April 30, 2010
Recently Stephen Hawking said that humans should stop sending signals out into space because we run the risk of letting aliens know we’re here. According to Hawking it could be very bad if aliens find us, and he compared it to Europeans discovering Native Americans. He’s making that sound like a bad thing, but, hey, the Europeans did bring some cool things like syphilis, smallpox, and horses, so aliens could potentially do something similar, except alien horses are called xnybqis, which roughly translates as "annual gift man who lives on the moon". I have to say I really do respect Stephen Hawking. For one thing I’m sure those Daleks he’s been working on will end the Thal menace once and for all, but that’s another story. For another thing when he was at Oxford – this is absolutely true – he’s admitted that he was so uninterested in what they were making him study that he told his professors that if they gave him the highest grade he’d leave to go study at Cambridge and if they gave him the second highest grade he’d stay at Oxford. So naturally they gave him the highest grade.
I once did something similar: I managed to pass sixth grade math by telling the teacher that if she flunked me I’d just come back the next year. Sometimes I imagine his old Oxford professors getting sloppy drunk. One of them says, "Dude, we let Stephen Hawking go." And the other one says, "He was such a slacker then. How could we know he was gonna write bestselling books and play poker with Data and Einstein on the Enterprise holodeck? And stop calling me ‘dude’. We’re both in our nineties."
If I could ask Stephen Hawking one question, though, it would be, "What led you to the conclusion that aliens are a threat? And show your work." I have to include "show your work" because, even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t just leap to this conclusion, I would like to know how he arrived at it. I imagine Stephen Hawking could, if he were so inclined, be like the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann who could do incredibly complicated calculus in his head. Except that Hawking knows how and when to explain complicated concepts, whereas Boltzmann had no clue that most other people couldn’t do calculus in their heads. Heck, some of us couldn’t do calculus if we had paper, a pencil, a textbook, and Sir Isaac Newton for a tutor. Boltzmann’s students begged him to write his equations on the blackboard because they couldn’t follow him, and once he rattled off a complex equation and said, "It’s as simple as 2+2=4." Then he remembered what his students had asked him and turned around and wrote "2+2=4" on the blackboard. I’ve told that story partly because I think it’s hilarious and partly to make that point that even though I think Stephen Hawking is at least as smart as Boltzmann, extremely smart people can sometimes do or say some really dumb things.
I think Hawking may be completely wrong about aliens, which is the reason I’d want him to show his work, even though it may consist of some complex calculations that I won’t understand. I wouldn’t be asking for the reason my teachers always asked me to show my work, which was because they figured having to write down how I’d come to a conclusion would give them time to pop down to the teacher’s lounge for a smoke and maybe a couple of drinks. That was almost as bad as the yes-or-no questions that always came at the end of chapters in textbooks, questions like, "Do you think Rodrigo should have gone into the cave? Explain." That one word – "Explain" said so much. And what it always said was, "The people who wrote this textbook were too lazy to come up with a serious question, so we had to tack on something to keep you busy long enough for your teacher to pop down to the teacher’s lounge."
The real problem I have with Hawking’s assumption that aliens are going to come and put an interstellar smackdown on us, though, is that, as far as I know, we really don’t know what aliens are like or what they’re capable of. I think Hawking is right when he says the universe might be teeming with life, and that that life probably takes some very strange and unrecognizable shapes. If he’s smart enough to have figured that out, though, he should be smart enough to realize that if aliens are capable of advanced interstellar travel they’re probably already aware of us. And if they’re not aware of us they’ve probably already scanned this solar system and discovered that there’s a nice rocky little planet full of water and silicon and heavy metals and Viagra and whatever else they might need to continue their galactic cruise. And if their technology is that advanced then everything we have is theirs for the taking. It would be nice if we could meet aliens with whom we could shake hands, tentacles, or fins and say "Klaatu barada necktie!" but I’m not as smart as Stephen Hawking, which is why I have to say he might be right. I hope someday we’ll meet aliens on friendly terms, but I realize the universe is a cold, hostile place. That’s why, on nights when I look out and see the moon cut into pieces by the spreading branches of a tree, I wonder what is out there and I am afraid.