, is that most of it will be the equivalent of microbes or simple animals — the sort of life that has dominated Earth for most of its history.


Such scenes are speculative, but Hawking uses them to lead on to a serious point: that a few life forms could be intelligent and pose a threat. Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity.


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.”
I'm not going to lose any sleep over this latest "the sky is falling!" doomsday scenario. I've learned over the years that it is a big waste of time to take them seriously.

Am I being foolish? I don't think so. One of the reasons we have governments is to plan for us and look out for our welfare. If there are real risks that rise about the "goosebumps in the night" scare story around an open fire, then I expect the government to undertake steps to deal with the risk without mobilizing fear. In a really dangerous situation the last thing you want is for people to panic or be frozen by fear. So fearmongering is the last thing you want for really serious "big risks".

Consequently, if any government think tank seriously thought that we needed to fear "alerting aliens" then they would have quietly gone about issuing the necessary regulations to reduce our "electromagnetic footprint". They would have done this without setting off panic. The fact that they haven't says to me that the consensus among experts is that Hawking is off his rocker on this one.

Since SETI has done a fair amount of searching with no success, I would say the odds of "advanced" alien life in our galaxy is pretty low. If some exists in another galaxy, then given science as we know it, they could never reach us. Even advanced life in our own galaxy would be hard pressed to "come visit". The distances are, well, astronomical! At best we might hope to hold long distance conversations with hundreds and thousands of years between our sending and their receiving, and the equivalent delay in getting their response back to us. In my mind that isn't a "conversation".

Nope... there isn't any real chance that aliens will be dropping by for a chat. We are going to have to amuse ourselves for as long as we exist, and I would suggest that isn't going to be that long. Evolution teaches us that species are malleable. I wouldn't give high hopes for seeing a human like us in 2 million years on earth. In fact, given the way technology is going, I wouldn't even give you much of a chance that a recognizable human will be around 2 or 3 hundred years from now. That means the only "alien" in our future will be our own progeny!

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