Should We Look Outside Or Not?

Should We Look Outside Or Not? Carl Sagan
  • Should humankind respond to alien signals from space, if emitted? Assume that is possible, the next question is, would it be wise?

Ever since the first man had looked up at the night sky, human beings, have been driven by curiosity to learn whether life exists elsewhere in the vast and mysterious universe, either in man's own image or in some other form and shape.

It is only since the early 70s that distinguished astronomers like Carl Sagan began to think about searching for transmissions from civilisations on other planets.

This had not been possible in the past, because of a lack of technologically capable scientific equipment.

Carl Sagan gave an optimistic view that man has now at his command the vast resources of radio astronomy with the help of which he can carry out a systematic search for extraterrestrial life forms.

Any project that is involved in a search for life elsewhere, has to depend on one major principle — the possibility that if an alien civilisation with sufficient technological capability exists, it must be broadcasting a communication on the frequency of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, which with a properly built receiving system we would be able to receive.

A large number of scientists, including Nobel Laureates Francis Crick, Linus Pauling, and Britain's world renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking indicated their support for such projects. They shared Sagan's optimism because they also felt that for the first time, man was in a position to communicate with other life forms in the universe, if they exist, and that if this opportunity is lost, the skies of the future may be jammed with frequencies of military and civilian transmissions that there would be no way of distinguishing an alien transmission from a transmission emanating from the earth.

At the same time, the proliferation of movies like ET and Star Wars, television serials like Star Trek and sci-fi novels have fired public imagination from the early 70s about the possibility of existence of life elsewhere in other planets in our own galaxy, and in planets revolving around suns in other galaxies.

It is against this background that one must view the alarm sounded by the renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking just before his death, which I have discussed below.

Hawking was generally regarded as a worthy successor to Einstein. He had occupied the Lucasian chair of mathematics in England's Cambridge University, founded in 1663, and regarded all over the world as the most prestigious chair in mathematics.

He had collaborated with Roger Penrose of Oxford University and studied black holes and gravitational singularity theorems in the framework of Einstein's general theory of relativity.

This had led to his prediction that the mysterious black holes emit the so-called "Hawking radiation".

His reputation was so high in scientific circles that when he spoke, if only with a voice synthesizer, the world listened.

Hawking was in the news just before his death because of his startling prediction that there must be an advanced civilisation elsewhere in the universe in some distant planet, which might take over the earth, if we tried to establish contact, in response to a signal from it.

This would be like Europeans taking over America from native Americans after they had cordially received Columbus.

Therefore, he warned that we should not respond to any such signals. This was a volte face, which was in sharp contrast to his earlier support to projects aimed at sending signals with the hope of locating alien life forms.

There is a misconception that Hawking made this prediction only in 2017, because some newspapers reported, that in his film "Favourite places", Hawking had taken viewers in a spacecraft, which flew by a planet thought to harbour an advanced life form, which would conquer our planet.

Actually, Hawking had made this prediction in May 2010, in the Discovery Channel. What, however, was significant about the latest theory was that Hawking had this time introduced an element of certainty into his prediction.

Hawking pointed out that there are 2 trillion galaxies in the universe and that even the "Milky Way" — our own galaxy — has a hundred billion stars.

Therefore, he was fairly certain that an alien life form does exist even on the planet Gliese 832 C in our nearest galaxy, which is 16 light years away from the Earth (a light year is the distance travelled by light at velocity of 186,000 miles per second for a whole year), and is five times as heavy as earth.

Furthermore, it orbits around a red dwarf that has half the mass and radius of our sun, and more importantly, it receives the same average energy as the earth does from the sun.

This makes the planet's parameters like distance and temperature ideally suited for the appearance of liquid water on its surface millions of years ago.

A primitive life form like bacteria must have emerged at that time and then the laws of evolution would have resulted in making it more advanced than us.

Hawking was of the view that the inhabitants of Gliese 832 C might have exhausted all the food and other resources on their planet and would be wandering around all over space "like a nomad" in search of a hospitable planet.

And, if by chance they locate the earth by our foolishly responding to some signal from them, they would annihilate the inhabitants of our planet.

Hence, he felt we should not respond to any signal coming from outer space.

Hawking was not the first scientist to make a Cassandra-like prophecy.

Even about two decades ago, the eminent American theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku, wrote in his book Hyperspace that whenever there is a clash of unequal civilisations, the consequences are dangerous for the weaker civilisation.

He cites the example of the Aztecs of Mexico whose civilisation had risen over thousands of years to great prominence, and the full meridian of its glory.

However, because they possessed gun powder and warships, a band of 400 Spaniards were able to conquer them, ending their civilisation.

So Hawking did not say anything new in citing the example of the arrival of Columbus in America resulting in the subjugation of the native Americans to infer that an advanced civilisation from Gliese 832 C would similarly subjugate mankind.

On the other hand, some astrophysicists ask why we should not hope that some friendly aliens who are extremely happy to continue to live in their own planet, merely want to visit our planet as a gesture of goodwill and friendship, instead of taking a pessimistic view, like Hawking and Kaku?

Therefore, to all prophecies of doom, our standard answer should perhaps be: "We have heard such fanciful notions before".

Even if a man of the stature of Hawking had said it!

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.


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