Sunday, May 2, 2010

Is that a 'hand' you're shaking?

By now, everyone's heard of physicist Stephen Hawking's assertion that announcing ourselves to the greater galactic community might be a bad idea.And, not one to miss out on an opining opportunity, here's my two percent of a buck's worth.

Hawking's basic premise, on the surface anyway, seems reasonable. Essentially, by announcing our presence to anyone "out there," we run the risk of finding ourselves much as the Native Americans did with the arrival of the more technologically advanced, hygiene deficient Europeans. Let's bring it down to brass tacks by saying, basically, they were 'boned!'

However, it's fair to say that the aliens won't be 15th century Europeans. They may even take baths.

For one thing, it's highly unlikely they will find anything here that they can't find "out there," James Cameron and 'unobtainium' notwithstanding. Water seems remarkably plentiful in the universe and it's doubtful they would find us very palatable. Hey! If they've mastered the fine art of interstellar travel, chances are pretty good they've managed to eliminate a wide variety of the shortages that ails society today. If not, they're not going to get far looking here for the secrets of the universe here, I suspect.

It also assumes they're even going to travel the distance at all. After all, interstellar travel encompasses a host of technical challenges, not the least of which is time and ultimate speed limits! Our first "alien" visitor might simply be a Voyager-like probe. Perhaps it's already passed, or is on its way.

In fact, Fermi's Paradox - if there are aliens out there, given the age of the universe, how come we haven't met them yet - still holds a certain sway. Remember, Frank Drake's famous equation was never actually meant to be the final word on the likelihood of actually finding aliens, simply an agenda of points for a meeting on Project Ozma, one of the first Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) efforts. And, Area 51 conspiracists and the tinfoil hat crowd aside, we have yet to find any real evidence for anyone out there! The universe remains distressingly quiet.

One other thing pops to mind...that of the messenger. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Stephen Hawking. The man is brilliant! But he's not an astronomer, or a part of the SETI team. He's a theoretical physicist. While he has as much to lose by a planet razed to rubble by marauding aliens, he's as much of an authority on it as I am. So why the extra authority given to his voice on a subject out of his normal 9 - 5?

Ultimately, the point is moot. We've already announced our presence to'ears' and continue to do so with every radar pulse, flick of a light switch and call on a cell phone. From 50 light years out in space and listening with radio ears, our little blue marble would be the loudest radio source there is in the sky. So the cat's already out of the bag.

So get your tinfoil out and hope for the best. After all, if they're not here now...

Clear - and hopefully unthreatening - skies!

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