Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Invaders vs. Visitors If E.T. Ever Arrives, Will It Be Naughty or Nice? Two Top Scientists Debate

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Invaders vs. Visitors If E.T. Ever Arrives, Will It Be Naughty or Nice? Two Top Scientists Debate

Article excerpt

At one extreme in alien-invasion movies, there's the slimy, razor- toothed, grotesque creature full of powerhouse violence -- along with over-the-top special effects -- 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 exist 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 (and save on special effects) 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.

Ms. 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," will participate in a debate about alien- invasion scenarios during the institute's SETIcon event June 22-24 in Santa Clara, Calif.

From the "E.T." and "Paul" school of alien visitation, she has taken public issue with Mr. Hawking, the famed British scientist considered one of the world's most intelligent people, after he 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," Mr. 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. It's like "Avatar" with a more depressing ending for the native population.

But Ms. 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."

Mr. Hawking was traveling and unavailable to discuss the issue, his spokeswoman Judith Croasdell said.

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, Ms. 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. …

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