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Stephen Hawking Thinks Aliens Likely 579

Posted by timothy
from the they-think-much-the-same dept.
OMNIpotusCOM writes "Noted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking thinks that alien life is likely, albeit primitive, according to a lecture delivered at George Washington University in honor of NASA's 50th anniversary. It begs the question of if we need to consider a Prime Directive before exploring or sending signals too far into the depths of space."
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Stephen Hawking Thinks Aliens Likely

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  • Will they simply laugh at us earthlings; or shake their heads in frustration, wondering "when will we ever learn"?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by superash (1045796)
      ...they are just waiting for us to formulate the ultimate question for which the answer is 42!
    • by sm62704 (957197) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:54AM (#23157512) Journal
      Will they simply laugh at us earthlings; or shake their heads in frustration, wondering "when will we ever learn"?

      What makes you think life forms entirely alien to earth will even have heads? Starfish have no heads, jellyfish have no heads.

      I think it's a bit early to worry about TFS's "Star Trek Prime Directive". Sure, there is probably life alien to earth but face it, guys - we haven't found any. Not yet.

      There are folks who think an advanced civilization from some other star has already come here to study us (Roswell), but if in fact those are aliens come to visit us, I think it more likely that it is a species descended from us come back in time to do some archaeology rather than visiting from Betelguise to work on a Wikipedia entry on us..

      Travelling faster than the speed of light is, after all, just as impossible as time travel. Humans have been human for less than a million years, what will we be like in another ten million? Will we have found that time travel is as impossible as air travel was 1000 years ago?
      • by JohnFluxx (413620) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:06AM (#23157676)
        > Travelling faster than the speed of light is, after all, just as impossible as time travel

        Travelling faster than the speed of light is pretty much the same thing as time travel. If you could travel faster than the speed of light, then you could time travel.
      • by Moraelin (679338) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @01:38PM (#23160806) Journal
        Actually, without going too much into details, some things make so much and evolved independently so many times on Earth, that they make sense when you think of it.

        Or even better explained: they make sense when you

        A) want an alien at least evolved enough to hold a conversation with. Bacteria are exciting for biologists, but an alien you can actually make contact with, has damn good reasons to indeed look kinda like us.

        B) take evolution and RL constraints into consideration. It's easy to imagine giant amoeba creatures, or sacs of gas floating on Jupiter, but those tend to either (I) have blatant disadvantages that natural selection would discriminate against, or (II) they're bloody impossible. E.g., a cell is really just a drop of sea water in a lipid membrane, and evolved from some aminoacid chains which originally started replicating in plain sea water without a membrane. And from there it's been baby steps towards any complex organisms. It was first just bacterial films, then some "worms" which were just a toroidal bacterial film and "sponges" which were just a bacterial colony with holes in it, and so on. Most fantasy extraterestrial forms proposed, like those giant gas sacks, it's not clear how they'd evolve in the first place.

        But anyway, that in mind, I'll say that, for example:

        - to start with the easy part, any creature of any complexity above "bacterial colony" will have specialized cells for specialized tasks. Simply because it's a huge advantage to. Cells on your skin need to largely insulate you from the uncontrolled outside world, while cells inside need to allow a freer flow of nutrients, for example. As an added bonus, specialization also means that each cell only needs a smaller set of proteins and reactions to do its job, which reduces its energy and nutrient needs and also the number of things that can go wrong.

        So basically this rules out any ideas some may have about sentient amorphous blobs.

        - almost any creature has either bilateral or radial symmetry, simply because it saves on DNA. Your left side is largely a mirrored copy of your right side. It also has advantages like that it's easier to swim or walk when your left and right legs/fins/tentacles are the same length. And having redundant organs is an advantage by itself too.

        - any complex creature will have _some_ sensory organs, because again it's a great advantage to. Even some of the most primitive cells can detect changes in the environment, and react to them in one way or another. Some unicelular organisms already have light sensors. Over time some stuff will remain rather distributed, but high-bandwidth stuff like eyes, it makes sense to have a small number and complex/high-res, rather than photosensitivity all over your body. Other stuff tends to work _because_ it's a single structure instead of a widely distributed array, e.g., hearing. Etc. Basically given enough time and evolution, see the previous stuff about specialization: a lot of things will get concentrated and specialized.

