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The Myth of the Evil Aliens

Why Stephen Hawking is wrong
about extraterrestrial intelligences
magazine cover

WITH THE ALLEN TELESCOPE ARRAY run by the SETI Institute in northern California, the time is coming when we will encounter an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). Contact will probably come sooner rather than later because of Moore’s Law (proposed by Intel’s co-founder Gordon E. Moore), which posits a doubling of computing power every one to two years. It turns out that this exponential growth curve applies to most technologies, including the search for ETI (SETI): according to astronomer and SETI founder Frank Drake, our searches today are 100 trillion times more powerful than 50 years ago, with no end to the improvements in sight. If E.T. is out there, we will make contact. What will happen when we do, and how should we respond?

Such questions, once the province of science fiction, are now being seriously considered in the oldest and one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world—Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A—which devoted 17 scholarly articles to “The Detection of Extra-Terrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society” in its February issue. The myth, for example, that society will collapse into fear or break out in pandemonium—or that scientists and politicians will engage in a conspiratorial cover-up—is belied by numerous responses. Two such examples were witnessed in December 2010, when NASA held a very public press conference to announce a possible new life-form based on arsenic, and in 1996, when scientists proclaimed that a Martian rock contained fossil evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet and President Bill Clinton made a statement on the topic. Budget-hungry space agencies such as NASA and private fund-raising organizations such as the SETI Institute will shout to the high heavens about anything extraterrestrial they find, from microbes to Martians. But should we shout back to the aliens? (continue reading…)

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