Will aliens destroy us?

Full Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff From the Science Lab from howstuffworks.com.

Allison Loudermilk: Hey guys, welcome to the podcast. This is Allison Laddermill, the science editor at howstuffworks.com.

Robert Lamb: And this is Robert Lantz, science writer at howstuffworks.com. And today we are tackling a pretty big question, and one that at the time of this recording, is still making the rounds in the news media, will aliens destroy us? And I need to stress here that we're dealing with a big cosmological question here.

Allison Loudermilk: One of the biggest, certainly.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, this is - there's a lot of speculation in this. Like very high-minded speculation, not like what if - you know, it's not based necessarily in strict scientific research. That's the whole nature of some of these big cosmological questions.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, so we're going to be having more of a conversation than tearing apart some study today.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. So the reason this was making the news was because of a series currently airing on Discovery called -

Allison Loudermilk: A very fine one.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, Into the Universe with Steven Hawking.

Allison Loudermilk: And you wrote for this, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I wrote for the website, did some summaries, a couple of really cool quizzes on aliens and time travel and -

Allison Loudermilk: A couple of really hard quizzes, [inaudible].

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I couldn't even get them right. They're that hard. And I wrote the darn things. But yeah, so the first episode, right out of the gate, was Aliens. And I'm just going to go ahead and read part of the script here, you know, what Hawking says. He says, "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. We humans are already capable of manipulating the course of our own evolution. Exactly the same presumably would be true of advanced extraterrestrials. Ultimately, they could halt aging and become virtually immortal.

What's more, they might have reached that point many millions of years ago. It might sound unlikely, but if you think about it logically, alien technology should be as extraordinary to us as a rocket ship is to a caveman. I imagine they might exist in massive ships like these," and this is where in the show you get to see like a big giant spaceship, you know -

Allison Loudermilk: Hovering.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. "Like these, having used up all the resources from the home planet below. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach. If so it makes sense for them to exploit each new planet for materials to build more spaceships so they could move on."

Allison Loudermilk: And naturally with quotes like these, news stories were right on it. And pretty soon they started producing headlines like, "Don't Talk to Aliens Warns Steven Hawking," from FOX News. Or CNET, "Steven Hawking, Aliens Might Hate Us."

Robert Lamb: I like that one. So yeah, I think it was kind of a slow news week when all this hit. Like this was right before, you know, we had some environmental issues pop up and some other big stories hit. And you've got to fill that science section of the website with something, right?

Allison Loudermilk: I don't think that Hawking was engaged in fear mongering. That really wasn't his intent. It was more speculation.

Robert Lamb: Yes. So we can't stress it enough that Hawking was not saying, "Go buy a shotgun and hide in your basement because the aliens are coming to harvest the planet." The argument is simply, hey, if life universally evolves from the chemistry on planets where you have the correct minerals, the right temperature range, and there's enough time for it to evolve, then if that' s true - and if they eventually evolve to the point where they have technology sufficient enough to reach us, then what might they be like? You know, it's kind of in the same way that we figure out how solar systems work by looking at our own solar system. It's the best model we have and the closest.

Likewise with life. So if we look at how life has evolved here on earth and we use that as a model for how it might have evolved elsewhere. And so you know, you sort of have to look in the mirror and consider what that first contact would be like, you know?

Allison Loudermilk: So if you think about aliens in fact reaching our planet, then you have to think that such a scientific development would also be accompanied by an ethical development, right? If they're going to reach our planet, they probably value life.

Robert Lamb: Well, that's a counter argument that's come out. You know, people say they're probably not going to be like some sort of evil, like borg race intent on destruction.

Allison Loudermilk: And you wrote something about the Canadian defense minister, Paul Hillier, making this claim. I hadn't seen that. What was his scoop on this?

Robert Lamb: Well, yeah, this was making the rounds. And they were saying that he's claimed that they've been visiting for a while, and they haven't done any harm yet. And actually, there are probably a lot of people out there who would say, "Hey, I think aliens have come to this planet and they haven't enslaved us and taken all our resources yet."

Allison Loudermilk: I'm sorry.

So you think that there

Robert Lamb: No, I don't think that at all.

Allison Loudermilk: So the Canadian defense minister thinks that they're already here?

Robert Lamb: That's what some news sources are saying. This former Canadian defense minister.

Allison Loudermilk: I wonder why he's former.

