Hawking: Beware the Alien Menace!

By Sean Carroll | April 25, 2010 8:02 pm

Okay, that’s a bit alarmist. But Stephen Hawking has generated a bit of buzz by pointing out that contact with an advanced alien civilization might not turn out well for us backward humans. In fact, we should just try to keep quiet and avoid being noticed.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he said.

Prof Hawking thinks that, rather than actively trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, humans should do everything possible to avoid contact.

He explained: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

To which I can only say: yeah. Sounds about right. If aliens were sufficiently enlightened to be utterly peace-loving and generous, it would be great to have back-and-forth contact with them. But it’s also possible that they would simply wipe us out — not necessarily in a Mars Attacks! kind of invasion, but almost without noticing (as we have done to countless species here on Earth already). So how do you judge the risk? (Dan Drezner gives the interplanetary-security perspective.)

It’s like the LHC doomsday scenarios, but for real — the sensible prior on “murderous aliens” is much higher than on “microscopic black hole eats the Earth.” Happily, a face-to-face chat seems unlikely anyway. Nothing wrong with listening in, on the unlikely chance that the aliens are broadcasting their communications randomly throughout the galaxy. Besides, a little advance warning wouldn’t hurt.

Update: I had forgotten that we had already discussed this a couple of years ago. Old bloggers tend to repeat themselves.

  • http://eberkowitz.com Evan Berkowitz

    This seems like a perfectly good solution to Fermi’s paradox!

    If most civilizations have noticed that cultural interactions tend to wipe out the people that are less technologically advanced, then it would be natural to hide, and thus nobody would see anybody, explaining away Fermi’s troublesome question: Where Is Everybody? (paraphrased).

    Answer: hiding from everyone else out of fear for their own longevity!

  • http://mychemicaljourney.blogspot.com The Chemist

    I disagree with Hawking. If the aliens have the capacity to come over here from thousands of lightyears- they probably don’t have a resource problem, and even if they did, the earth is metals and water to them, which are in abundance at the edges of the solar system and therefore presumably closer to any alien- or am I talking moonshine? Why expend all the extra energy to destroy us? Especially if we offer some (even if only weak) resistance? [spock]It would seem most illogical[/spock].

    I also disagree that more powerful groups tend to wipe out weaker groups. It’s a self-selecting characterization. We define more powerful groups as those that demonstrate their power by subjugating others. However history has shown that these interactions do not always end that way. The Japanese first-contact with Americans actually strengthened the Japanese technologically and made them a world power to be reckoned with. They got a little too big for their britches, so to speak- but they’ve hardly been wiped out. I think it’s a trite (and utterly baseless assertion) when it comes to how cultures and groups ultimately interact.

    In resource rich environments (and the solar system, if not the galaxy, if not the universe is resource rich no matter how you cut it) groups tend to fuse rather than fight when encountering each other, as long as they’re small enough (for humans, below ~150 people.) Who’s to say it’s any different when encountering other species?

  • http://blog.denniswilliamson.us Dennis

    “almost without noticing”

    Two words: hyperspace bypass.

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Re #2:
    Despite the literary prominence of spanish gold, the main commodity traded during the age of exploration was spice. Given how different alien life is likely to be, the chances of them having all the molecules found in our present biosphere is pretty low. So aliens coming here to harvest bit of various life forms is not entirely unreasonable.

    Of course, the breakdown products of many of those molecules are also found in petroleum, so they could just ignore us and steal all of our oil.

  • http://mychemicaljourney.blogspot.com The Chemist


    The chances that they would be masters of chemical synthesis is high. Even if it wasn’t, we’ve gotten good enough at it that energy considerations are our major concern (if they can manage galactic travel then they have that problem licked). So if they can’t manage synthesis, why destroy intelligent beings who you can clearly set up a knowledge exchange with?

    If they need hydrocarbons, methane off of Titan (where is rains the stuff) is a much more abundant source than what comparatively meager (and difficult to extract) organic offerings we could provide. If the aliens were interested in unique biological molecules, then it would be in their best interests to preserve the ecosystem as much as possible so they could collect and study them and their roles for future synthesis. Humans would be more than happy (presumably) to help them with their biological surveys. If nothing else, an economic relationship could be achieved.

    I’m telling you, for Hawking to be right there’d have to be some very irrational aliens who are somehow also capable of advanced spaceflight. It’s possible but it just doesn’t seem likely. Almost any situation where the aliens have an interest in destroying us, is one where they cannot be more advanced than us, at least not by much.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    In years of trying to figure out why the aliens would bother to come here, the only answer I’ve come up with is tourism.

  • Albert Bakker

    Visiting antropomorphic aliens (worthwhile extrasolar life in our imagination) with bad intentions aren’t the most likely threat from space to man’s existence. Not in my branch of the wavefunction anyway.

    Foreseeable trouble from space isn’t going to be biological in nature. I don’t think you have to be reckless or even a hero to support and participate in Seti, just curious will do. I am not expecting any positive signal to be found within my lifetime and I do plan on lingering around a while.

  • Stephen P

    Given the immense difficulties of inter-stellar travel, I would have thought that any extra-terrestrial civilisation so advanced as to be capable of visiting us would be able to detect our presence, whether we actively try to communicate or not.