        - almost any complex creature will have a mouth at one end and an arse at the other end, simply because it all evolved out of some ultra-primitive worms which were just a thin tube that pushed water from one end to the other. And evolution works in baby steps, small changes to what already existed. Even the exceptions tend to be actually really built the same way. E.g., gasteropods have a funkier configuration, but start as the above described tube anyway: later a diagonal muscle twists them into an different configuration.

        - neurons (or whatever the alien equivalent is), are inherently slow, compared to transistors. They're chemical things, just because they evolved out of other cells, and that's how cells work. They don't have to just transmit the signal, they actually have to produce chemicals to excite the next neuron's receptors, and then neutralize those so the next one doesn't keep firing for ever. Again, _because_ they evolved from other cells, which are just a complex chemistry run
        • by sm62704 (957197) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @02:04PM (#23161160) Journal
          A) How are we going to hold a conversation with an extraterrestrial species when we still believe that humans are the only terrestrial species with speech? Biologists are just now realising that vocal animals do in fact communicate with each other.

          B) A radically alien environment is going to evolve radical alien organisms. Starfish have no heads, like I said. Mammals have no eggs, lizards don't have milk. Snake eyes and cat eyes have a different pupil than other reptiles and mammals.

          sentient amorphous blobs

          I've often wondered if an ant were an animal, or if the ant colony was the actual animal?

          almost any creature has either bilateral or radial symmetry, simply because it saves on DNA

          I wonder if extraterrestrial life would necessarily be dependant on DNA?

          any complex creature will have _some_ sensory organs

          Which may or may not be the same as our senses. Sight nay be in the radar band yet be blind to visible light. They may even have evolved senses that earth creatures lack.

          So now we have a mouth on that "head" too

          You wouldn't need a head to have a mouth, eyes, or antennae.
    • by SterlingSylver (1122973) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:20AM (#23157908)
      The best evidence for intelligent life in the universe is that it hasn't contacted us yet
      (Paraphrasing Calvin)
  • by Lumpy (12016) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:35AM (#23157224) Homepage
    firstly many Scientists have came to that conclusion, Many mathematically proven that even if you call life rare, the sheer number of stars with the possibility of planets in a habitable zone means there is a crapload of civilizations out there.

    Hawking has said this before earlier as well. Just because he makes the same statement again instantly makes this news??

    Come on the Drake Equation has been around for a long time now guys.

    • by dreamchaser (49529) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:37AM (#23157252) Homepage Journal
      But...but...the sumbitter managed to insert a spurious Star Trek reference!!! Surely that is newsworthy!
      • Re:But...but... (Score:5, Informative)

        by aug24 (38229) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:47AM (#23157400) Homepage
        Not to mention a blatant physics error*, good on him, give him a /. gold star ;-)

        Justin.
        * "sending signals too far into the depths of space" - see 'inverse square law' and 'size of solar system', not to mention 'microwave background'
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by 1u3hr (530656)
        But...but...the sumbitter managed to insert a spurious Star Trek reference!!! Surely that is newsworthy!

        And an incorrect usage of "begs [skepdic.com] the question" [begthequestion.info].

        (I assume "sumbitter" is deliberate -- seems to be somehow more descriptive of many articles.)

    • by mark-t (151149)

      Actually, it means that there is almost certainly a crapload of civilizations out there, it is not a foregone conclusion.

      It is nevertheless still entirely possible, however unlikely, that our own civilization might actually be the only one in the whole universe.

      • It is nevertheless still entirely possible, however unlikely, that our own civilization might actually be the only one in the whole universe.

        You call this "civilization?" Get your hands off me, you dirty ape!

        In other news, aliens consider Stephen Hawking unlikely.

      • Not necessarily the only one, but it is possible that we are the most advanced civilization.
      • by JustinOpinion (1246824) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:16AM (#23157836)

        It is nevertheless still entirely possible, however unlikely, that our own civilization might actually be the only one in the whole universe.
        We certainly don't know for sure yet. But, if the universe is infinite (our current best measurements indicate that the universe is flat [wikipedia.org] and infinite), and if the initial conditions were ergodic [wikipedia.org] (which is indeed the prediction of our best model, inflation [wikipedia.org], and is consistent with the data, e.g. the microwave background [wikipedia.org]), then there are an infinite number of causally-disconnected Hubble volumes [wikipedia.org], which essentially guarantees that life exists at multiple locations in the universe.

