I refer to the following article on BBC World News dated 25 April, 2010: "Stephen Hawking warns over making contact with aliens". Professor Hawking believes in aliens and provides the most simple and beautiful explanation for it, "To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational."
I personally regard the existence of aliens as the "First Axiom of Existence" - something so rational, simple, and obvious that it requires no proof. So I completely agree with Professor Hawking. But only this far, because then he suddenly veers from the path of "perfect rationality" and says something very culture-specific; "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".
The west has always plundered and colonialized other cultures with which it came in contact and so it assumes that Aliens are going to do exactly the same thing - a sort of pay-back time. But this assumption is wrong. Actually even we humans are learning that this "loot, plundering of resources, and colonialization" is an abnormal state of affairs which is not sustainable. But that is another story.
These fears show how hard it is even for a giant like Hawking to break completely from his 'not so rational' cultural heritage.
I propose a counter-scenario of Human-Alien Encounter which is more rational, though it too has some cultural roots but from a very rational culture.
Aliens coming to our planet would be very much like the Buddhist monks from India going to China and other Asian countries thousands of years ago. That began an Age of Enlightenment and cross-cultural interaction on equal terms the effects of which are felt even to this day. Those great and "perfectly rational" monks were not looters or plunderers. I "predict" that Aliens would come to us in this spirit, though it may take thousands of years before my "predictions" become true, because according to my thinking, they aren’t coming any time soon. But when they do come I hope the first thing they do is to give me a Nobel Prize posthumously for my "foresight".
This brings me to the third and final issue Hawking raises. “The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like."
This is indeed the real challenge. It has two parts.
Firstly, what aliens might actually look like? This question per se is not very exciting because it does not tax our imagination. We have seen thousands, even millions, of living species, at least in picture-books. So it is not very hard to imagine that Aliens might look like one of them - amphibians, lizards, apes, you name it.
The second question is more challenging because it requires all our imagination, poetic, literary, and scientific.
How Aliens might actually think? Now we have only one example of thinking - our human thinking. We have never seen any other sort of thinking, so it is very difficult for us to imagine how some other type of thinking may look like.
My poet's and writer's imagination says that their thinking might be so different that their mathematics may be completely different from our mathematics. In my opinion this would be the most everlasting effect of Human-Alien Interaction - they might be able to tell us whether our mathematics is right or wrong.
This is what I dream of all the time: Me living long enough (say, 10,000 years) to witness the arrival of the first Alien. And then me running like mad to him with a mathematics book in my hand to be the first human being to ask an Alien a question - is this mathematics I am holding in my hand correct?
Just an unfulfilled dream!
Image Courtesy of DayLife - Scientist Stephen Hawking of 'Into The Universe With Stephen Hawking' speaks via satellite during the Science Channel portion of the 2010 Television Critics Association Press Tour at the Langham Hotel on January 14, 2010 in Pasadena, California. - Getty Images