Robert Lamb: I don't know. The aliens might have had something to do with it. But yeah, the argument about the ethics is that like an ethical stance would end up taking over or augmenting what Darwinian evolution started. You know because it's easy to say it's like all right, survival of the fittest, you know, look at an organism. You know, big organisms either want to consume other organisms or compete with them for the same resources. And is you just follow that structure, then you know, even like if you had a star ship, you would still be an organism intent on getting more resources.

Unless you develop these ethics along the way where you have, you know, high-minded ideas about I don't want to destroy another planet because that's an independent evolution and I don't want to interfere with it. Maybe I just want to observe it, etc.

Allison Loudermilk: Hmm. Or it could be maybe I just want to exploit the resources and enslave the people.

Robert Lamb: Right. It's kind of the whole, like are aliens going to be touchy feely or are they going to be jerks? You know?

Allison Loudermilk: I personally would prefer them to be touchy feely.

Robert Lamb: Well, and basically Hawking was - I would prefer that too. And I imagine Hawking would prefer that as well.

Allison Loudermilk: I think most of civilization would prefer that.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, but he's just saying it's like well, let's look at what we know, what we've seen. The best model that we have shows humans kind of being jerks.

Allison Loudermilk: That's true. Nuclear weapons are up there.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, exploiting less technologically advanced peoples, etc. Another reason put out there not to fear an alien invasion is that they probably don't know we're here. Like even if you look at the - if you take the Drake Equation and you extrapolate it in a very liberal way, where we have a lot of different races out there with technology sufficient either to detect our signals or even travel to us, you have to take into account that these places are like thousands of light years away. So they won't even know abou t us. They won't even be able to detect a signal 'til about 3000 AD.

Allison Loudermilk: Really?

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I mean that's one of the big reasons not to get all up in arms over this is because the universe is so big. The distances are so vast. You know, it takes that long for light to travel. And as far as we know, traveling faster than light is impossible. That's the universal speed limit. So they're limited in their ability to even detect that we're here, and also in their ability to travel to us in a reasonable amount of time. You know, if you're 3,000 light years away and you can travel the speed of light, it's going to take you 3,000 years just to reach us. And what could you possibly want that bad that's worth that kind of trip, you know?

Allison Loudermilk: Company.

Robert Lamb: Well yeah, but then you could get that by just communicating with us, you know? We could just have a long-term relationship, us and the aliens. There's no need to speed things up.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, we could just -

Robert Lamb: You can't speed things up faster than the speed of light, you know?

Allison Loudermilk: We could just text message.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, exactly.

Allison Loudermilk: Send a lot of email, heartfelt.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Why would they need to show up? Though that actually goes into one of the reasons to be afraid, is that if an alien - the distance is so great, that if an alien actually showed up at our doorstep, he would have to be - he, she, it - would have to be here for something on the planet, like because everything else could be done via communication, you know? It's like if you were having like an email exchange with somebody online, and it's like oh, this relationship is fine. This is exactly where it needs to be. We're emailing back and forth. And then that person shows up at your doorstep. Call the cops because there's something up, and that's kind of the argument here. Unless faster than light travel is somehow possible for a ridiculously advance alien civilization, in which case you know, no big deal for them to show up at your doorstep. So I don't know.

Allison Loudermilk: The other thing is that time isn't on our side. Given the age of the universe, which we know to be 13.7 billion years, courtesy of Debbie Mepp. Thank you, Debbie Mepp. It's more probable that there are intelligent species that are 10,000, 1 million, even 10 million years more advanced than us. Which is kind of a crazy thought.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, they -

Allison Loudermilk: Technology 10 million years ahead.

Robert Lamb: Like they would just be so - I mean we can't even comprehend that. It's like an ant trying to figure out like how an iPhone works or something.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. I mean they'd be gods and we would be the ants.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, we would be just at the mercy of the iPhone. Another co-point, and this goes back to the whole alien showing up at your doorstep after an email conversation, Ray Viller pointed this out the Discovery space blogs. Have you seen the movie, Avatar?

Allison Loudermilk: I haven't.

Robert Lamb: Okay.

Allison Loudermilk: I badly want to see it.

Robert Lamb: All right. Well, this is not a spoiler, but the whole reason that the evil humans come to this alien world is to harvest a special element called -

Allison Loudermilk: Right, I do know that.

Robert Lamb: - called unobtanium. Which I -

Allison Loudermilk: Cleverly named. Very cleverly named.