    Or looking at it another way: failing to advertise their presence didn’t help the native americans.

  • Jason Dick

    I would have to expect that given the massive technical difficulties of interstellar travel, any alien species that actually came here could really have only one goal in mind: colonization. And that wouldn’t be particularly good for us.

    Now, if we were only talking about information-gathering probes, or contact through observations of far-off EM waves, that’s a different story. But face-to-face? Don’t see why they’d go anywhere without being intent on staying.

  • smileylizard

    I suppose the outcome of the meeting could depend on whom among us they talk to first.

  • ian

    Species that can travel between solar systems would probably be type 2 or 3 civilizations. They’d be very aware of the limitations on detecting other species, how to do it, and how often other species appeared due to natural chance. They would probably not be interested in us, and in all likelihood would have even less trouble dealing with us. A huge percentage of Native Americans died just due to foreign germs from Europeans. Nevermind the lack of military strength and infrastructure. That’s a comparison between fairly similar civilizations. Comparison between life on Earth and aliens capable of traveling here (or influencing the local area in some other way) would not be.

    It could be there are some fundamental physical limits (reasonably reached within a couple million years) on how advanced a civilization can become. These could be due to resources, computational power, or other constraints. But ignorance isn’t something to bet on.

    As per the previous blog post, there are probably robust ways of finding inhabited planets, just due to entropy considerations, or something we’ll need another million years to think of. In other words, another blink of the eye in galactic timescales.

    It probably wouldn’t hurt to become a little more advanced (at least type 2 or 3) before discovering or meeting alien civilizations. On the other hand, maybe science funding would go through the roof with some competition.

  • http://rationaldreaming.com dreamer

    There is no inorganic matter on Earth that isn’t just as available elsewhere in the Solar System. Organic material is obviously Earth’s greatest asset, but if they are gathering samples then collecting vials of DNA would give them pretty much what they need, and would be far more portable and manageable than dealing with whole specimens. No need to rape and pillage to get them.

    The only other unique asset we have that could be valuable is information — not our sciences, but culture and history, something that they can study that is likely unique in the cosmos, especially if they have figured out all the major puzzles of the Universe (hey, they could have had a million years or more to do it).

    So I’d be willing to be that they will be more interested in our libraries and archives rather than anything else, and the most efficient way to collect all that would be with our willing help, and thus a friendly encounter is what would be required.

    As for hiding ourselves away—well, when you’re living on a bright blue ball with an oxygen rich atmosphere, you’re kind of broadcasting a “We are here!” beacon to anyone out there who is looking in our direction. It would be an indication that some kind of life is here, at the very least, and given that NASA’s Kepler mission is hoping to find several Earth-like planets that could be as far as several thousand light years away, then imagine what an extra few thousand years of technological advancement could accomplish.

    I don’t think we have anything to fear, be even if we did, there just isn’t any point in worrying about it since there is almost nothing that we can do to either hide or broadcast our presence anyway — unless we actually erect a colossal METI beacon which isn’t very likely.

    (P.S. I’ve already blogged this in more detail — just click on my name above to find the post.)

  • aged discoverer

    I think Hawking’s point is fundamentally valid. If they exist, they may be trying everything to avoid contact as well. It has nothing to do with their intent, but everything to do with outcomes. This comes down to our own questions of morality, which we still have a poor understanding of, and our inability to deal with coincidences. How would our society deal with alignments and contradictions between two moral systems? We still want to think of an alien civilization in general terms, but we forget that unless they are a civilization with a single shared mind, they will inevitably have all the same variance of personality in its members as humans do. In any case, it is extremely likely that the forward elements of any alien civilization will be artificial intelligences of some sort, and any sense of moral judgement would be highly filtered. It is also a good point that our civilization would be just as dangerous to their civilization, which is why containment and avoidance are the two best options.
    Nature is very competitive and the stakes are always high, to think otherwise is just naive.

  • Luis

    Personally, if I was an alien admiral commanding a humongous starship containing the entirety of my population and looking for natural resources, I wouldn’t even look at Earth —I’d go straight to Jupiter or Saturn. It’s a bit like taking someone who is very hungry and offering him a choice between an all-you-can-eat buffet and a single tomato.

  • Dedalus1953

    For some reason, I can’t help worrying about what smallpox did to the native populations. Advanced aliens will no doubt come with their own beneficial-to-them, not-so-much-to-us microscopic stowaways.

  • http://aplawrence.com Tony Lawrence

    If we somehow discovered a previously overlooked primitive tribe, we’d do everything we could to observe them without letting them know we exist (that is, if we could keep the missionaries out – I hope space traveling aliens have outgrown THAt nonsense!).

    If these aliens found us, I firmly believe that’s what they’d be doing: studying, watching, not interfereing, not making their presence known.

    That’s why I wrote this :-)


  • http://www.drgoulu.com Dr. Goulu

    All living species can potentially grow exponentially by nature, while they can only use resources that grow as a quadratic (on the surface of a planet) or as a cubic (if they colonize space, even at light speed). I call this the “cubic saturation principle” (http://drgoulu.com/1999/10/24/psc/ )

    So aliens HAVE TO be aggressive. They will be under the pressure of their population. And if, for any reason, they are not conquering space to gain resources, they cannot take the risk of letting us grow exponentially.

