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An alien ate Stephen Hawking

by Phil Plait, Apr 28 2010

Apparently Stephen Hawking read my book, but not very carefully, because he thinks aliens will come here ala "Independence Day"* and eat up all our resources and move on.

I disagree with him. I think in fact it’s more likely that an aggressive alien race would create self-replicating robot probes that will disperse through the galaxy and destroy all life that way.

But more likely still doesn’t equate to likely. I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a few days, in fact, and I suspect a likely answer to Fermi’s Paradox — "Where are they?" — is simply that intelligent life that is capable of interstellar flight doesn’t last long enough to colonize other stars. That would neatly explain why, if stars with planets are common (which we know is almost certainly true), and the conditions for life to arise are relatively common (again, that seems very likely), the galaxy isn’t overrun with life. It should be by now; it’s had billions of years to have space-faring races evolve and colonize the whole shebang.

So in reality, Hawking’s idea and the one I go over in my book are probably wrong. But I’m an optimist, and I can hope that the reason the galaxy isn’t softly humming with life (that’s Carl Sagan’s poetic phrase) is that we’re the first, or at least the first in a while. That would mean we still get our chance. It’s a big responsibility, really.

And to be clear, that’s not snark, even if this post started out a bit snarky. I’m serious. We may be utterly, entirely alone in a galaxy filled with planets that outnumber people on our own planet 50 to 1. That idea gives me the creeps more than the idea of hostile aliens bent on sterilizing each of those planets. But at least it gives us a good chance to spread and see the place a bit. I’d like to think that in a hundred generations, this arm of the Milky Way will boast a thousand human planets. It’s a nice thought.

Originally posted on the Bad Astronomy Blog.




*A movie I liked and about which I am unapologetic.

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58 Responses to “An alien ate Stephen Hawking”

  1. gski says:

    Perhaps interstellar travel is so difficult and expensive that no planet can support the population needed to carry out the project.

    • Beatrice Honningforth says:

      Good one, didn’t see that one before. Other possibilities:
      - Civilisations just don’t spread that rapidly, possibly because of logistical issues or sheer distance.
      - Nuclear technology is prerequisite for interstellar travel but usually leads to a nuclear holocaust.
      - Civilisations tend to think it isn’t worth it and stick to space stations, possibly to stay connected to their culture or because it’s cheaper.
      - There are a lot less civilisations in the universe than we think for some reason.
      - Most of the time insufficient intelligence evolves to pull it off.
      - Most advanced civilised aliens prefer to ‘migrate’ to virtual worlds instead.
      Just to name some possibilities.

  2. Cambias says:

    I addressed some other weaknesses in Hawking’s argument at my blog:

    http://www.sciencemadecool.com/2010/04/piling-on.html

    Comments welcome!

  3. Somite says:

    Can this be anything but speculation by anyone including Hawking himself? Much ado about nothing.

    • oldebabe says:

      Of course this is all only what human beings living on this planet at this time of our star life, think.

      Fun to speculate, of course. But while one may imagine that there may be other (or similar, if one assumes that the others are like `us’) lifes in the universe, and may in fact be, it seems to me that it would certainly take a highly advanced technology to overcome the immense distances/time, as well as be awfully lucky in the extant environment of the originating location and its star age. There would then seem to be a need for a specific interest in this particular planet of this particular sun… Just these situations to overcome regardless of whatever reason there may be to even do so in the first place (who can parse the alien mind?), makes the whole thing extremely unlikely. IMO, `life’ probably comes and goes on some planets somewhere sometime in the universe, and will do the same in/for ours. And other life on other planets may notice as our star bursts…

  4. BillMassey says:

    Does anyone else find this whole thing oddly contrived? I mean, I would bet Dr. Hawking doesn’t spend a second of the day pontificating on alien life and how we would interact with it. But he has a new TV show coming out to publicize, doesn’t he now?

    I can totally picture the producers telling him, “OK, ep 1 will be about alien life. I know it’s not your thing, Stevie baby, but talk it up, make it dramatic, we’ll make some dopey animation to go with it, and bang! Free publicity on every news outlet!”

    I hope that’s not the case – I hate resorting to sensationalism to hook folks, it’s so condescending (and unnecessary – his books are best sellers, and they don’t pander at all).

    • CW says:

      “Does anyone else find this whole thing oddly contrived?”

      After watching both episodes, the whole series seems contrived. They were very simplistic. People not interested in cosmology, physics, or astronomy won’t tune in. And those adults that are interested in these topics, would find the first two episodes to be very introductory, with a lack of any new information or perspectives.