        What this means is that in an infinite universe that has totally random initial conditions, every possible state will be realized somewhere. That means that somewhere in the universe, conditions very similar to our local conditions will be realized. Not only does this mathematically guarantee that life exists somwhere, but also that "copies" of Earth and you and me exist somewhere. All possible variants of matter organization are realized somewhere in the infinite universe (and in fact may be repeated over and over). Of course, the distances over which you will see a repeat may be fantastically large (much, much larger than the observable universe, for instance). Also, life-forms in causally-disconnected volumes can never communicate with each other. (So you may say... who cares?)

        In any case, it's not known with certainty that the universe is infinite (or that the big bang was ergodic)... but our current theories allow for models where the multiple emergence of life (and all physically reasonable variants) is in fact mathematically guaranteed. Kinda interesting.
        • by ip_vjl (410654) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:45AM (#23158330) Homepage

          but also that "copies" of Earth and you and me exist somewhere


          But we'll have goatees.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:55AM (#23158488)
          Population of the Universe: none.

          It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.
          • by TexVex (669445) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @11:41AM (#23159120)

            However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds.
            Cute, but spurious. What is half of infinity? What is infinity minus a million? The argument falsely assumes that if X < Infinity that X as automatically finite, when it should be obvious that X < Y can be true while X and Y are both infinite. In other words, there is no single value for Infinity. There are an infinite number of infinite values.
    • by qoncept (599709)
      Unfortunately for the Drake equation, at least one of the factors is 0.
    • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:50AM (#23157436) Journal
      Well, most of us assign quite a low value to B_6 in the Drake Equation. That said, the likelihood of life existing and the likelihood of our encountering it are two very different things. If it is not possible to travel faster than light then the space and time between us and our nearest neighbouring civilisation is likely to be prohibitive.
    • by evanbd (210358)

      The Drake Equation doesn't tell us everything. For starters, there's the Fermi Paradox [wikipedia.org]. More interesting, imho, are the questions raised by the Great Filter [gmu.edu] -- namely, are the hard challenges ahead of us, or behind us?

      If Hawking says he thinks life elsewhere is likely, then that implies a certain degree of pessimism about our future chances.

    • by elrous0 (869638) * on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:25AM (#23157994)
      The idea that intelligent life MUST have evolved on many other planets, just because of the sheer number of them, is hardly a "proven." The reality is that we know so little about how life really began and how it evolves that it's impossible to even begin to estimate its likelihood. Combine this with the fact that we know very little about other solar systems and planets out there, and it's clear that it's WAY to early to begin speculating about the number of other coexistent alien species. The number could be an astronomical one, it could also, just as easily, be 0.
  • No begging (Score:4, Informative)

    by Just Some Guy (3352) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:36AM (#23157228) Homepage Journal

    It begs the question of if we need to consider a Prime Directive before exploring or sending signals too far into the depths of space.

    No, it doesn't [begthequestion.info]. There. Got that out of the way.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by irlyh8d2 (1241290)
      That's the popular usage of "begging the question". As in: "that invites the question...".
      • popular == unlearned
    • by Yetihehe (971185)
      This link also begs for starting war against the abuse of word "hacker".
    • English is not my mother tongue, but my impression is that the original (quoted) poster didn't abuse, but only use, the "beg the question" expression. It did not try to prejudice an outcome.

      Feel free to correct me or confirm - I'll learn something either way.
    • by sm62704 (957197) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:03AM (#23157634) Journal
      Please? Please? Just ONE question? PLEASE?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MightyYar (622222)
      Keep banging that head against the wall.

      Not only does the old usage hardly exist anymore, but when you try to use it people have no idea what you are talking about.

      Language changes.
      • Re:No begging (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:34AM (#23158150)

        Not only does the old usage hardly exist anymore, but when you try to use it people have no idea what you are talking about.
        When I quote relevant Shakespeare, people often have no idea what I'm talking about. Does this mean I should abandon my referencing Shakespeare, especially when it is poignant to illustrate that some political dilemma, moral quandary or even humorous device had been broached over 300 years ago?

        The view that language is good enough as long as it is fairly likely to get the point across is - even putting aside that it is usually harder to parse incorrect, intelligible writing than correct prose - antithetical to the "standards" culture espoused on Slashdot. It is the permissive, lackadaisical Internet Explorer approach to HTML. And it is born, I fear, of the average nerd's mediocre ability in his own language, and his desire to change the rules to suit his own lack of interest in a discipline at least as complex, and millennia older, than his own - that of effective communication. Put down the Knuth, pick up the Fowler, and learn to express yourself as elegantly to your fellow man as you might to your computer.

