UFO? 'E.T' or 'Alien'? Scientists debate nature of extraterrestrials

At one extreme in alien-invasion movies, there's the slimy, razor-toothed, grotesque creature full of powerhouse violence -- and a too-eager desire to feast on human filet. These aliens, never cordial in social settings, are the worst-nightmare kind of beast that one finds in the "Alien" series or "The Thing," among many others.

At the other extreme are kinder, gentler alien visitors -- "E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial," "Paul" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," along with those using human form to hide their extraterrestrial identities as happened in "Starman" and "Cocoon."

And as crazy as it sounds, those extremes reflect opposing positions of an actual scientific debate about extraterrestrial invaders, or at least a well-publicized intellectual disagreement that occurred this spring between two renowned scientists, Jill Tarter and Stephen Hawking.

Tarter, retiring director of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute after 35 years in the field, and the inspiration for the Jodie Foster character in the 1997 film "Contact," is from the "E.T." and "Paul" school of alien visitation. She has taken public issue with Hawking, the famed British scientist.

Hawking stated on his Discovery Channel television series, "Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking," that an alien invasion of Earth would cause the kind of devastation to inhabitants that a group of earthlings experienced centuries ago when "aliens" invaded their land beginning in 1492.

"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the native Americans," Hawking said. Native Americans experienced disease, death and displacement as European then American invaders fought them, seized their land and forced them onto reservations sometimes after death marches.

But Tarter says movie-version invaders better depict human psychology, fears and imagination than science or serious analysis of what an alien visitation would portend for earthlings.

"While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree," she's quoted as saying, but confirmed in a recent interview. "If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food or other planets. If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore."

Extraterrestrial life with enough intelligence to travel light-years through the Milky Way already would be kinder and gentler with no need to pirate resources or use Earth as an outpost. With technology and science she's helped develop at SETI, and its continuing efforts to scan space for signals from intelligent life, humans would be aware of any approaching aliens, with clues about their technology and IQ, long before their arrival, Tarter said.

The SETI Institute, in operation for 28 years and now with 150 scientists, has yet to receive one signal from intelligent beings elsewhere, she said. Nor is there solid evidence that basic life forms -- bacteria or microbes, for example -- exist out in the solar system or beyond. SETI's mission includes finding life of any form elsewhere in the universe.

So the alien-invasion debate must be based solely on science-based speculation.

"Stephen (Hawking) has a brilliant mind, but he doesn't have expertise in extraterrestrial intelligence," Tarter said. "Aliens coming here hell-bent on trashing the neighborhood and claiming all our resources -- I'm skeptical of that.

"Certainly, we don't see evidence of intelligent life," she said. "The case is still open."

 

Print this article Back to Top

Comments