      If anything, the shows should be on earlier, so that kids can watch it – or a family can watch it together.

    • Amy says:

      Actually, the animation was quite nice. For the series as a whole, in fact. But I won’t dispute the ‘aliens’ bit went down a little roughly. I, too, seriously doubt Dr. Hawking spends anytime thinking about alien life- the much larger prize would be unifying (or explaining the discrepancies therein of) quantum physics and general relativity. Unification, unfortunately, makes for much less riveting animation. It’s TV. Don’t expect anything but bro-science, even from legitimate scientists.

  5. CW says:

    Stephen Hawking used an example of humanity as a reference, which 95% of our hypotheses involving extra-terrestrial life is based upon. And since history is filled with instances where a more advanced civilization caused harm to a lesser one upon meeting (intentionally or not), then I don’t see anything wrong with the reasoning or conclusion that aliens could bring harm to Earth.

    I would disagree that it would have to be intentional harm though. There are so many ways that aliens could bring harm to humanity, whether it’s intentional or not. Aliens could bring harmful disease, they could “benignly” request for humans to move out of a certain region where it can extract materials, cultural misunderstandings, technological mishaps, etc.

    The objections to Stephen Hawking’s comments seem to be almost special pleading in a way. It seems like special pleading to make inferrences about aliens based on the only known example of intelligent life in the galaxy (humans) in the form of SETI, Drake equation, astrobiology, etc. and then discard them when it comes to inferrences on the manner in which Earth could be visited by them.

  6. Robo Sapien says:

    My issue with this topic is that whether or not ET’s are benevolent or malevolent is purely speculative, all we have are reasonable guesses based on what we know of our own planet and biology. The bottom line, IMO, is that if we seek to make contact with ET’s then it must be done on our terms, not theirs. This is why I felt opposed to the idea of launching probes with depictions of humans and DNA, it is like advertising to any potential enemy “Hey look, we’re over here! Ripe for the pickin!”

    The earth is abundant in natural resources, but so is the rest of space. We’re made up of stuff that was floating around out there. The one resource that I can perceive as valuable is DNA. There is lots of it here, containing vast amounts of hard-earned evolutionary data with recipes for all sorts of chemical compounds. If intelligent life is willing to travel light years in search of anything, it will be that information.

    • Bill says:

      > If intelligent life is willing to travel light years in search of anything, it will be that information.

      And women. I hear that Mars needs women.

    • tmac57 says:

      I think that you would have more to worry about, if you took a grain of sand, and using some micro laser, inscribed your credit card number on to the grain, and then took it out into the middle of the ocean, and dropped it. I suppose that it is theoretically possible that someone might find it.

    • Max says:

      Neil deGrasse Tyson objected to giving away Earth’s coordinates, comparing this to giving your address to total strangers.

  7. quentin says:

    Maybe aliens are smart enough to know the importance of biodieversity, and maybe they just don’t see the point in going millions of km away from their home just to destroy something they don’t need to destroy.

    Maybe they have enough room at their home, because if they survived that long, they may be smart enough to know how to preserve an ecosystem and also how to control their own population.

    Maybe the whole argument of Hawking is based on the assumption that very advanced aliens would still be as incompetent as we are… which i find a bit incoherent…

  8. Patrick Gibbons says:

    Hawkings is totally wrong. First, any alien race that destroys its own environment and resources is one that does not use scarce resources effectively. Such creatures would be HIGHLY unlikely to ever make deep space travel. Using scarce resources effectively is a sign of being able to innovate. If you can’t innovate, how the heck are you going to get into deep space and travel between star systems?

    Second, effectively using scarce resources means employing capitalism as your economic model (free market capitalism is, as far as we know, the most efficient at allocating resources to their highest valued use). Free market capitalism encourages volunteerism and cooperation (we voluntarily buy the goods and services we want and people who otherwise may not like each other cooperate across the globe to create the products and services we want) not warfare and aggression. In fact, war depletes resources and destroys economic growth by diverting them from higher valued civilian uses to lower valued government uses (that is right, war is just a government program).

    If we are going to be visited by aliens, it is more likely they will be friendly libertaliens :)

  9. rustle says:

    Sending pictures of humans willy-nilly into space concerned me, also. I imagined a race of aliens, upon seeing the drawings, exclaim, “Oh, this is great! They come with 2 sets of drumsticks!”

    • tmac57 says:

      ‘To Serve Man’…will that be original or crispy sir?

