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Stop Worrying About Stephen Hawking’s Aliens!

April 26, 2010

I respect the guy – he has a first class mind and will and has done wonderful things for physics.  However, his views of potential aliens and the possible consequences of their interactions with us are no more meaningful than that of anybody else.  Moreover, as commenters all over are proving, people can’t even take the reasonable parts and evaluate them correctly. 

Maybe this will help. 

“The Numbers” are Vague and Unknowable

Dr. Hawking says this of the numbers:

On the probability of alien life existing, he says: “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational.

This makes it sound like “The Numbers” are clear cut, and discernible.  They aren’t.  “The Numbers” he is referring to are the variables in the Drake Equation.  Which is the following:

The Drake equation states that:

N = R^{\ast} \times f_p \times n_e \times  f_{\ell} \times f_i \times f_c \times L \!


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;


R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
f = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.[3]

This is an equation with seven variables – exactly ONE of which is well established and verifiable with current technology.  We have a pretty good idea what the average rate of star formation is in our galaxy – although there is some vagueness even here since we are basing it on observations over a very small fraction of the total time and assuming that the rate is constant.  We have a more vague estimate of the fraction of stars that have planets because planets are a lot harder to spot than stars and planet formation involves a lot of other factors that we don’t know explicitly for every part of the galaxy.  The rest of the variables are pure speculation. 

Firmer numbers than the ones in the Drake equation have been used to “prove” the validity of nuclear winter – until observable evidence from various sources including the clouds produced when Saddam Hussein set the Kuwait Oil rigs on fire showed that it was wrong.  Michael Crighton called the equation itself “literally meaningless” and, while some would argue that it does provide a platform for debate, beyond this, he has a pretty good point.  How is thinking about aliens validated by “numbers” that aren’t known, aren’t currently knowable and can with equal validity state EVERY SINGLE POSSIBILITY about the subject without ruling out one?

“The Outcome” Would Likely Have Little to Nothing in Common With Columbus’ Landing

While Dr. Hawking is unparalleled in physics, his understanding of American History actually leaves something to be desired. Although it WAS devastating to the Indians, the two main reasons it was so are because of disease and attempted slavery – the former is not necessarily even possible depending on the life forms involved and the latter would necessarily require them NEEDING us for some reason, deciding that taking us would be desirable and then finding a way to transport us in mass numbers. The last, by the way, turned out to be impossible to do with the indians – they either escaped or died off and Europeans didn’t have large groups of competing tribes capturing and selling other tribes off like they had in Africa.

Transportation would be especially hard considering the fact that, while getting an alien here seems nearly impossible, setting up mass transit over interstellar distances would be orders of magnitude harder.  Consider the difference between moving a willing, trained person across the distances involved and moving a couple Million, plus food (likely incompatible with the alien’s) and atmosphere (again likely incompatible), in an environment we can survive in (which is likely NOT what the aliens live in) TO an environment we can survive in.  I don’t know the actual odds, but I personally would bet against that being a likely outcome of alien contact. 

The voiced concern of aliens stealing our resources is even less likely to the point of being preposterous.  This is because comparison with the rest of the galaxy, our planet is really insignificant.  There are resources throughout the galaxy and almost certainly much more would be closer to the aliens than we are.  Traveling here to steal our resources would be like traveling from Africa to Detroit to hold up a pawn shop in search of diamonds when there are more, larger ones practically scattered across your back yard.  Even if they DID get to our solar system, they would have easier access to whatever they wanted in our asteroid belt than on Earth.

Turning “Might” into “Will”

To Dr. Hawking’s credit, he does NOT take his speculation and try to pass it off as an inevitable conclusion. Many commentors, however, have no compunction against doing exactly that.  On Mediaite, it is especially prevalent (perhaps liberals are more prone to going off half cocked?), but, while people who read Yahoo News seem to be more skeptical, even there, people are taking his musings for gospel and quaking in their boots.

I’m not saying that there is no chance aliens will visit (or that they haven’t already done so) or that if they do visit they won’t cause us harm.  I am saying that we don’t know enough about either possibility to even make an educated guess about what would happen.  Indeed, you have more reason to speculate* about the Large Hadron Collider causing the planet to be sucked into an artificially created black hole when the Mayan calendar ends in 2012 than you have to speculate on a non fiction remake of the “War of the Worlds.”

*There may be better “Large Hadron Collider/Black hole” links, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to link to an article quoting the “scientist’s prayer”. 



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