Daily Archives: April 27th, 2010

Asimov’s Rebuttal To Hawking; 20 Years Ago

Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite authors. Many hours have I spent reading about the robot R. Daneel Olivaw and his journey through the millennia from android cop to Galactic Empire Prime Minister.

Asimov was also a prolific science fact writer. Over 500 articles are to his credit before he died in 1992. One article appeared in the inaugural issue of Second Look, a magazine about the search for other intelligent life.

Asimov, whose books often were devoid of ETIs, wrote a telling rebuttal to Stephen Hawking’s anti-alien piece, twenty years in the past:


Is it safe for us to contact advanced civilizations?Are we not safer in isolation? May not an advanced civilization, aware of our existence, send out their ships and take us over, exploit us, enslave us, wipe us out?

If we fear that, then we must also realize that we are no longer in isolation anyway and that it is too late to avoid attracting attention to ourselves. Ever since humanity has been using radio waves in quantity, a sphere of radio-wave activity has been expanding out from Earth in all directions at the speed of light, and with steadily increasing intensity. An advanced civilization may pick it up and, even if they can’t interpret the details of the signals, they’ll know we are here.

To be sure, the involuntary sending out of messages is excessively weak and at the distance of even the nearest civilization may be too weak to be detectable. Ought we to make things worse by sending out deliberate signals?

At the moment, that is not in question. All we are engaging to do is to receive signals, to listen. We are free not to answer any signals, if we choose not to.

But what if we decide to answer. Is that safe?

Consider that if there are advanced civilizations in the Universe, then some of them may be very old. The Universe and our own Galaxy have lasted long enough to contain civilizations that are as much as 10 billion years old. In 10 billion years, civilizations will certainly have explored the entire Galaxy, will have recorded every planet capable of supporting life and, if that represented their choice of action, would have colonized them all.

The mere fact that humanity is here on this planet and that, as nearly as we can tell, life has developed, undisturbed, for over 3 billion years, indicates that such a conquering Galactic civilization does not exist.
Why not? It may be that a) civilizations, however old, cannot leave their home planets, b) that they can leave but do not choose to, c) have left, but believe in allowing life-bearing planets to develop their own intelligent life-forms free of interference.

The best reason why civilizations, however old, cannot leave their home planets rests with the speed-of-light limit to travel. If there is no way of getting around the speed-of-light limit, then it would take hundreds or thousands of years to travel from one habitable world to the next and this is not an attractive prospect. Each civilization would then limit its expansion to the neighborhood of its own planetary civilization. In fact, the mere existence of signals would indicate that the civilization sending them feels nailed to the spot and can reach out only by speed-of-light radiation.

Even if the speed-of-light limit is not absolute and if there are ways of getting around it, the difficulties may be too great to allow the kind of mass transfer of populations that would be involved in conquest and settlement. It may be that civilizations would use it only as a means for sending out scouting vessels to explore and to gain knowledge of the Universe. Such scouting vessels might have noted Earth’s existence thousands of years ago before civilization appeared on Earth. We would be viewed not as a world for settlement but as a world for interested observation, and if we find that signals seem to be aimed at us particularly, that may be the reason.

Finally, even if advanced civilizations find methods for making flights between the stars as simple as we find flights between cities, this does not necessarily mean they would conquer us.

We know from our own experience how extraordinarily contentious and quarrelsome the members of an intelligent species can be. We also know how difficult it is to make major advances such as those required in the exploration of space, when the various segments of our species spend almost all their time, money, and effort in quarreling with each other. In fact, it doesn’t really seem likely that humanity will be able to advance into space unless the peoples of Earth abandon war and agree to make the advance a truly cooperative venture. Space exploration is a global concern and can only succeed if it is a global activity.

We might argue, therefore, that any intelligent species that cannot control its contentiousness will destroy itself before it goes out into space (as we may). On the other hand, any intelligent species that makes it way out into space, succeeds in doing so only because it isn’t contentious in the first place, or has learned to control its contentiousness, if it is. It will therefore be more likely to seek a League of Galactic Civilizations than to attempt conquest.

Since 1992 we have sent out many deliberate messages into the Galaxy with the intention of contacting ET someday, despite the fact that there’s no proof ET’s communicate by radio and that radio waves lose significant signal strength after one light-year.

What would Asimov think of the possibility of a Technological Singularity? How would that affect the search for ETI? Would the article have been written differently?

If the theory of parallel universes is valid, I’m sure Asimov is out there somewhere contemplating the very same.

Was Isaac Asimov right about contacting extraterrestrial civilizations?

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