    • Robert Elessar says:

      Any creatures that are the products of an alien evolutionary process would not really be able to digest anything from our world, including us, just as we could not really digest anything that came from an alien ecosystem. Our systems extract nutrients in very specific ways from creatures whose bodies are made of the same sort of amino acids, purines, pyrimidines, fats, sugars and so on as ours. At BEST we might be able to get a few minerals and some very simple compounds from aliens…and the rest would be just roughage. So it would be very strange for any aliens to come so far to eat us when eating even the least nutritious things from their own world would be far more useful.

  10. Max says:

    If aliens are capable of interstellar travel, then they are to us more like we are to ants, and they’ll want our resources like we want ants’ resources. For example, a Type III alien civilization may just want to shuffle some stars around, without giving much thought how it affects us. Hopefully they’ll have environmentalists who care about us lower creatures.

  11. SDR says:

    How could you possible see your idea as “more likely” with absolutely no frame of reference to base that on? Nothing is more or less likely because we know nothing of these hypothetical aliens. This whole discussion is ridiculous.

  12. Patrick says:

    Hawkings is totally wrong. First, any alien race that destroys its own environment and resources is one that does not use scarce resources effectively. Such creatures would be HIGHLY unlikely to ever make deep space travel. Using scarce resources effectively is a sign of being able to innovate. If you can’t innovate, how the heck are you going to get into deep space and travel between star systems?

    Second, effectively using scarce resources means employing capitalism as your economic model (free market capitalism is, as far as we know, the most efficient at allocating resources to their highest valued use). Free market capitalism encourages volunteerism and cooperation (we voluntarily buy the goods and services we want and people who otherwise may not like each other cooperate across the globe to create the products and services we want) not warfare and aggression. In fact, war depletes resources and destroys economic growth by diverting them from higher valued civilian uses to lower valued government uses (that is right, war is just a government program).

    If we are going to be visited by aliens, it is more likely they will be friendly libertaliens :)

    • Robo Sapien says:

      What if they are right-wing fundamentaliens?

      • Patrick says:

        Probably not, unless they are parasites that leach off the technology of others. Fundamentaliens will probably be more concerned with their souls; thus would have arbitrary prohibitions against lending and investments and will probably look down on people making profits for a living and consumerism. Consumerism, not prayers and angles, is what will finance space exploration.

      • Max says:

        How will consumerism finance space exploration? What do consumers get out of it?

      • tmac57 says:

        Some really cool postcards (albeit a bit on the late side).

      • Patrick says:

        Let’s be honest, hopes and dreams aren’t enough. Desire to explore strange new worlds? That is nice and romantic, but it’s the almighty dollar that gets things done. If space exploration and colonization can provide people with the products and services they need (maybe its just to get away from the backward thinking fundamentaliens) then space exploration will be more likely. Of course x prizes and fame are good motivators too.

    • quentin says:

      If they really are capitalists, they probably already destroyed their environment and disapeared, because capitalism is not compatible with long term common resources management nor collective well-being optimization, but only with short-term individual (and well-being of the more powerful) optimization.

      Space programs have been developed by public states, not private companies. Such a collective adventure is not compatible with an individual profit-driven economy.

      So I totally disagree with this comment. If an alien race has been able to travel through the galaxy, I hope they are far beyond capitalism.

      • quentin says:

        This is about speculation, so… I think that if aliens lived long enough to travel that far, they must have developed an economic system similar to democracy, (= opposite to capitalism, which is a kind of economical feodalism ruled by big international companies). They must have something like a cooperative system able to manage efficiently resource allocation together with collective decisions.

      • Patrick says:

        Capitalism is the closet thing to democracy. People buy and sell goods and services free from central direction.

        How is having an aloof public administrator telling you what you can buy, or sell, and at what price, democratic?

        People voting with their dollars every day on what they like and dislike is a real democracy. Socialism is authoritarian.

      • Patrick says:

        I totally disagree and the empirical evidence does not support your position. Capitalist countries are BY FAR, more superior than command-and-control economic countries at protecting the environment. This occurs because a clean environment is a luxury good. Luxury goods are bought by rich people. And only capitalism produces wealth.

        The greatest environmental degradation has not been done in capitalist countries but in socialist ones. Not only do socialist countries struggle to build wealth and lift people out of poverty, but they are not equipped to use scarce resources efficiently or to innovate and find alternatives.