    By the way, METI signals are a sign of our stupidity, not intelligence. Intelligent beings would never answer. But they’ll know where to head when they’ll be strong enough.

  • Dave24

    Hawking made that Columbus comment many, many years ago during an interview with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. Why is this news considered new?

  • Cosmonut

    I take the opposite position to Hawking.

    The surest sign that there’s intelligent life in the universe is that its made no attempt to contact us. :-)

  • Cosmonut

    But joking a part, I’d guess it’ll be more like Rendezvous with Rama.

    The aliens and their artifacts arrive, completely ignore us and go their own way.

    Its our usual conceit to think that they’d be interested in fighting us or colonizing our planet.

  • Thomas

    You forget the option where the aliens are basically peaceful, but once alerted to out presence they aim their giant telescopes our way, find out enough about us to realize how dangerous we may become once we learn interstellar travel and send a packet of anti-matter our way to be on the safe side.

    Other options are that they may feel a duty to “liberate” us or preach their religion, which requires that they first take control of Earth, or some alien entrepreneur may simply see a huge market for intelligent pets.

  • Ted

    We are constantly emitting broadcasts of all kinds across the entire spectrum. Unless we were able to turn it all off, we are constantly announcing our presence to the universe. If somebody or some thing has solved the travel problem, it is only a matter of time (maybe a very long time) before we are stumbled upon. An advanced civilization probably would not set out to harm us but may do so by accident or may simply not really notice us as they go about their business. I guess there is a chance they might come and teach us how to stop having wars, cure disease, and make crime a thing of the past. It is more likely they simply won’t care all that much.

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~pwm22/ Peter Morgan

    Dr. Goulu’s the “cubic saturation principle” is an interesting idea, but it’s problematic because it doesn’t take into account (at least) the possibility of the many different kinds of scaling. If we can increasingly use smaller scale resources, the effectively available resources within a finite distance can increase faster than cubic. Think of Moore’s law, as a crude specific example (and bear in mind that all examples may be crude). The transition from quadratic to cubic that Dr. Goulu mentions is itself an example of a technology transition (that we’re having lots of trouble with). Physics is full of situations in which the relevant power law is nontrivial, and the transition of thermodynamic behavior from exponential to power law and back again is more-or-less universal. Growth (of population, for example) can even be superexponential during periods when changes of behavior allow increases of reproduction rates and/or offspring survival rates, but exponential and superexponential growth are constrained by the happenstance of whether we find new behaviors that work better (“better” in the sense that they contribute towards growth).

    Ultimately, dz/dt=kz is not the only differential equation in the playbook of evolution.

    How an alien culture might react to us is a curious question, if we make it through our next ten/hundred/thousand/…/million years of growth and restraint.

    Dave24@18: This is news now because Sean thought he might get a rise from a proportion of the people who have Cosmic Variance in their RSS feeds. How wrong is he?

  • Jason Burbank

    The Fermi’s paradox calculations seem indisputable. If there were any dangerous aliens out there, they would have long ago conquered and utilized anything in the galaxy they desired.

  • Floyd

    There’s another issue. We are very far away from the closest star–4 light years if I remember correctly. No one here on Earth has figured a way around the rule that we can’t go anywhere close to the speed of light (aka C. I think that’s Warp 1 for the Trekkers out there).

    Even if there’s life near Alpha Centauri, it will probably be a long time before those Centaurians will be able to get here.

  • Matias

    This is a valid point. If interstellar life exists, it probably operates on the scale of light-years and millenia. There is no guarantee that such lifeforms might not consider us more unique or special than we consider the steak on our tables.

    Btw, Props to Mr. Hawkins for playing Mass Effect 2. Impeccable taste.

  • Raptor

    I would think of it this way. If we had the ability to travel through space swiftly and easily, what would we do if we encountered another planet? Well, it would depend on why we are traveling through space. Are we doing it to see what’s out there (star trek universe) or are we doing it to colonize new planets for human expansion (manifest destiny). Right now, if humans somehow invented the way to travel, and everyone got to do it, I think we would pick the manifest destiny version, given what we did with ships. Colonize and native plant/animal/intelligent life be damned. And even if there was no intelligent life on a planet, us showing up alters that outcome any intelligent life evolving. As we would fill the role of an intelligent animal that modifies and controls its environment on a global scale. Yet, the people who would first go out into space, to start the travel to colonize will, I would hope, be some our better and brighter. As with astronauts today, people with more wits to them than most and who have the ability to live all together in a tiny little space ship for years on end. Maybe even for generations. If those people encountered aliens, I think things would go better. More willingness to get along, less wanting to just take over. So, I would have to assume if the roles were revered, I would expect the aliens to be the same. Have the ability to resolve conflicts and the want to resolve them.

  • Philoponus

    Epicurus famously advised us to “live unnoticed” (lathe biosis). I think he meant that politically, but it is also probably good advice cosmologically.

