Thursday, May 6, 2010

Stephen Hawking says don’t phone ET

The Arecibo radio telescope broadcast
a message to ET, causing a level 8 hazard
Around the end of April Stephen Hawking presented a TV programme on the Discovery Channel. I didn’t see it but it was called Stephen Hawking's Universe: Fear The Aliens, and from reports I've seen it seems he argued that it’s dangerous to send signals into space because if aliens pick them up they are likely to come and get us.

This question of should we or shouldn't we send signals into space is controversial within the SETI community (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence). The astronomer and former BBC science correspondent David Whitehouse said: “The civilisation that blurts out its existence might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling ‘here kitty’ to a sabre-toothed tiger.”

Back to Stephen Hawking’s programme, I saw a critique of it along the following lines : Stephen Hawking is a physicist not a SETI expert, so his views should be given no special weight.   This statement must bring a smile to the lips.  What special expertise, pray tell, does a SETI expert possess when it comes to figuring out if we are under threat from hostile aliens?

Ha! they reply.  We have the San Marino Scale – bet you didn’t know that, eh?

Well, no I didn’t know that, so lets look it up.  Here it is :

This scale is used to gauge the risk to humanity of broadcasting messages into space. It was adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 2007.  The index runs from 1 for an insignificant potential hazard to 10 for an extraordinary hazard. The number is based on intensity of the signal (on a logarithmic scale no less), its duration and information content.  For example, in 1974 the Arecibo radio telescope broadcast a message which included depictions of a man and woman, and the DNA double helix, all encoded in binary.  On the San Marino Scale this would score an 8, meaning that the potential hazard is far reaching.  9 on the San Marino Scale is an outstanding hazard, and 10 is as bad as it gets : an extraordinary hazard.

Am I wrong to poke fun at this stuff?

I'm working on a lecture to give to Cork Astronomy Club sometime within the next year or so called “Just because we can does that mean we should?” and I'm going to include this question,  as light relief mainly.  The main focus will be on colonising Mars, (on which I have a separate post if you're interested), and on crewed as opposed to robotic space exploration.

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