        I’d put links but skeptic blog won’t let me. Just google search economic freedom and enviornmental quality. You should find lots of stuff like this: http://freebazaarblog.com/fbzblogfiles/econfreedom6.jpg

        PS, for a long time the US government prohibited private companies from going to space, so it is not surprising that they didn’t even try.

  13. Patrick says:

    Ask yourself this: Can a society travel into deep space if it can’t even efficiently use the scarce resources available on their own home planet?

    Does using scarce resources efficiently imply that a society is capable of innovating solutions to scarcity problems?

    Does innovating solutions to scarcity problems lead to technological advancements?

    What type of societies are technologically advanced on earth? Are they innovators of scarcity problems? Are they using resources more efficiently than less technologically advanced nations?

    • tmac57 says:

      “Does innovating solutions to scarcity problems lead to technological advancements?”
      I think that you could make a case that failure to innovate solutions to scarcity problems could lead to technological collapse. Dealing with scarcity does not necessarily require technological advancements though. There are known existing solutions to scarcity, however, they might not be palatable for all elements of society.That is a different problem.

      • Patrick says:

        Like what? Besides innovation, the only other solution to scarcity are 1) population controls or 2) consumption controls. Controlling consumption is no way to get ahead, in our own human examples, controlling consumption often means rolling back progress (reducing carbon emissions without a viable alternative energy for example). If we push ourselves back to 19th century level energy consumption with our existing technology we will never explore space.

        As for population control. This one is tougher, but if population control is your answer, then you probably weren’t very good at innovating to begin with. Look how far we’ve come with innovations to food supplies and medicines and look how wrong the population control advocates have been to date.

        The only countries I can think of that engaged in population control were countries with a government controlling the commanding heights of the economy, and as a result, were largely incapable of directing resources to their highest valued use – meaning you couldn’t efficiently use resources and probably couldn’t innovate solutions if you tried. China comes to mind. (Note, the bulk of Chinese growth today actually occurs in their Free Trade Zones).

    • quentin says:

      The main sources of technological innovation are scientific theories (fundamental science), not scarity problems. Computers (and the whole information society that comes with it) is the result of quantum mechanics. Nobody created the transistor for scarity reasons.

      Some private companies invest on applicated science, and they do innovate, that’s true, but very few on fundamental science, for a simple reason : there is usually no individual interest in developping common knowledge that will profit not only you but also your competitors.

      That’s why public money is the main resource for fundamental science, and thus the main source of innovation.

      Conclusion : if aliens are able to travel that far, they definitely must have some kind of socialist system… ;-)

      • Patrick says:

        Nonsense, point to a socialist country on earth that moved from third world to first world status. First public money is NOT the main source of innovation. Again a myth. The bulk of innovation is driven by the private sector. Even a bulk of government funded innovation is done by the private sector.

        A lot of technological breakthroughs are driven by the profit motive which may or may not be related to scarcity. Take farming for example. Profit pushed for better farming techniques which helped us to avoid scarcity problems well before scarcity even became an issue (it still isn’t an issue really, although price controls and subsidies are making food scarce that is artificial).

        The transistor wasn’t developed with some pie in the sky goal of just advancing science. Someone thought it would make them some money. The transistor ONLY advanced to a point of usefulness once it could be produced and placed into useable products people were willing to buy.

        Vacuum tubes to handheld transistor radios for rebelling teenagers and on into the future. Drive by profit.

  14. tmac57 says:

    I guess it is irresistible to anthropomorphize theoretical aliens since we have an example of one. But honestly, why not let your imagination soar a little more. How about we fret over a silicone based colony of globules that drift through space like white blood cell through our body, mindlessly absorbing necessary building blocks of ‘life’. Stealing Our precious Earthly flui….er I mean minerals.
    You probably can’t send Bruce Willis to stop that! Oh, and it probably wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about our space probes either, (being mindless and all).

  15. EvilBob says:

    I quite liked Independence Day too. As silly and macho as it was… :)

  16. Paulus says:

    One wonders if the speculations of science fiction authors might have some relevance to this discussion. In one of Iain M Banks’ books (can’t remember which one, The Algebraist perhaps) he makes the observation that if you want to wreck/sterilise a planet, there is no need for vast arrays of high-tech weapons. A suitably-sized chunk of rock travelling at near-relativistic speeds will do the job very nicely. Presumably, if plunder of mineral resources is the goal, breaking the target into more easily-managed lumps would be a useful side effect.