  • NewEnglandBob

    Maybe real intelligent life wouldn’t bother to even try to colonize other places because they find a much better way to live happy, productive lives without needing lebensraum.

  • Michael

    It should be noted with some caution that everything we ‘know’ about any non-earth dwelling life is solely based on life here on Earth. That’s one tiny sample out of potentially million, billions, trillions, etc. of life-bearing planets.

    It is extreme hubris to believe that we can begin to understand the motivations of exta-terrestrials, or make any kind of rational assumptions about them.

    Many may have already been here, done that, and left with a profound alien version of ‘meh’…

  • Bob

    @Floyd – there you go, assuming “human” intelligence on other life.

    Your right – humans cannot currently travel faster than light, or even close to it.

    Doesn’t mean something else hasn’t figured it out.

  • Sherry Thompson

    Forget the intentions of alien visitors. The real danger is likely to come from the introduction of microbes, diseases, and other biology that Earth species are not immune to, in the way many island cultures were decimated by early sailing explorers.

    Once you comprehend the size and age of the universe, you understand the arrogance in assuming Earth life is the only life out there. But we live in a universe where islands of life are placed so far apart in space and time that the chance of direct contact is extremely low (though there is the possibility of discovering more in our solar system or the building blocks of life on interstellar objects).

    It may be a good thing that we have been restricted to just flashing light at one another.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Alien diseases might be a concern (they certainly were the most lethal import to the Americas), but most Earthly pathogens have a hard time jumping from species to species, much less kingdom to kingdom. Imagine the challenge of infecting an organism from an entirely different biosphere, one that evolved completely independently (unless you buy the panspermia hypothesis).

    If I had to hazard a guess, I’d imagine aliens, if they visited Earth, would do so in hermetically sealed environments of one form or another because of simple acute toxicity and/or trauma. Our atmosphere might be horribly corrosive, the wrong pressure, too hot/cold, etc. for alien life of any sort to survive even the briefest exposure to it. Biohazards, I think, are unlikely sources of immediate danger.

    So, I’m with Hawking to some degree, but not much. Maybe they’re out there, checking up on us now and then. As soon as we go interstellar, they nuke us. Solves Fermi’s Paradox in the worst imaginable way. But maybe they have a modicum of compassionate ethics, and would warn us first to stay put before annihilating us. Why destroy a interesting subject of study unless you have to? Wouldn’t we be at least a little interesting?

  • Charlie

    @ #5

    Hawking also suggested that they would likely have the technology to harvest the energy of entire stars. I interpreted that as meaning that the aliens would use E=mc2 to create matter from energy. That would make them not just masters of chemical synthesis, but of nuclear synthesis too. If that were the case, they wouldn’t be interested in our puny pile of matter at all. They’d be after the energy provided by our sun.

  • http://rationaldreaming.com dreamer

    All living species can potentially grow exponentially by nature, while they can only use resources that grow as a quadratic (on the surface of a planet) or as a cubic (if they colonize space, even at light speed). I call this the “cubic saturation principle” (http://drgoulu.com/1999/10/24/psc/ )

    So aliens HAVE TO be aggressive. They will be under the pressure of their population. And if, for any reason, they are not conquering space to gain resources, they cannot take the risk of letting us grow exponentially.

    I’m sorry, but this is trivially refuted by looking at the population curve of most western European states, whose population growth has been slowing down for decades. Intelligent life will no doubt confront issues of population growth in different ways, but once you have the ability to control reproduction (in our case, condoms, abortion, the pill, etc.) then there is no reason to expect that anything like exponential growth is going to happen.

    You also need to factor in technological advances in reducing resource consumption, which stunts the worst effects of expansion. If computers consumed the same number of watts per flops (floating point operations per seconds) today as they did 20 years ago, there would not be enough power in the whole of the USA to feed all the server farms we have.

    So there is no reason to assume that the aliens “have to be aggressive”. It’s not even evident that such a principle would still operate at interstellar distances even if it had some truth to it. If true, your theory would dictate that all civilizations would implode before they could get off their own planet in big enough numbers.

  • http://www.paullamb.wordpress.com Paul Lamb

    If an alien race does come to overpower and enslave us, I’m sure someone will point out how it is all President Obama’s fault, but really, they’ll only take away our guns. [/snark]

  • Toiski

    I don’t think it will be like columbus and the natives. It will be more like me and the ants. I won’t notice stepping on one, but if a lot of them hang around in a place I would lke for myself, I use some aerosol WMDs.

  • Bruce the Canuck

    >we are constantly announcing our presence to the universe…

    We’ve been doing that for the several hundred million years that Earth has had large amounts of oxygen in its atmosphere. We’re on the threshold of being able to build space telescopes that can survey for and characterize the atmospheres of earth-like worlds around nearby stars. The 2nd generation versions, achievable technology for us now, will be able to image those worlds.

    So any species that has spent much time past this level of technology will probably know about and have imaged in detail every single oxygen-atmosphere living world in our galaxy, including ours, eons ago. And the speed of light or radiation hardly matters if such a civilization is long-lived and settles for probes.