        Anyway, I've met no reasonably educated man who does not know the correct usage of "beg the question". A few minutes ago I was reading a book published in the last decade which employed it correctly. Had the author wished to indicate that a particular question was "raised", he would have done so. While I'm here:

        • The gay/homosexual debate is a red herring; "gay" is a term of self-identification associated with the liberalisation of attitudes towards same-sex attraction and lifestyle; the term has evolved over 80 years in tandem with the LGBT movement. The poster's use of "beg the question" is, on the other hand, the result of incorrectly applying a well-known phrase of standard English.
        • Since this site targets computer professionals and enthusiasts, it would do well to respect the field's established jargon. If I need to reinstall Windows (and that means I've erred at least twice ;-)), I have not bricked my PC!


        Here endeth the rant.
    • by B3ryllium (571199)
      ... well, at the very least, your post begs the question of why you have so much free time that you can sit on the intarweb and patrol for grammatical and logical infractions.
    • Words and expressions often have multiple meanings. In this case, both the definition you cite, and the way the summary uses the phrase, are correct, and which is meant is discerned from the context. While I laud your ability to get +5 Informative by lacking the ability to do so, it begs the question as to whether you also post on topics about gay rights insisting that gay can only mean cheerful and not homosexual.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by LanceUppercut (766964)
        Absolutely not. There's a line, albeit fuzzy, between the formerly incorrect but now accepted uses of words, and the uses that are incorrect and unacceptable. This "begs the question" nonsense belongs to the second category. One day it will move to the first, no doubt about it, since after all, that's what American English is: an exercise in well-established illiteracy. But it is not there yet.
    • Re:No begging (Score:4, Informative)

      by belloc (37430) <belloc@laTEAtinmail.com minus caffeine> on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:29AM (#23158070) Homepage
      But "that begs the question" is close to "that 'begets' the question," which does mean "that raises/invites the question."

      This usage of 'begets' was somewhat common in 18th c. English. Take a look at Hume, Enquiry, sec. XII, pgh. 2 [eserver.org]

      Belloc
  • Prime Directive? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tgd (2822) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:36AM (#23157238)
    We, as a species, haven't managed to solve the problem of destroying primitive cultures *here* or a thousand other problems that suggest not corrupting alien cultures is something we shouldn't worry too much about.

    I mean seriously -- if we think our technology and culture is okay for the entire planet, why should we stop here?
    • by EMeta (860558)
      Indeed. I think the unstated addendum to the Prime Directive is that No pre-warp civilization should be affected by a warp-age civilization. We're still a bit away from having to worry about that.

      Unless Stephen has another announcement he's saving for another date...
    • by sm62704 (957197)
      Voyager 1 has been travelling for thirty years and still isn't completely out of the solar system. If you travel at half the speed of light it will take you that long to get to Sirius and back.

      I think before we contemplate attacking France maybe we should get out of our own backyard first.
  • okk.. (Score:5, Funny)

    by caffeinemessiah (918089) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:36AM (#23157240) Journal

    It begs the question of if we need to consider a Prime Directive before exploring or sending signals too far into the depths of space.

    You're absolutely right! We should definitely set hold back on all the space exploration we've been doing. Also, we should set physical limits for our transmissions to "expire" after a certain distance, so we don't send them "too far". In fact, that would be the only responsible thing to do for Masters of the Universe such as us.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      we should set physical limits for our transmissions to "expire" after a certain distance

      New York - April 22, 2008 - The RIAA/MPAA today announced a new initiative targetting so-called "transmission sharing." A spokesperson for the group is quoted as saying "just because an intelligent alien signal has been put out there - illegally - in the public domain doesn't mean the recording label doesn't deserve their fair cut of the action." As with the ongoing file-sharing battle, technology will play a pivotal role in the battle against transmission sharers. Several not-for-profit SETI organizations

    • by andphi (899406)
      I thought that our signals already atrophy into white noise after a few light-years. So far as I can tell, the only noticeable, durable transmissions we've sent so far are the Pioneer 10 and 11 and the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, which haven't even really left the solar system yet. Somehow, I think the odds of another civilization finding one of them by accident are (no pun intended) astronomically low. The finders would probably have to intercept them quite deliberately.

