In 2010 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. The Europeans did bring syphilis and smallpox, but they also brought horses, so aliens could potentially do something similar.
I really do respect Stephen Hawking and I don’t think he offered up his opinion lightly. He has a history of carefully thinking things through. When he was at Oxford-–this is absolutely true-–he was a lazy and unmotivated student but told his professors that if they gave him a first he’d leave to go study at Cambridge and if they gave him a second he’d stay at Oxford. So naturally they gave him a first.
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, but that’s another story. 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 think Hawking may be completely wrong about aliens, but it’s an interesting question to debate, and I credit Hawking with making me think about my own position.
The problem I have with the assumption that aliens are going to come and put an interstellar smackdown on us if we let them know we’re here is that, as far as I know, we really don’t know what aliens are like or what their interests are. I think Hawking was right when he said the universe is likely teeming with life, and given how diverse life is just on this planet whatever forms that life takes are likely very strange, even unrecognizable. 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 whether we advertise our sentience or not. That’s also why I admit that Hawking may be right. I hope someday we’ll meet aliens on friendly terms, but the universe is a cold, hostile place. Some 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.
Hail and farewell Stephen Hawking.