Everyone’s favourite cyborg, Professor Stephen Hawking, is in a bit of trouble with the media. Apparently, he thinks that if we were to have contact with an advanced alien species, we would suffer for it. Therefore, he argues, we should avoid contact with potential non-terrestrial intelligence.
I don’t know why he gets shit for articulating this belief. He is not the first to do so. In fact, if one applies the rational model of decision theory, it is hard to escape the conclusion that things will necessarily go badly for homo sapiens in the great cosmic blind date.
Hawking’s proclamation reminds me of the way in which I conceptualize this discussion, as a dialectic between two poles. On one end is the pacifist optimism of Carl Sagan, my boyhood hero. On the other end is the cold, calculating, almost neo-liberal harshness of Charles Pellegrino, whose books I discussed in this Podium article (reproduced on Skiffy.ca).
In short, Sagan’s argument was that any civilization that managed to master the economics, politics and technologies needed to achieve sustained interstellar travel must have also solved its indigenous social issues. For, he argued, if one is constantly diverting resources to address preventable concerns, such as wars, then one can never become a multi-planetary civilization. Therefore, when we finally venture forth into interstellar space, we will have become a truly peaceful society. By that same logic, any aliens we encounter must also necessarily be pacifistic.
Do remember that Sagan presented his many ideas mostly during the 1970s, when the Cold War was fierce and foremost on everyone’s mind. Hope was in desperate need, and Sagan often saw it as his duty to provide such hope from the podium of science.
Pellegrino, arguing from another era –the post-Society era of crumbling empires, multipolar uncertainties and a global return to warlordism– had another take. He argued essentially three things:
- Vegetarians don’t become top dog. In other words, the dominant species on any planet will likely be a predatory species well bred in the arts of conflict.
- When push comes to shove, any rational party (i.e., the aliens) will always consider their own needs above ours.
- They will assume the same of us.
With those three assumptions, Pellegrino concluded that any meeting of any two interstellar species will eventually become violent.
Pellegrino added to his argument the likely development of “the big gun,” a weapon of such awesomeness that its theoretical existence is sufficient cause to ratchet up the tension levels. Pellegrino’s “big gun” is the relativistic missile. Imagine, if you will, a ship the size of a space shuttle. One could accelerate this ship to high relativistic velocities, of the order of 99.999% the speed of light, using foreseeable technology, such as an ion impulse drive (which was successfully tested on NASA’s Deep Space One mission). You’d have to leave the engine running for many centuries to achieve such a speed, but we are dealing with immense distances and times here, so that is not a problem.
Now imagine such a ship, traveling at such a speed, colliding with an inhabited world the size of the Earth. It is conceivable that 100% of the ship’s mass would be instantaneously converted to energy, according to Einstein’s famous theorem. That amount of energy would, Pellegrino argues, be sufficient to destroy all life on the target planet.
Okay, so the big gun sucks. So what? Well, a relativistic missile is moving at almost the speed of light. This means that by the time you see it, it’s already here. There is therefore no conceivable defense against such an attack. This is not a failing of technology, that can be overcome with more research. Rather, it is an immutable fact presented to us by the laws of physics. (Just accept the argument; I know there are science fiction solutions having to do with subspace or hyperspace or whatever, but those constructs currently don’t play well with mainstream physics.)
Lastly, since the relativistic missiles need to be launched centuries in advance, it’s best to launch earlier rather than later.
So, given that any interstellar species could build such a thing, and that there is no possible defense against it, and that its result is complete genocide…. well, you do the math. Pellegrino concludes that if we were to ever meet an interstellar species, we must launch first, because we cannot tolerate the risk that they might launch first.
He uses this reasoning to explain why the skies are silent, why the SETI project has failed to find any sign of intelligent extraterrestrial life: anyone who was foolish enough to broadcast was summarily terminated. The universe might be teeming with civilizations clever enough to know to stay silent, and they have the good sense to hide from us and from each other. Civilizations, it seems, were meant to never know of each other’s existences. Our only choices are aloneness or summary destruction.
And remember: we’ve been broadcasting for about a century now. For all we know, relativistic missiles have already been launched in our direction.
Have a nice day.