    So the Fermi Paradox doesn’t rule out the existence of quiet or defunct probes in our solar system (easter eggs), only large-scale interference or massive industrial projects. If they had no intention to interfere, and such a probe was not actively accelerating into or out of our solar system, why would it be obvious to us? Quiet or dead easter eggs would seem to me to be far more likely than radio signals or contact of any sort. And they would take us ages to find. We’re just barely able to image our own moon landing sites, even knowing exactly where they are. Just because all the “face on mars” stories to date have arisen from loons, doesn’t mean the concept is invalid or unlikely. It’s just several decades too early; every rock in the system would have to be imaged to 10cm resolution to be even close to sure.

  • diogenes

    I can only agree with Hawking insofar as it’s naive to think that E.T.’s will ALWAYS be benign. The most dangerous E.T.’s to meet are probably those just a LITTLE ahead of us technologically, such as in Niven and Pournelle’s Footall and in Harry Turtledove’s interminable World War series. It would seem that the odds on meeting such a species are pretty low compared to the alternative. Which doesn’t mean we should be broadcasting any EXTRA signals saying “here, look at me”.

  • http://rationaldreaming.com Dreamer

    I can only agree with Hawking insofar as it’s naive to think that E.T.’s will ALWAYS be benign. The most dangerous E.T.’s to meet are probably those just a LITTLE ahead of us technologically, such as in Niven and Pournelle’s Footall and in Harry Turtledove’s interminable World War series. It would seem that the odds on meeting such a species are pretty low compared to the alternative. Which doesn’t mean we should be broadcasting any EXTRA signals saying “here, look at me”.

    I agree that less advanced aliens could be more troublesome, but that we are far less likely to be visited by such, unless we are missing a simple trick for viable interstellar travel.

    But unless we suddenly decide that building a super-colossal METI beacon here on Earth, I doubt any signals we send out will be noticed, and even if they were, by the time any ships get here, it’s likely that several hundred years will have passed (at least) so it’s not as though there would any imminent threat. By the time they arrive, both parties could have evolved beyond recognition (technologically and/or socially).

    The only caveat I can think of would be if a more primitive culture discovers or steals interstellar technology far beyond it’s current capability — as in Stargate, for example. Discovering a wormhole devices capable of instant transport to wide array of other planets would certainly be a cause for mischief.

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  • http://www.jimbechtel.com Jim Bechtel

    Here’s another version of first contact. “The Five Requirements for membership in a Galactic Federation.” What would we have of real value to others?

    The GFR (Galactic Federation Representative).

    Their stealth technology isn’t what was so impressive. After all, we had developed a pretty good understanding of radar reflectivity ourselves, so it was no surprise that a civilization capable of crossing interstellar space could shield their vehicles from detection. It was crossing interstellar space itself that was so impressive. Surely, to be useful, travel between solar systems had to be done at velocities faster than light. Despite generations of science fiction jargon about “warp drives” and “hyperspace,” all it amounted to was jargon, with no clear ideas on how to proceed, no hypotheses to test. The thing our physicists would have killed to get their hands on was the visitors’ propulsion systems.

    The moment they suddenly appeared on our orbital monitoring systems, before they even descended to the surface, debate erupted. There were exactly one hundred objects dropping out of orbit. Why one hundred? Did they have a base-ten math? Did this mean they have ten fingers or claws or tentacles? Did they select the number to make us feel more at ease? If so, did that mean they‘d been monitoring our broadcasts, and had a good understanding of our psychology? (But why would they think we would feel more anxiety if they’d been, say, 87 in number?) Was it mere coincidence? For example, did there just happen to be exactly one hundred places on the Earth that exhibited certain favored characteristics? If so, what could these characteristics be? Head-scratching was all that could be done until more was learned.

    [deleted pages about the spheres, their landings, and the process of selecting a representative]

    The debriefings of failed candidates led to speculation about the aliens’ insistence on an “open admissions” policy. Many experts might be knowledgeable in one or more of these fields, and policy makers could claim priority, but evidently what the GF was looking for was not only someone with a broad background but someone who was not “compromised,” not a part of the existing power structure, not predisposed to convention. Perhaps like human traders and missionaries who bypassed local chiefs and kings and set up trade relations with the right kind of clever nobody (who would later grow in status and power as the friend of the outsiders) –perhaps the GF preferred to create its own rival power structure from scratch.

    Several amateur Renaissance Men and polymaths made it this far but were felled by the next and final question: ”What do you think should be the admission requirements which Earth must meet for entry into the Galactic Federation?” From this point on, the interview program began to engage the candidates in a more conversational way, asking them to clarify or elaborate on this or that point, or to consider some alternative perspective, guiding the discussion to a greater extent. The first impression of those running the debriefings was that the GF had not arrived with a preconceived set of criteria for admission except perhaps in a general way, but was interested in working out in discussion with humans what the Earth was most in need of, as well as what we have to offer the GF.

