Everyone is entitled to their irrational fears; whether you’re afraid of clowns, terrified of even the most innocuous of spiders or suffer from vertigo, we all have that one thing that scares us senseless. And when it comes to this breed of terror, it doesn’t matter how rational or educated you are. Certainly, I have ophidiophobia, a fear of snakes.
Whilst the cold-blooded creatures posed quite a threat to our ancestors back in the day, I know that we have little reason to fear them now, unless we willingly step onto Australian soil or take a stroll through the Amazon rainforest. But there’s just something about their scaliness, vertical pupils… oh, and the fact that they can be incredibly venomous, that puts me on edge.
I was made to feel a little better about my ophidiophobia, however, when I heard that even Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist extraordinaire had his own irrational fear: aliens.
Stephen Hawking’s short online documentary, Stephen Hawking’s Favourite Places, shows the famed English theoretical physicist take viewers on his CGI spacecraft, The SS Hawking, to five notable locations across the galaxy. In the film, Hawking reveals his beliefs on the prospect of there being other life forms in our Solar System.
Upon arriving at a planet 16 light years away, Gliese 832c, Hawking discloses that he does believe in alien life. He muses: “As I grow older I am more convinced than ever that we are not alone. After a lifetime of wondering, I am helping to lead a new global effort to find out. The Breakthrough Listen project will scan the nearest million stars for signs of life, but I know just the place to start looking.”
Despite believing that such life exists, Hawking doesn’t necessarily recommend interacting with it, and warns about the dangers of doing so. He frankly states: “one day we might receive a signal from a planet like Gliese 832c, but we should be wary of answering back.”
This may sound counterintuitive coming from a man who has spent the majority of his 75 years dedicated to the study of cosmology, the branch of astronomy that involves the origin and evolution of the universe. However, Hawking may have good reason for wanting to avoid alternate life forms.
Harking back to history, he implies that initiating contact with advanced civilisations could be reminiscent of what happened when Christopher Columbus first encountered the Native Americans, where things “didn’t turn out so well.” So maybe Hawking is warning that we might become victims of mass colonisation and face enslavement. Karma can be a b****, right?
Hawking has made it clear that if alien life exists, it’s probably a lot more advanced than us. When he set about launching his Breakthrough Listen Project in 2015, he was vocal in his belief that anyone who could pick up our messages were likely to be billions of years ahead in terms of technological advancement. Rather worryingly, he commented: “if so they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”
The 26-minute documentary aired on CuriosityStream, and begins with Hawking talking us through the Big Bang before arriving back to Santa Barbara, California where he elaborates on his early career. Well, I think Stephen might have just added another irrational fear to my collection. Guess I’m going to have to think twice next time I tune into one of Hollywood’s alien invasion flicks.