Stephen Hawking turns off the lights, pretends to be out

Stone-cold genius and Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Dr. Stephen Hawking has said that, in the event of us discovering extraterrestrial life, we shouldn’t make contact. He may have a point – the comparison he uses is that of Christopher Columbus first encountering Native Americans, and let’s face it, that could have gone better. Some people disagree with him, of course (the Bad Astronomer for one, and Carl Sagan was pretty keen on saying hello to anyone who might be out there), but the thing is…. It’s too late.

For want of a better starting point, let’s go back about 60 years. That’s roughly how long we’ve been pumping TV signals into space, so it’s not like we’ve been particularly quiet. On top of that we’ve actively been poking around looking for life out there, so Hawking might be too late in warning us about alien death lizards. Or whatever.

The idea that there’s life beyond Earth has been around for a while. Various world religions have or had some view on there being other worlds out there with their own inhabitants, and now there’s an obscure branch of study looking into the subject (Exotheology, in which  C.S. Lewis dabbled in a few essays and the Space Trilogy). It’s a big subject, so let’s narrow it down to when the idea of extraterrestrial life entered popular consciousness in a big way – 1947.

1947 was the year of the Roswell incident and the Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting that coined the phrase ‘flying saucer’; in the years that followed, the Contactees movement kept the idea of us being visited by aliens in the public eye, and Erich von Daniken‘s 1968 book  Chariots of the Gods?  suggested that such vistations had been going on for millennia (although frankly the book’s most important impact was inspiring Battlestar Galactica). Okay, so it was craziness with a side order of crazy, but that’s the context. Into this, big name scientists were also considering the issue.  In 1950, Enrico Fermi came up with the Fermi Paradox (basically, the universe is so big you’d expect there to be life out there – so where is it?), but it was 1961 when astrophysicist Frank Drake came up with a formula that estimated the potential number of extraterrestrial civilisations we could come into contact with. This was the Drake Equation and it formed the basis for the SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) project – and from 1999 you could join in with the search yourself using their SETI@home screensaver, a distributed computing project that uses the downtime of domestic PCs to sift through reams of data. So when it’s announced that FluffyBunny461 has discovered the Morglocks, that’s why.

Of course, that’s just looking for signals, and if either our or the aliens’ antenna are facing the wrong direction we’re not going to get anything. That’s the potential problem with the Arecibo Message, a signal beamed towards the M13 star cluster in 1974. It was largely an exercise in showing off the capabilities of the revamped Arecibo Radio Telescope – to the extent that by the time the signal reaches its destination, the star will have moved.

But hey, we need to cover all the bases, so not only are we sending signals out there, we’re also shooting physical evidence of our whereabouts into space. In 1972/3, the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes carried plaques giving information about our location and what we look like to any alien civilisation that might stumble across them. This was followed up by the Golden Records (insert MP3 joke here) put on board the Voyager probes, discs that contained sounds and greetings from Earth, including a message from then-President Jimmy Carter: "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours."

So while Stephen Hawking may be wise to sound a warning, it’s already too late. But then why be so pessimistic? They might be friendly. Or more likely, just plain incomprehensible. Or, even more likely, microbial.

And anyway, they’re probably picking up the adventures of Captain Kirk and the first Doctor right around now. If you were an alien, would YOU mess with those guys….?

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