    [More deletions]

    The Five Requirements for membership (and the associated Five Interim Goals) are so familiar to us by now that it is easy to forget that to most people at the time they were anything but obvious. In fact, just as the story of the Loyalists in the American Revolution was easy to overlook, so too have the dissenters against the Five Requirements been forgotten. But at the time each of the Five stirred up strong resistance and vigorous debate. So much so that the GF, through their interview program, had to remind us that joining the GF was strictly voluntary. This intensified the debates, subjecting those opposed to membership to enormous pressures, being accused of standing between the human race and an inconceivably great future. The GF would offer us many benefits, some beyond imagining, but they would not coerce us. If we did decide to join we must first meet some basic criteria. We had to become civilized. We would demonstrate that we had become civilized by meeting the Five Interim Goals on our own. After that, Earth would be admitted to the Galactic Federation as a Provisional Member, and plenty of aid from the GF would be available to further the pursuit of the Five Requirements, and to make the planet into what might have struck earlier generations as a Garden of Eden.

    The First Requirement, and of course the most strongly resisted, was disarmament and the abolition of war. Nations could keep the equivalent of modest National Guards, and the UN was encouraged to maintain an effective peace-keeping force, but the age of uncontrolled savagery at the nation-state level would have to end, if only to free up resources for the other Requirements. Many studies had already revealed the enormous amounts of the planet’s resources that were being squandered by military-industrial complexes in the First World (in the US, military spending, realistically tabulated, amounted to as much as all other federal spending combined). And in the Third World arms ate up scarce resources badly needed for other priorities (for example, 8% of what they spent on weapons would provide universal family planning and stabilize world population in 15 years, 4% would cut illiteracy in half, etc.).

    Many observers (eg, Paul M. Kennedy, Robert D. Kaplan, Antonio Negri) had noted the decline of the nation-state, but the governing elites of the world, dependent on the nation-state and its propaganda organs to maintain control, were now faced with the threat of losing power and influence, as popular imagination became channeled toward the GFR as the spokesman for humanity’s future.

    The Second Requirement was an effective world government, needed to carry out the other requirements, funded by the “Peace Dividend.” (One of its goals would be to define and promote social justice.) Prestigious political leaders who had long opposed the UN and were enraged by disarmament found themselves bypassed, treated as irrelevant. One might imagine a tribal leader in the nineteenth century resisting the coming of the modern world. Suddenly these men who had enjoyed such immense power and influence were as impotent as Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s great novel Things Fall Apart.

    The Third Requirement was, we were told, third only sequentially but in reality was considered the most important by the Galactic Federation: Halt and reverse population growth. The GF had intervened to prevent our uncontrolled reproduction from destroying the planet, which the GF had an interest in preserving for its unique resources. Two immediate incentives were offered, regardless of whether we ever made it to full membership. As soon as measurable progress was made, the GF would make available advanced energy sources to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, with its devastating climate change. And the second incentive, to be made available as soon as population growth was not only halted but reversed, was immortality. That is, life spans that would endure indefinitely in the absence of fatal accidents. (Actuaries immediately calculated that, given current average accident rates, a typical life span would be “only” about 600 years.) Of course, they would not disclose in advance which (if any) of our own lines of research into life extension were on the right track, whether the most promising approach was growth hormone treatments or hormone replacement therapy, gene therapy, telomerase, rejuvenation by stem cells, antioxidants, tissue regeneration, or nanotechnology.

    The prospect of immortality had an enormous impact, of course. For one thing, the pressure against the opponents of membership now became irresistible. But far more than that, offering us the chance to live forever sent a profound shock wave through the human psyche such as nothing else has ever done. The first shock wave had been contact with others –we are not alone. The universe is not empty. When we look up at the night sky, we now know there are others out there, no longer a hope or a probability but a comforting certainty. This would have been enough for one generation to absorb. Certainly contact itself had an enormous impact, but the idea of not dying was more personal. It hit you at the gut level. ”I may not have to die?” A tremendous weight was lifted. We now faced centuries of life in which to learn a dozen languages, master a dozen musical instruments, nurture lasting relationships, travel the world, study the past, shape the future, celebrate limitless vistas of experience. It was overwhelming. Both the initial contact itself and then the offer of immortality wreaked havoc with religion, and in many places fear of the unknown, disorientation, loss of comforting assurances, fear of change, ran rampant and resulted in violence. Many people were, and still are, deeply upset by the new view of the universe and of life. They found allies in those conservatives who had been displaced from center stage. As we know, these changes and challenges are still being sorted through.

    The Fourth Requirement was the protection of genetic diversity. If the visitors could laugh, the GFR later said, they must have laughed at our sci fi stories of aliens invading to take our water or other mineral resources. The galaxy is bursting with all the water and iron anyone could want. The ONE thing that is precious beyond price, the one thing they will line up to trade for, is the wealth of end products of a billion years of trial and error, the endless experiments of evolution. In our genetic diversity we have something that, with all their advanced technology, no GF scientists can create. They can certainly analyze the end products, the genomes, and they can select material for use in genetic engineering, and they will pay to do so by sharing knowledge (the currency of the GF), but nature has been running a vast experiment of immense complexity for hundreds of millions of years, which cannot be duplicated. All over the Galaxy local life forms and genomes are the most valuable of trade items, priceless. As a practical matter the GF valued diverse genomes for use in seeding suitable worlds in “terraforming” projects, and perhaps this was one reason they had evolved an ethic of reverence for life. Second to genome trade, the GFR was told, is artifact trade. Biological evolution produces unique creatures found nowhere else, and cultural evolution does likewise. Membership in the GF would bring to Earth the equivalent of art historians and anthropologists eager to see our creations. But the market for these things was less broad and more specialized. Our real valuables lie in the fellow earthlings under our feet; the only things not found anywhere else in the universe, irreplaceable treasures.

