Sunday, April 25, 2010

That's Why We Need To Develop Ray Guns

In a new documentary on the cosmos, world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking concludes that intelligent extraterrestrial life probably exists, but that attempting to interact with it poses significant risks and might be extremely dangerous for humanity. I know he's a brilliant scientist and an equally gifted writer, but why is it treated as news when Stephen Hawking says this? It's a pretty intuitively obvious view of the prospect of interaction with alien life in my opinion, and one that's both shared by many other leading serious scientific thinkers and been fodder for science fiction of both Tarkovskian profundity and tinfoil robot cheesiness for decades. Unless we make a vast technological leap in the near future, we're not going to be visiting other solar systems any time soon, so it's likely that any species capable of interstellar travel would have a significant technological advantage over us. And unless the laws of physics function differently in other parts of the cosmos, it's likely that whatever technology they possessed would require resources to operate, which could make Earth valuable to them. It's possible they might view destroying humanity to extract Earth's valuables the same way we view killing earthworms to dig a coal mine - as no big deal, given the imperative of their own survival. Yeah, there's a high likelihood alien life would be dangerous.

However, given that humanity looks very likely to remain Earthbound for the forseeable future, and has its own problems here to worry about, I think that deciding whether or not to attempt to make contact with intelligent alien life is a dilemma we're unlikely to face. Extraterrestrials are more likely to contact us than the reverse, so we probably won't have much say in the matter, and unless we solve some of our more pressing resource and pollution problems I don't know how much longer advanced human civilization is likely to be around to be contacted. Whatever the number - five hundred years, or a thousand - it's likely an eyeblink in the vast temporal expanses of the universe, even if it's quite a while longer when considered relative to typical human lifespans. I'm not going to spend a lot of time worrying about it.

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