THE No. 1 movie in the US now is World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles starring Aaron Eckhart. The theme of the movie is hardly original.
Hollywood, of course, is playing on our fears which makes for more exciting cinema. If all aliens were lovable like ET the extra-terrestrial, people would soon find such movies boring. In contrast, an alien movie with lots of chase scenes, shooting, explosions, near defeat and ultimate victory (for us humans) is a formula that works well.
Is there some wisdom in Hollywood’s depiction of aliens contact as something to be feared? Physicist Stephen Hawking would say so. Last year, in a Discovery Channel series on space, Hawking said there must be aliens but that it could be calamitous for humans if contact is ever made with them.
Hawking’s rationale for believing there are extra-terrestrial life forms is in line with the thinking of other great cosmologists like Carl Sagan, whose groundbreaking Cosmos series I watched as a kid.
The universe, Hawking points out, has 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. Each of those stars are actually suns. "To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," he said. "The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like."
Hawking posits that in some faraway places life could be at a very early stage, and the aliens could exist in the form of microbes.
Interestingly, earlier this month it was reported that Richard B. Hoover, an astrobiologist at Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said he had found fossils of bacteria in a rare class of meteorite called CI1 carbonaceous chondrites.
"I interpret it as indicating that life is more broadly distributed than restricted strictly to the planet Earth," Hoover said. For sure, Hoover has his supporters and also his detractors. His research and findings will be closely scrutinised and debated by scientists in the months and years to come.
Hawking doesn’t say that aliens could only exist in the form of microbes of course. His documentary features fascinating computer-animated depictions of strange animals in distant planets.
What’s really interesting though is Hawking’s speculation about intelligent life forms, whose technology is closer to that of Star Trek or Star Wars than ours, and thus can travel to distant planets beyond their own solar system. Could such aliens pose a threat to humans?
"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet," Hawking says. "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."
He cautions that the outcome of aliens visiting us could be like when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which he notes, "didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans".
Hawking’s alarmist attitude towards aliens has generated quite a buzz within the scientific community. Some criticised Hawking’s use of human behaviour to predict how aliens would behave while others say that it was a reasonable approach.
Yet another angle is to say the danger might not come from any intent by the aliens but from the tiny microbes that they might inadvertently bring with them. "When Columbus was followed by the Spanish conquistadors, it was not advanced weaponry which destroyed the native civilizations, but disease," says B. G. Sidharth of the B. M. Birla Science Centre in India.
But there are optimists among the scientists as well. "If Hawking’s aliens are anything like humans, then I am optimistic ... that their scientific development should be accompanied also by an ethical development, and (they) might value life," says GianCarlo Ghirardi, a physicist at Italy’s University of Trieste.
Oon Yeoh is managing editor at a publishing house.