A novel take on alien life comes from British scientist Stephen Hawking in a documentary for the Discovery Channel in 2010.
Though films often portray humans as attempting to make contact with alien life forms, Hawking advises that if there are any aliens out there in the universe – just leave them alone!
As a leading scientist on the international scene, Hawking uses his documentary to explain his thinking on the universe. Although much of what Hawking has said and written to date can be a bit beyond the comprehension of many ordinary mortals (this writer included!) he argues a simple theory on the probability of alien life.
With100 billion galaxies in the universe, he says, and hundreds of millions of stars in each one, the probability is that life forms have evolved on other planets besides Earth.
“To my mathematical brain” he says “the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”
The answer, he theorises, is that alien life forms are likely to comprise mostly weeny microbes or very basic animals.
The documentary does however indulge in a flight of fancy, showing a scene where two-legged herbivores, chomping vegetation on an alien planet, are preyed upon by flying yellow lizards. Another scene has bright fluorescent sealife swimming in great shoals in oceans which are believed to lie underneath ice sheets on Europa, a moon of Jupiter.
Hawking’s point about eventual contact between humans and aliens is that the possible risks to human life are likely to outweigh the possible opportunities.
“We only have to look at ourselves” he comments “to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”
Rather than use a film trilogy like Aliens to illustrate the danger he foresees, Hawkings uses a very human analogy. “If aliens ever visit us” he says “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.”
Hawking who is paralysed by motor neurone disease is now 68. He carries out his scientific work despite his disability and his struggle to communicate. The documentary for Discovery was three years in the making and during that time Hawking oversaw the scriptwriting personally and approved the filming.
The result, says producer John Smithson, is a programme that is “entertaining for a general audience as well as scientific and that’s a tough job, given the complexity of the ideas involved.”
Hawking’s thinking on alien life forms has developed alongside scientific discoveries. In the last 15 years, for example, more than 450 planets – larger than Earth – have been found to be orbiting distant stars. It has also been discovered that life on Earth exists in the harshest environments, previously thought entirely unable to support life forms. These two phenomena together demonstrate that, theoretically, alien life may have evolved elsewhere in the universe.
It sounds as if this documentary work by Hawking will be more accessible than some of his books, famous for being ‘fascinating’ but virtually impossible for the non-scientist to understand! Everyone I know seems to buy his books reverently, admiring his brainy theories and reputation. Almost everyone says some time later: “Had to put it down at page 5. He’s too clever! He just loses me.”
Since Hawking’s intelligence seems to be pretty far removed from the average human intelligence I can imagine a cartoon response to his alien life warning. A space ship is hovering above the Earth and aliens look out of the window. “Let’s make contact” they say enthusiastically. Then they spot Stephen Hawking and say: “Oh no. Not him. We won’t understand a word he says.”