    As with disarmament and world government, protection of the environment put an uncomfortable spotlight on conservative politicians who had long been opponents of progress in these areas. They could be expected to resist becoming marginalized, but short of violence it was difficult for them to see a way out, in the face of overwhelming public support for GF membership.

    The Fifth Requirement, we later learned, was not initially supported by the alien interview program, which felt it was implicit in the second requirement, but it was eventually persuaded by the arguments of the human GFR that the world government must earn support and legitimacy in order to pursue the other goals. Thus the Fifth Requirement: To develop a more humane social environment, to protect human rights, and to pursue universal education and health care.

    Of course as it turned out to everyone’s immense frustration we never learned the answers to many of our questions. How much of the Galaxy does the Federation encompass? Are there signs of other civilizations in other galaxies? How great a difference is there between the most advanced races and the least advanced (like us)? We never learned because as soon as all positions were filled and the trainees finished training and emerged from the spheres, all hundred lifted off the ground and, at about two hundred miles up, vanished from detection, presumably going into their “stealth” mode. Whether they left the solar system (as they said they would) or lingered hidden is a matter of ongoing research. Since they radiated heat energy when on earth, it is hoped that we can develop detections systems of sufficient sensitivity to spot them if they are still nearby.

    Before they left, during the week the GFR trainee was inside, the interview program loosened up and engaged in conversation with him, during which he acquired information later shared with the media. The first information that it volunteered was that six candidates would be accepted worldwide. Upon completion of their training, the GFR would be assisted by five Deputy GFRs, still being screened. One for North America (the US, Canada, and Mexico), one for Eurasia (Europe, the Middle East, and Russia, including Siberia), one for Central Asia and East Asia (China, Korea, Japan), one for Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific island nations, and one for Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.

    The interview program also volunteered that indeed this was their first visit to our planet. An automated probe had parked in our solar system a century ago and had monitored and relayed our transmissions, and they were aware of our UFO stories but they assured us that no one had visited us during that time. This was not well received by UFOlogists, who proclaimed that the aliens were covering up the truth for sinister purposes of their own.

    Physicists were excited at the revelation that our broadcasts were “relayed.” How? By a faster-than-light communications system, which was assumed to be a sine qua non for a galactic federation? Before the spheres left, they gave the GFR two superluminal communications devices for his use in reporting on progress toward the Interim Goals. The interview program warned that the devices would self-destruct if tampered with. But this invaluable sample of advanced technology couldn’t be left uninspected, and the inevitable happened. Too much prodding triggered the self-destruct and it melted into a slag heap. It was widely thought that this is why the GF had left two of them, one to serve as a lesson.

    The one question that most inflamed people’s curiosity was, of course, what were the aliens like? The evasive answer was that the GF contained many lifeforms that would astound us, but that to ease the “culture shock,” one race in particular had been selected from two likely candidates, both of whom had been eager to be our First Contact as soon as we filled the Five Interim Goals (which could take a century). We would just have to be patient. But perhaps understanding the intensity of our curiosity, the interview program finally relented, revealing, after much probing from the GFR during his week of training, that the race selected to be our liaison (and tutor) was, like us, a recent admission, a “young” race. We were supposed to be reassured by the revelation that in physical appearance they resembled in a very approximate way terrestrial birds. (The runner up race was roughly analogous to squids.) Many commented that if these were supposed to be the ones most like us, or at least like familiar creatures, what on earth would the others look like? Then again, if these were merely the most familiar to us in shape from among the newest members, perhaps there would be someone more reassuringly like us that we could eventually relate to from among the older members.

    If we meet the Five Requirements (worth doing for their own sake, but unlikely had the outside intervention not happened) we will eventually be considered civilized, and will qualify for the GF, and someday we will be able to say: “Thus began the passage of the human race from the darkness of prehistory into the light of history.”

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  • http://everyoneisdead.blogspot.com andrew


    roughly, population growth slows, stops, or reverses when carrying capacity is met or exceeded. if the means are available, most species/civilizations will decide that growth is the best policy, and that expansion is preferred over contraction. ‘new’ populations, in areas with theoretically high carrying capacity relative to population, will grow rapidly.

    aliens might be exploring for multiple reasons. someone with more time on their hands could come up with a sort of a Drake equation for the likelihood that they’re exploring for a given reason:
    existential curiosity/boredom
    religious fervor/insanity

    i think colonization/conquest is most likely. as everyone else has pointed out, raw materials are easy to come by, and any civilization that can move significantly between stars probably can synthesize whatever they need given those raw materials. boredom or insanity seem unlikely to mount significant expeditions (look at human resources expended historically on science and religion, versus on colonization and conquest – probably a very small ratio).

    what will be more difficult to synthesize is habitat, especially for populations comparable to a few billion humans. terraforming, however its done, takes time and effort. if you find a world that’s just right, though, warm, manageable atmosphere, dynamic chemistry, etc., it might be hard to resist.

    to be prepared for the coming invasion, humanity should try to make its presence in the solar system as robust as possible, to make ourselves as comfortable and familiar with the terrain as possible. we don’t want our only home-field advantage to be on the surface of our homeworld, do we?