      I realize, of course, that you were repl
    • Why Skeletor, I had no idea you cared!
  • by dark grep (766587) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:37AM (#23157242)
    A prime directive is a great idea. It provides the 100% certainty that it will not be followed any in instance the plot line requires it.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by magarity (164372)
      I always thought that's why it's the "prime" directive - because it's the first one to go out the window when inconvenient.
  • we should be sure of two things. one, is it friendly? and two, are they willing to share in their probably vast knowledge? if the first is no, then it would have been better to not have found life in the first place. if the second question is no, then we need to prove that we are not as violent as we really are. if the second one is yes, then we should take great care not to turn on them.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      we should be sure of two things. one, is it friendly? and two, are they willing to share in their probably vast knowledge? if the first is no, then it would have been better to not have found life in the first place. if the second question is no, then we need to prove that we are not as violent as we really are. if the second one is yes, then we should take great care not to turn on them.

      This attitude comes straight out of reading too much science fiction. Whether it's 'friendly' or not paints wayyy to sim

  • No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Oscaro (153645) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:40AM (#23157282) Homepage
    "Aliens being likely" does not mean that it's likely we will ever meet one (or be successful in either sending or receiving any communication).
  • by Five Bucks! (769277) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:43AM (#23157336)

    However, because alien life might not have DNA like us, Hawking warned: "Watch out if you would meet an alien. You could be infected with a disease with which you have no resistance."
    That is precisely why I wouldn't be worried. Any pathogenic symbiote would have evolved to take advantage of the host's physiology -- not ours.
  • by Pedrito (94783)
    1: I too believe there's alien life. In fact, I have no doubt that there is.

    2: I suspect there's no other intelligent/space faring life in our galaxy, but probably there is in other galaxies. (Fermi paradox and Tipler-Barrow arguments both are pretty convincing to me).

    For me, #1 means that we should be careful to make sure our spaceships are bug free so we don't contaminate places we land on with life that could wipe out any indigenous life.

    For #2, it means that it's impossible for us to ever have a meaning
    • by Hektor_Troy (262592) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:12AM (#23157774)
      I don't see why Fermi's paradox is in any way a good argument. By his argument, there are no lobsters at all. I know this because last night I left my door open and waited for one to crawl in.

      Put another way - we (humanity) went from fairly small mammals to now in about 65 million years. If the dinosaurs hadn't fallen victim to $extinctionLevelEvent, they could easily have become as evolved as we are now - just a whole lot earlier. So, if intelligent/sentient life could have evolved here 60 million years ago, why wouldn't that be the case in another solar system?

      For all we know, it's entirely possible that 15,000 light years away there's a planet with a civilization that is EXACTLY as evolved as we are. Why haven't we heard from them yet? Physics - would take 15,000 years for any signal to reach us. Hell, 200 light years away would suffice for that argument, and in both cases Fermi would look like an idiot.

      As an aside, I see his paradox along the lines of creationism - after all, we can't prove that something doesn't exist. Only that it does.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Pedrito (94783)
        So, if intelligent/sentient life could have evolved here 60 million years ago, why wouldn't that be the case in another solar system?

        It comes down to statistics. Assuming space technology doesn't advance much further in the future (and we all know that's pessimistic beyond belief), we could still colonize the entire galaxy in anywhere from 5 to 50 million years. That's with technology and speeds not far beyond where we are now.

        5 to 50 million seems like a long time, but at cosmological and even geological
        • "Assuming space technology doesn't advance much further in the future (and we all know that's pessimistic beyond belief)"

          No, we don't know any such thing.

          Current life technology is based ultimately on oil- or coal-derived fuels and there is no realistic prospect that we will have enough of these to support a serious space program. Point me in the direction of a single alternative technology that will provide the kind of energy required.

          Even assuming such a technology, consider the effect on the atmosphere o

    • by qazsedcft (911254)
      For me, #1 means that we should be careful to make sure our spaceships are bug free so we don't contaminate places we land on with life that could wipe out any indigenous life.

      This is the default. Radiation from the sun and a zero pressure, zero gravity environment is enough to kill any microbes on our spaceships.
  • by benwiggy (1262536) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:47AM (#23157398)
    Was there a planet that Kirk/Picard/Janeway didn't leave in a fundamentally different state after turning up?
    Humans are designed to trade, travel and exploit resources. Then move on when there are too many tourists.
    Frankly, I'm surprised there isn't aready a Prime Directive that reads:
    "See that blue/green planet with all the space junk and EM noise? You want to leave that one well alone!"
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Stooshie (993666)

      Humans are designed ...

      really?

