Challenging Hawking’s universe

 A few of Stephen Hawking’s comments on “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking”, a new Discovery Channel series, sparked a flurry of attention from the mainstream news media. Two of Hawking’s ideas resonated more than others. They were: (1) his view that time travel into the past is probably impossible due to the problem of paradoxes and the absence of time travelling tourists from the future, and (2) we should keep a low profile in space because there is a good chance that any intelligent species that detects our presence will promptly enslave or exterminate us. While the programs are excellent, and it’s nice whenever popular media pay attention to science matters, it is disappointing that the depth of discourse in reaction to the shows wasn’t higher in quality.
   CNN’s Larry King, for example, did well to have a couple of respectable scientists on his show to offer their thoughts about Hawking’s comments. But did King really have to include actor Dan Aykroyd on the panel? Aykroyd may be a fine comedic actor, but he is infected with an irrational belief in alien visitations and abductions. Sadly, the presence of just one pseudoscience-babbling celebrity can drown out much of the sensible commentary from sensible people. So while SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak and physicist Michio Kaku brought science and enlightenment to the table, Aykroyd brought only confusion and delusion.
   Many news reports highlighted Hawking’s warning that it would be best to keep our location as quiet as possible because we could end up on the menu of some advanced space faring species with a taste for carbon-based bipeds. “If aliens ever visit us,” said Hawking, “I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
   While I saw plenty of hype, I didn’t find very much analysis or scepticism in response to this idea. I agree strongly with Hawking that the chances of intelligent life existing somewhere else in the universe are high, but I disagree that a technologically superior life form will most likely wipe us out. His example of European contact with indigenous New World peoples is problematic because a species capable of travelling across galaxies is not likely to have much in common with a bunch of dentally challenged gold-obsessed humans crossing the tiny Atlantic five centuries ago.
   Consider how humankind itself has changed in the brief ensuing centuries since Columbus. The technologically superior Earth culture of today no longer attempts to “wipe out” rival human societies as was once the norm. The United States military, for example, kills with hesitation and with numerous self-imposed restrictions, far more than other military powers of the past. A small fraction of America’s nuclear arsenal could have turned Afghanistan or Iraq into glass in less than 30 minutes. But the United States has decided that it is better to kill relatively few people as selectively as it can, perhaps in the hope that the war survivors will one day become loyal customers for American corporations. In relatively short time, the strongest tribes of our species have figured out that the total annihilation of technologically inferior cultures is just not good for business. Not only is it immoral, it’s messy, harmful to long-term economic goals, and looks really bad on the front page of the New York Times.
   My hunch is that any civilization sufficiently advanced to visit us is more likely to be peaceful than warlike. If they were aggressive and violent—with technological powers unimaginable to us—they probably would have destroyed themselves long ago. We almost did ourselves in during the Cold War and all we had were “primitive” nuclear weapons, devices that would probably be a joke to beings capable of interstellar travel.
   Sure it’s possible that we might wind up at the end of a leash held by some extraterrestrial creeps, but I certainly wouldn’t lose sleep over that risk. Besides, let some galactic bullies just try and push us around. Our planet is a microbe-infested ball of organic goo and most likely we have something squirming around down here in the muck that will make an invader sick enough to flee for home. (Thank you H. G. Wells)
   Hawking’s thoughts on time travel also escaped nerdom and made their way into mainstream news. He believes that time travel into the past is likely to be impossible because of the “grandfather paradox” problem (Google it) and the absence of time travelling tourists from the future filling our sidewalks. Again, I felt the reaction to these ideas was shallow. Everybody seemed to just lap it all up without a second thought.
   First of all, the paradox problem could be something resolvable but currently beyond our comprehension. Maybe we have not yet made the prerequisite discoveries or maybe our primate brains simply aren’t up to the task at this point in our evolution. Secondly, the apparent absence of tourists from the future is not a very compelling argument. I doubt it, but maybe they are already here—in disguise. Or maybe future time travellers will only be able to travel back to the moment when the first functional time machine is invented, something that hasn’t happened yet so they can’t reach us.
   Stephen Hawking is a brilliant scientist, one of the greatest of our time, but he is not the infallible cerebral god some seem to believe he is. Don’t misunderstand, I am a Hawking fan, but we have to be sensible about how we receive the things he, or any other scientist, tells us. Everything from anyone is open to scepticism and analysis. Hawking is not some mystical being from another dimension who is beyond questioning. Although I do admit that I think the world would be much better off if more people aimed their inane celebrity worship at scientists rather than singers and actors, as is usually the case.
   I understand Hawking’s mass appeal. He is imprisoned in a paralysed body because of a degenerative disease and speaks with that weird synthetic voice. This, coupled with his achievements in science, gives him the aura of a disembodied super-brain, tailor-made to seduce otherwise rational thinkers. Yes, he may seem like a science-fiction character sent from deep space to save us. But he’s not. Stephen Hawking is just a man. A brilliant scientist, for sure, but still just a man.