Robert Lamb: - yeah, I'd like to see that on the far future periodic table. But the thing is, the whole idea is, oh, it's unobtanium. It's this magic element. You can only get it one place in the universe that's why we're going to do everything in our power, no matter how cruel, to harvest it. But in reality, there's no such thing as unobtanium or anything like this. Like there's nothing on earth that aliens could want that bad that would merit that kind of a journey and that much time and effort, unless they are just jerks and want to kick us around.

Allison Loudermilk: Well, what about something in the Amazon Rainforest? Perhaps a very rare cure that is only found deep in the reaches of the Amazon Rainforest? And they know they have very little time left because the rainforest is being chopped down at acres per day, and maybe it's that.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, but if you have that kind of technology, what could possibly exist in the Amazon Rainforest that you couldn't create on your own? You know, you could devise the genetic code for it.

Allison Loudermilk: Maybe they're not that good at recreating the natural world. But I guess if you're that far advanced, what do you need with the natural world? You can create anything.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, unless they want our art, you know, or to communicate with our whales, right?

Allison Loudermilk: And the other thing that's really key in our discussion is our concept of aliens, what we imagine aliens to be, even if they are highly technologically advanced. Maybe they're micro-organisms. Maybe they're alien micro-organisms, which posed the greatest danger to us, to life on earth.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, like even if they were to again, show up at our doorstep. And whether they were ethical or jerks. What if they had some sort of little illness hanging around in their bodies that is nothing to them, but would just be chaos for us? It would be like War of the Worlds, except the reverse.

Allison Loudermilk: Right, and the Spanish conquistadors?

Robert Lamb: Exactly. Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: What did they bring with them? Some sort of accidental bio-weapon which -

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I mean all the Europeans coming to the new world, I mean, just they, accidental bio-weapons all over the place. You know, measles and smallpox.

Allison Loudermilk: Accident bio-weapon. That's a funny term.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I mean it kind of won the battle for the conquistadors. So again, if you look to past models of what it's like when an alien species such as the Spanish, arrives on an alien world, such as that of South America- what can happen? People can be jerks. People can carry microbes that their hosts aren't prepared for.

Allison Loudermilk: So turn to imperialism if you want to know what's going to happen between aliens and us.

Robert Lamb: That's Hawking's whole argument, yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: Well, it's definitely an excellent thought-provoking question.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, that's the great thing about it. It makes us think about the far future, about our place in the cosmos, and look, you know, at ourselves and just what we're capable of. So what do you think? Are you afraid now?

Allison Loudermilk: I'm not. I'm curious.

Robert Lamb: Yeah?

Allison Loudermilk: Infinitely curious. What about you?

Robert Lamb: I used to be afraid. I used to be afraid of UFOs, mainly that I would be abducted. Not that our planet would be enslaved and harvested for its resources. More that they would just come get me.

Allison Loudermilk: To me that seems a little bit egocentric, to think - I mean why would they pick you?

Robert Lamb: I was like 13. I mean everybody's the center of their own universe at 13. But you know, it's like Unsolved Mysteries had all these UFO abductions going on, you know. Like that was like half of the program. And so the idea was if you were looking up into the stars, you're going to see a UFO and they're going to know that you saw their UFO, and then they have no choice but to come and get you.

Allison Loudermilk: It does seem funny though, some of the people who said that they were abducted by aliens. Why? Why would the aliens pick you? If I were an alien, I'd pick some famous mind, maybe a head of state, something like that. Really? Just a 13 year old? I don't know.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I don't know. I'd probably pick up Brian Cox.

Allison Loudermilk: Unless it was Endor Wiggins. Can you tell I've been reading my science fiction?

Robert Lamb: Oh yeah, you're reading that one.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah.

Robert Lamb: Okay, cool.

Allison Loudermilk: So if you guys have any thoughts on whether aliens are going to destroy us, send us an email at sciencestuff@howstuffworks.com.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, just drop by the website and search for [inaudible]. Search for aliens. We have a whole bunch of cool articles about those topics. And we also have a Twitter account and -

Allison Loudermilk: Do you think aliens have Twitter and Facebook?

Robert Lamb: Yes. Yeah, they do. I just like friended one on Facebook the other day. But no, Facebook, Twitter, you can find us there. We're Lab Stuff or search for Stuff in the Science Lab. Do write to us. Interact with us there. Ask us questions. See what we're up to.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, that's all we got. Thanks for listening, guys.

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