    • by smooth wombat (796938) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:13AM (#23157792) Homepage Journal
      Was there a planet that Kirk/Picard/Janeway didn't leave in a fundamentally different state after turning up?


      Yes. Two episodes of TNG come to mind and they illustrate the Prime Directive. I don't know the names of the episodes (and too lazy to look them up) but here are their descriptions.

      The first involved Riker being found out while on a mission to make contact with a civilization that was beginning space exploration. The actress who played Lillith is the female doctor who realizes what he is and wants to hump him at every opportunity (no argument from me). In the end, Picard meets with their leader and is asked not to return until the people are ready for the fact that there are other beings in the universe.

      The second involves Deanna's mother and her infatuation with David Ogden Stiers (Charles Emerson Winchester III). On his planet, when people reach a certain age, they are required to commit suicide. Deanna's mother can't come to grips with this and begs him not to go through with it. She even asks for Picard to offer him asylum. Picard refuses and things go on.

      In both cases, while contact had been made, the balance of the civilizations was not upset. One could argue that in the first case, the fact that certain people knew about these visitors fundamentally changed things but since only a select few knew, the general populace went about their business none the wiser.

      Personally, I think those two episodes, along with the one where Picard has to convince a group of pre-industrial people he is not a god despite his "powers", are the three episodes which best illustrate the Prime Directive and some of its permutations.

  • Nope (Score:5, Funny)

    by Cro Magnon (467622) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:48AM (#23157416) Homepage Journal
    The Prime Directive applies when an advanced culture encounters a more primitive one. While I think there is alien life out there, I seriously doubt that we'll find anyone more primitive than us.
  • by eebra82 (907996) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:52AM (#23157468) Homepage
    Stephen Hawking is a brilliant man who once claimed to be fortunate to suffer from ALS, because it gives him far more time to think and do things that normal people would instead spend on other activities (because they can).

    The only problem I have with his statements at GWU is that he is focusing too much on radio waves. He is speculating that since we haven't detected any radio waves, it is unlikely that any intelligent civilization exists close to earth (and by close, I mean in astronomical measures).

    In my opinion, scientists are taking too much for granted when looking for life. We assume that it is more likely to find life wherever water exists and we constantly assume that the conditions must be earth-like. And regarding the radio waves, I don't understand why an extraterrestrial civilization would even need to use such technology. It is just as likely that they communicate in entirely different ways. After all, hearing and seeing is just one way of living, but not a necessity.

    I realize that radio waves occur from more than just television shows, but this is mainly the type of signals we look for since the odds of intended communications from other planets are insanely small.
    • by MightyYar (622222) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:16AM (#23157832)

      And regarding the radio waves, I don't understand why an extraterrestrial civilization would even need to use such technology.
      They are limited by physics (or at least what we understand of it). "Radio waves" are just photons. If a culture is going to communicate wirelessly, they'll need to use photons.

      Then it's just a matter of settling on WHICH photons to look for. Some don't work well for communications (like the visible spectrum). Some won't travel very far. We are capable of producing photons at just about any desired wavelength, and yet we've settled on a narrow range for communications.

      You could argue that we don't understand the natural world completely yet, and so there could be other means of communication. This is absolutely true, but how would we look for something that we don't know about? Electromagnetic waves are so easy to detect and discover that any technologically advanced culture is bound to use them eventually.
  • by kylben (1008989) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:53AM (#23157498) Homepage

    It begs the question of if we need to consider a Prime Directive

    "Hello Mr. Alien. Welcome to our planet. Boy, you sure are more advanced than us!"

    "Why, yes, we are, thank you. By the way, I couldn't help noticing that many of you still die from cancer."

    "'Still die'? You mean you don't?"

    "Oh, no, we cured that a long time ago. Same for that crooked politician thing you've got going. And war. Oh, and that thing you call 'Alzheimers', too. And global warming. We don't have any of that. They all turned out to be really simple to fix, in fact."

    "Really? that's wonderful. Will you teach us how to solve these things."

    "What? No, no, child, your culture isn't ready for all that. Besides, you're so cute the way you are. No, we'll just stay up in our ships and watch you figure it out. It will probably take several more generations, but that's OK, with our advanced medical technology, we will live long enough to see it... unless you wipe yourselves out in the process, that is. He he. You amuse us."