    • Robert Elessar says:

      The real question is why a space-faring race would POSSIBLY want our mineral resources when far greater abundances of them all float through space with much less in the way of gravity wells to deal with. Asteroids and, especially comets, would be encountered by aliens before they came near the earth. And if they really needed planet size resources, there are plenty of other planets of varying sizes and compositions in our system, without any bothersome life forms to screw things up or get in the way.

  17. billgeorge says:

    By far, the greater miracle would be that we are alone!
    (Though you could’t prove the non-existance (a negative) of any alien life form.)

  18. Tom says:

    I believe that current theory holds that every living organism on earth has a common ancestor. If it is so easy for life to form, why is it that it has (apparently) only happened once on this planet? A planet that is thought to be a pristine host for life…liquid water, stable sun, plate tectonics, yada yada.

    I say apparently because we have to acknowledge the fact that rival microbes could have lived and died and left no fossil record. But there are no apparent “foreign” microbes around right now.

    Anyway, I think the variable in the Drake Equation that corresponds with the chance that life will form in a suitable environment is wildly overestimated.

  19. BillMassey says:

    Can’t believe we got this far without…

    “It’s a cookbook!”

  20. Ryobusa says:

    If there are advanced alien civilizations out there I’m sure they are smart/kind enough to leave us alone and let us evolve naturally. They would most likely hide their existence from us or at least be so far advanced we would be unable to detect them with our level of technology. They might study us but I highly doubt they would interfere whatsoever, think of the prime directive in star trek. I can’t believe Hawking said those things its really a short sighted view. but of course its not really his specialty.

  21. Anita Ikonen says:

    How about the prospect that alien life not only exist, but be far more advanced than us, and equipped with benevolence, and having existed for so long, being fully capable of sustenance on their own resources. And even fully aware of the life on Earth, but understanding us so well to know that we are not ready for contact. It is refreshing to see that a science education and the brilliance of a man such as Dr. Plait, does not produce the imagination necessary to think outside of what is already known, familiar, and experienced, to imagine concepts that are not human. And so I can fully well imagine Phil Plait in the antique societies, thinking on and off for a few days, only to conclude on what is available in scientific resources then, that indeed the Earth be flat, and centered in the universe.

  22. Al says:

    Beatrice–Interesting reading the possible reasons that aliens might not gotten into space. Another thought: What have been the historical prerequisites for cultures developing advanced seafaring technologies? Being near the ocean, for one.(Maybe a planet where “space” isn’t visible to the inhabitants would discourage space exploration) I think having lots of islands within sight has helped–the Polynesians spread through the Pacific after their ancestors did a lot of shorter island-hops off SE Asia. Europeans had the history of seafaring in the Mediterranean before they spread over the world. (If we didn’t have a moon to get to, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten started). Cultural reasons (The Chinese sent an impressive fleet into the Indian Ocean many centuries ago, but then dropped out).

  23. Kenneth Polit says:

    Do you know why we never went back to the moon? There weren’t any native people to oppress and exploit. If there were “moon men” we would never have left and the “moon men” would have suffered the same fate as the American Indians.

  24. shashank says:

    My question is that after a long period why our scientist is not able to made a spaceship thats cover a very long distance in short hour.If we think about the Stephen Hawking theory we will find that he simple wants the answer why human biengs are weaker than the aliens.Last night I had heard the Stephen Hawking theory on discovery he told that aliens take the energy from the celestial bodies for their spaceship.So how we think that ones day alien talks with him.There is no mean to send the signal in the outer space according to me aliens may be change there possition time to time these signal should not be taken by those.In order to make contact with aliens we want a spaceship that takes the energy from the celestial object for their super engine.Thats the only way we contact us otherwise we always find the aliens in this huge universe and its possibility is 0.5% that they will find him when we continue to find the aliens in such way.

  25. JonS says:

    I think in fact it’s more likely that an aggressive alien race would create self-replicating robot probes that will disperse through the galaxy and destroy all life that way.

    Huh? Why would some alien race want to do that?
    The human would rate as aggressive but even though we are far from that sort of technology it isn’t very likely we would do so even if we could unless you would see making robots to mine mars say, as some kind of evil.
    Why would a probe be designed to reproduce recklessly? Again we wouldn’t do it so why would a more intelligent lifeform do so?

    You watch too much crappy scifi mate.

  26. Sheila says:

    I doubt that Stephen Hawking wasted his time reading your book Phil. But one can always dream, eh?

  27. Sheila says:

    The movie I liked the best was Apollo 18 which reinforces the fact that NASA lies to everyone about everything. Even you.