Stephen Hawking and SETI

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(April 26, 2010) Today I am at AbSciCon 2010, a meeting on astrobiology in League City TX, and I did manage to attend the first session this morning before having to step out to reply to media enquiries.  

On a Discovery Channel TV program last night, Stephen Hawking spent the majority of an hour explaining what astrobiology is (trying to understand the origin, nature, and distribution of life in the universe), and why searching for microbial life beyond Earth and conducting SETI searches are so important, relevant, and in the case of SETI, perhaps very difficult.  It would have been fun to field media questions on this part of the show, but alas what the journalists wanted comments on were Prof. Hawking's closing comments that an advanced technology, capable of reaching the Earth, might be aggressive and exploit us - as more advanced technologies on Earth have exploited more primitive cultures.  He suggested this was a reason for not purposefully transmitting .  

So what's my reply?  Prof. Hawking is correct, any technology with whom we make contact, through optical or radio SETI projects, or because they show up on our doorstep, will in fact be technologically more advanced than we are (they couldn't be less advanced, or contact couldn't happen), and that means they will be older than us.  Prof. Hawking imagines they may be nomads in search of territory to trash.  He could be right, he's a pretty brilliant guy.  But he also imagines they may be creating wormholes at will to get here from there.  It's going to take some time for a technology to master that trick; it seems to me that if they managed to survive long enough to tame wormholes, they probably had to stabilize their civilization along the way.  I'm inclined to think a long-lived technology will have outgrown or mastered the aggression that probably accompanied their early evolution towards intelligence.  I think it is as likely that an old, advanced technology would be interested in preserving and protecting any galactic biodiversity they encounter, as they would be in usurping it and its resources.  Between Prof. Hawking's opinion and mine, there is infinite room for differing opinions as well. in this particular circumstance, none of us is yet expert.

I'm going back to my astrobiology meeting, and after that I'll check in and see how our SETI observations on the ATA went today.