    "Asshole"

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kindbud (90044)
      It's worse than that. The Prime Directive is a false elitism, built on a fairy-tale version of one's place in the world. It is akin to extreme environmentalist outlooks, and many religiously-based viewpoints, that see humans as separate from nature, and human tampering with nature as "unnatural" or even dangerous. So the Prime Directive asks humans to regard less technologically advanced aliens as something akin to wild animals, that should be left in their natural state - "natural" meaning merely withou
  • Noted? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Stooshie (993666) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @09:57AM (#23157548) Journal

    Noted astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking ...

    Ahem, I suspect he is a little more tha noted. He holds the same chair as Sir Isaac Newton did at Cambridge University, worked out how black holes work and is probably the most famous scientist in the world. Even the article [yahoo.com] says:

    Famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking ...
  • Honestly, the Prime Directive was the dumbest shit in the show. Any captain worth watching gave it the finger every three episodes. Programs of organized uplift would make much more sense. I mean we'd only hope for the same if somebody better ever finds us. Golden Rule and all that.
  • by athloi (1075845) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:06AM (#23157680) Homepage Journal
    They've seen our television.

    Not only are the game shows bad, the soap operas moronic, and the news hours obviously paid advertisements, but our shopping network features declasse technology.

    From what they can tell, showing up on earth and saying "I am an alien" is a quick way to get a dead-end job in food service.

    They're hanging out in the horsehead nebula, periodically manipulating us with botnets comprised of compromised Windows machines.
  • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:21AM (#23157926)
    Hawking is a theoretical physicist. His opinion on the subject is worth no more than mine, in fact possibly less, since I have probably done more biochemistry than he has. Disclaimer: I'm not pretending to be as intelligent as Hawking, just suggesting that any science graduate who has been to Cambridge or one of its equivalents is just as qualified, or more so, to speak on extra-terrestrial life than he is. Just as being a bishop does not make you an expert on evolution, being a physicist doesn't make you an expert on biology.

    Now a couple of reasons why Hawking may be totally wrong.

    • 1. We have no evidence that we as a species will ever be able to deploy enough energy or resources to move beyond this solar system. We can already foresee the end of cheap energy, and it is all we can do to lift a few tonnes to low earth orbit. It is quite possible that the Universe is so arranged that almost every possible life form is trapped in its own solar system.
    • 2. The period in which we have emitted significant radio waves into space is barely 100 years, and more and more we are moving to very short range low power transmitters. It's quite possible that every civilisation does that and so, except for a narrow window of a hundred years or so, is effectively radio silent. You might pick up a primitive 50s and 60s AM transmitter (think Voice of America and megawatts on a narrow frequency band) but not all those Bluetooth devices.
    If both of these are correct, the chance that we will detect another civilisation is extraordinarily small even if they are extremely common. In fact, the growing knowledge of carbon chemistry - graphenes and so on - and clays suggest that there are many opportunities for substrates to arise that might hold together primitive organics long enough for life to get a start. It's a subject which is getting increasingly interesting; if you take enough surface area and spread enough small molecules over it for long enough under enough variations of conditions, something is more or less bound to happen. Recent research also seems to suggest that there could be planets around smaller and so longer-lived stars which might have conditions suitable for the formation of life for much longer than the Earth will. Our own planet may be a lot less than optimal. In which case life is likely to be very common indeed, but the low energy environments in which it evolves may make it quite unsuitable for expanding from one star to another.

    And why should it? The belief that there is something special about the human race which justifies its long term existence is as "religious" as any theistic religion, and no more defensible.

  • 1st Contact (Score:3, Funny)

    by bareman (60518) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:39AM (#23158240) Homepage Journal
    First contact protocol:

    Anonymous stealth mission
    Objective: How do they taste?

    It's possible that there is other life elsewhere, and nearly a certainty that it exists elsewhen.

    We just need to work out how to get there after it exists and before it's "Best if eaten by" date.

  • Not infallible (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mlwmohawk (801821) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:46AM (#23158354)
    However, because alien life might not have DNA like us, Hawking warned: "Watch out if you would meet an alien. You could be infected with a disease with which you have no resistance.

    I am surprised by this quote, and maybe a bit elevated that Hawking is not perfect and doesn't know everything.

    It is unlikely that any truly alien life can infect or even eat us. Viruses work because they evolved to work on earth-bound DNA structures. Few viruses can infect multiple species. Chimps are 98%~99% exactly the same as human and few viruses can infect both. A truly alien virus infecting us would be like one of our viruses infecting gasoline or some other organic compound. (Assuming aliens are organic)

    Similarly, the "chain of life" where compatible proteins and compounds are consumed by predators (yes we prey on plants, they just don't defend themselves all that often.) is more narrow than you would think as many plants and parts of animals are poisonous. The notion that an alien biology would have any sort of compatibility is, on the surface, absurd.