  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Doug Watts

    Given the solar system was formed in roughly the last third of the age of the Universe, 4.5 billion years ago, it would seem that any evidence of past colonization efforts over the last 4 billion years would be observable, say, on Mars, which has a bedrock surface that has not changed a lot since its early formation, minus a few big, extinct volcanoes. The question of visitation is a question of archaeology, not listening for signals from space. Planetary archaeology, thus far, shows not a single sign of any habitation or visitation anywhere. Lunar mapping can now show objects on the Moon’s surface as small as the Apollo lunar module. But no signs of any other “craft.” No other “craft” in 4 billion years? While photo resolution on Mars is not as good as the Moon, still, there are no signs of anything except entirely natural features. Eric von Daniken aside, not a single bit of evidence of visitation on Earth has ever been found, even though our fossil record goes back a billion years.

    Given the past observable record, it seems ‘visitation’ that leaves permanent, observable marks has been non-existent in our solar system over millions of years. So it seems a very slim chance that now, suddenly, “they” will appear, coincidentally just as “we” are technologically advanced to look for “them.” Doubtful.

  • Brian Too

    17. Dr. Goulu,

    What piffle! Aliens don’t “have to” be aggressive, or indeed anything else. Humans “have to” reproduce exponentially, except, what’s that? Oh, intelligence. We control our reproduction (at least once educated and your standard of living rises).

    Behaviour modification. It’s one of the hallmarks of intelligence.

  • Jennifer West

    Sean, I liked this little article in the Onion, sums up all 3 of my opinions on Hawking’s opinion:



  • vince from chicago

    It’s too late. I’ve already contacted an alien and we’re going bowling this weekend. I’ll tell you how it went Monday… if I make it back.

  • Sean Peters

    Bob @ 31 – here’s the deal though… we’ve pretty much already figured it out. It’s impossible. Not impossible in the sense that there are engineering problems that we haven’t figured out how to solve, but impossible in the breaks-the-laws-of-physics sense. Accelerating something to c would require infinite energy, period. And there’s not even a hint of a way around this. Say it with me, people – FTL travel is not possible. And given that slower than FTL travel is unbelievably impractical for interstellar distances, I think we can pretty much rule out alien invasions.

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  • Andrew S

    A species that has the capability of interstellar travel has technology far greater than ours. Part of technology is destructive capability. As technology improves, the destructive capability of a single person increases and the cost decreases.

    On our planet, a small handful of people have the destructive capability to destroy earth’s civilization. On a planet far more advanced w/ interstellar travel, it is likely that far more people have such power. A species which has survived development of technology where any member of the society can destroy their planet is one that has developed some sort of peace such that they have survived.

    Any intelligent species that visits us will be far more peaceful than we are.

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  • RogerPenna

    the entire problem in the field, and I see it here too, is that people are projecting HUMANITY in the aliens… both for the bad and for the good!!!

    the simple fact is: WE DONT KNOW aliens biology, evolutionary path, technology, logic, etc!!

    thus, its PURE BULLSHIT to assume aliens wont harm us on purpose. Its also pure bullshit to assume aliens WILL harm us on purpose.

    we simply DO NOT KNOW. Thus, we need to be careful.

    “oh, but if aliens wanted, they have already catched our I Love Lucy or the Berlin Olympics”

    Nonsense. David Brin gives a good argument against such simple minded assumption. Imagine throwing a rock in a lake, causing ripples. Now you get a laser pointer and flash it across the lake. WHICH ONE will probably be noticed? Thats tv signals against the METI program! METI flashed a laser pointer across the lake!

    “Oh, but if aliens are advanced, they would have caught even the ripples”. Maybe, maybe not. Its illogical to assume aliens will SURELY see the ripples across the lake. So illogical that METI exists! If aliens will surely see the lakes across the lake, then why flash the laser pointer???????

    Some of the people assuming aliens will necessarily be do-gooders and have already surpassed all their evolutionary needs are as naive as the xenophiles on the top of the Empire States Building in Independence Day… “oh, look at the bright light”…

    Assuming otherwise is silly too. Although I think the scenario of aliens destroying us because of the resources ON EARTH is very implausible, the fact is that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

  • RogerPenna

    AndrewS, your example is very naive and again, assumes that aliens are like humans. Aliens may have entirely different society structures. Between their own species, they may be completely bound by honor or family ties… and may have organized war like the greeks had “champions fighting each other to decide the fate of the war”. But when against other species they may be xenophones. Its just ONE example. They could be like ants. They may have eliminated all opposition in their planet, even if that cost them a nuclear winter. And the suriving gene line survived and expanded to cover the entire planet again and then to space. And they eliminate all other intelligent life forms.

    People, stop assuming you know anything about how aliens may think. In the end, all your lines of thought are based on flawed logic that projects humanity into the aliens!

    I STRONGLY suggest you all read David Brin´s article about the subject.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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