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Monday, April 26, 2010

Personally, I blame Kip Thorne.

Those of you with some familiarity with physics will know the name Stephen Hawking, a brilliant physicist with a talent for explaining things to the general public. And the fact that he does it all with a voice synthesizer and scant control over his own body only makes things more impressive. You may also be familiar with Kip Thorne who, aside from being an excellent scholar in his own right, is known (along with (John Preskill) for winning a bet with Hawking. The reason for the bet isn't important right now- the essentials are that it was over an element of theory, Hawking lost, and he paid the penalty. And these are the important essentials because I think, just maybe, Hawking has lost another such bet.

My suspicion derives from a recent story addressing Hawking's advice on alien contact: Just Say No. Seriously, in an upcoming documentary he suggests that contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species might not work out too well for us. Fair enough, this is a likely outcome given that there's a good chance that any species we meet in the near future will have to come to us and, therefore, be a tad better equipped than we are. But then it gets a little weird:

Or, to quote the relevant section:

He [Hawking] suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves 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.”

This bothered me for a few moments, because I could swear that I've heard this story before. And then it hit me- not only have I heard this story, I saw it on opening night! I refer, of course, to the sci-fi action film Independence Day, which is described on wikipedia thusly:

Or, to quote the boxed sections:

On July 2, an alien mothership with a mass one-quarter of that of the Moon enters orbit around Earth and deploys several dozen saucer-shaped "destroyer" spacecraft, each 15 miles (24 km) in width, which position themselves over some of Earth's major cities. In New York City, David Levinson discovers hidden satellite transmissions which he believes the aliens are using as a timer to coordinate a synchronized attack. [emphasis added]

Okay, massive alien ships- CHECK!

The [alien] specimen regains consciousness while quarantined in a lab, and reveals through a telepathic connection to President Whitmore that its species travels from planet to planet, destroying all life and harvesting a planet's natural resources before moving on to the next planet. The alien attempts a psychic attack against Whitmore, but is killed. Whitmore orders a nuclear attack on all destroyers, but the mission is aborted when the first nuclear missile also fails to penetrate the shield. [emphasis added]

And nomads looking to conquer, colonize and strip mine other planets before moving on- CHECK!

So, basically, what we have here is Stephen Hawking cribbing theories from Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. Now, we could chalk this up to the reporter misunderstanding Hawking. Alternatively, we could chalk this up to Hawking knowing more about exotic physics than he does about the logic of interstellar conquest. But personally, I like to think he just lost another bet with Kip Thorne and this was his penalty.

This is why I don't gamble, you know?

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