    All that being said, if an alien species was able to eat us or vice versa, or infect us, it would probably support the notion that life on earth was caused by cosmic panspermia.
  • by anwyn (266338) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:50AM (#23158412)
    Stephen Hawking asks this rhetorical question in dismissing the possibility of intelligent alien life:

    If there is life elsewhere in the universe, Hawking asks why haven't we stumbled onto some alien broadcasts in space, maybe something like "alien quiz shows?"
    There is an answer to this question that is so simple and elegant and decisive that it shocking that a great mind like Hawking has not already thought of it:

    Because the aliens have learned to compress their data stream!
    The better you compress a data stream the more it looks like random noise!

    Plans to recognize alien signals are all based on finding redundancies in the transmission. But from the point of view of an alien signal engineer all redundancies are opportunities to save energy and transmission time by adding compression! The more compression you add, the more your signal looks like random noise. Also the aliens might be using spread spectrum techniques which make a signal even more difficult to detect.

    Think of it, the FCC is already starting to require TV signals to move to digital in order to save bandwidth that can be resold to the cell phone companies. How long will it be till the FCC requires that these signals be compressed? Our signals are already becoming more difficult to detect.

    Probably in the natural technical evolution of any species there is only a very small window where the species is smart enough to use radio energy for communication but not smart enough to use enough compression to make its signals look like random noise.

    Thus our SETI efforts are looking for a needle in a heystack and failure only indicates that species in a transitional phase like us is very rare.

    Stephen Hawking should have thought of this.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by hazydave (96747)
      How long will it be 'til the FCC requires that these signals be compressed? For digital TV? I'd say about ten years ago, or whenever it was precisely that the "Grand Alliance" got together with the FCC and officially released the ATSC specification. Digital TV is compressed, typically close to 100:1 over the "raw" digital signal (eg, what's coming out of your HDMI cable). Sure, they could do 2x-3x better today using more modern compression and transmission standards, but it'll probably be awhile before they
  • by WormholeFiend (674934) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @10:58AM (#23158522)
    because chances are that if they are more advanced than us, they will exploit us in some way.

    And if we are more advanced than them, we will exploit them.

    I think it's more likely that, in an evolutionary time-frame, we'll colonize our solar system (and beyond), and extra-terrestrial humans will evolve in different directions and become the "aliens".
  • by peccary (161168) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @11:28AM (#23158966)
    Rather than a "non-interference" decree, we should be broadcasting MAYDAY in all directions. Odds are disturbingly high that within the 1000 years it would take for such a message to reach an space-faring civilization, and for that civilization to in turn visit us, the human race will have managed to permanently trap itself in Earth's gravity well by destroying its industrial infrastructure, irradiating the majority of the food supply, and/or salinating its most productive croplands. Not 100%, but say... 40%. There are some kinds of Dark Ages that you don't build your way back out of. Our industrial capacity is currently built on MILLENIA of stored energy reserves left over from the Big Bang and prehistory. If we had only solar energy to rely on, we'd have a pathetically feeble spacefaring ability.
  • by srobert (4099) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @11:36AM (#23159052)
    So which intelligent species is more likely to survive: one that has a "prime directive" and doesn't interfere with other civilizations or one that views other planets as ripe for the taking.
    Federation Man: "Our Prime Directive instructs us not to interfere with the development of your culture."
    Alien: "Good because, our culture is adequately developed already and our Prime Directive says we can assimilate you and take all of your resources.
    Guess who wins. If its not obvious think about the history of Native Americans.

  • by Darth Eggbert (175584) on Tuesday April 22, 2008 @04:05PM (#23163010) Homepage
    I remember a story that I read long ago in a compilation of Sci-Fi short stories where we were visited by a group of aliens that thought they were going to subjucate us, believing that they were superior because they had FTL travel. They leave their spaceship to face the primitive earthmen... with their muskets. It seems theat to them and most other races that FTL travel was so easy that they never had to develop weapons of mass destruction, tanks, and other weapons of war. The story ended with the aliens lamenting that they had just give us, a warlike planet of much superior weapons, the keys to the galexy.

    If something hard to us maybe easy to them, the oppisite may be true too.

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