Lucy Hawking on the Books That Best Represent Planet Earth
Journalist and author Lucy Hawking, daughter of "A Brief History of Time" author and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, has partnered with her father on a series of children's books: Their series follows a young cosmologist named George as his adventures teach him about space and science. In the most recent installment, "George and the Big Bang," Prof. Stephen Hawking and other physicists offer their takes on the origins of the universe, and young readers can learn about the Big Bang theory in illustrated form. Young earthlings will enjoy George's adventures, but what about other life forms? In this exclusive essay, Lucy Hawking shares which books she'd give an alien race so they could understand life on earth.
Many minds far more brilliant than mine have pondered the question of how to communicate effectively with an alien civilization. It’s one thing, after all, to seek alien races. It’s quite another to consider what you might actually say if they got in touch. Two of the early space probes, Voyagers 1 and 2, bore with them a golden record carrying messages of peace in 55 languages, earth sounds and images. In case an alien super-race intercepted the probes, Carl Sagan and his colleagues who chose the content hoped the aliens would understand our tempting little blue-green planet is a place of harmony and joy, to be preserved and not plundered. Which does beg the question of whether the aliens would think they had been misled when and if they finally arrived, following the helpful directions also included as part of the Voyagers’ carry-on luggage.
As so far we have had no communication with an intelligent extra-terrestrial life form, our ability to describe ourselves to an alien race remains untested. But that doesn’t mean the question of what we would say lies dormant. Who are we? What have we done? What do we aspire to achieve in the future? These are crucial and relevant lines of inquiry, whether we get to broadcast our conclusions into space or not.
My small contribution to this debate was a project I worked on during my time as writer-in-residence at the Origins Project at Arizona State University in 2011. During my residency, I conceived a competition for school-age students, in which they were asked to imagine they were responsible for responding to first contact from an intelligent, extra-terrestrial source. The kids were asked to write a letter, titled "Dear Aliens", explaining what they would say if E.T. got in touch.
The entries poured in, overwhelming the Origins Project office. Sorting through them with the other judges, we noticed how excited the kids were at the thought of an alien visitor--and how keen they were to impress upon the aliens the complex qualities of human beings. The range of concepts covered in the replies was both broad and surprisingly detailed.
"One of the most important characteristics that humans alone have is judgment, so that we can make decisions and have the ability to know what it right and what is wrong. Humanity is very complex," commented a perceptive sixth-grader. Another sixth-grader made a valiant attempt to sum up the human race thus: Human is a term that is used for a complex species that lives on planet Earth. Humans can learn quickly, create complex brain waves and reason with complete control over their decision. One of my favorites was a pithy one-liner from a seventh-grader with a fine turn of phrase: We are all unequally different.
Our young writers considered all sorts of aspects of human life--from our appearance (Hair is like strings hanging out of my head) to our achievements (Humans use wind, steam, and thermal energy for daily lives. This energy allows humans to invent instruments of calculations), our failures (Earth is wonderful but some people just treat it like the ground is a trash can) to our aspirations (Humanity is living life to the fullest. Humanity is trying to accomplish something that God, or whoever you guys believe in, brought you into the world to do something).
It was a tough job to judge the entries, but the panel was equal to the task. I press-ganged my dear father, Stephen, into helping and along with him two extraordinary science communicators, Lawrence Krauss and Paul Davies. Dr. Davies’s participation was extremely apt as the competition concept was in fact based on his role at SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) where he held a post, which conferred the task of responding to incoming alien contact.
At the time we, discussed what really would happen should the aliens drop us a line. Dr. Davies thought it would be crucial to identify what shared knowledge we had and so his choice would be to present E.T. with a textbook on quantum electrodynamics. As the aliens might understand this book but the rest of us would probably struggle, I am going to suggest a substitution. Many of the entries to Dear Aliens, including the winning letter, asked the aliens for their help in solving problems that we face on planet Earth. The assumption was that an alien super-race would have superior technology to us and so be able to work with us on global warming, our reliance on fossil fuels, overpopulation, and food and water shortages, to name just a few.
For this reason, my first choice for our interstellar lending library is the recently published "Abundance" by Peter Diamandis. This wonderful work charts the technological progress of the human race and sets out the agenda for how advances in technology could solve some very pressing issues. If the aliens read "Abundance," they would have an idea of where we are technologically--and how they might be able to help.
Once the aliens have digested this work--which could take anywhere from a nanosecond to a century--perhaps we should expand on the young writers’ comments on what it means to be human. One interesting place to start would be Charles Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species." Surely there is no better way to sum up this seminal work, first published in 1859, than by quoting the last lines: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
However, a description of us could never be complete without some attempt to shed light on the emotional and spiritual nature of the human race. We are not merely organic robots, endlessly striving to replicate our DNA. We are highly complex beings whose behavior can rarely be predicted with any real accuracy. Human beings are capable of acting in ways that would cause any sane alien to close their eight eyes in horror, and yet people can also show extraordinary goodness, grace, and astonishing bravery and altruism. How to illustrate the paradox that is a person? In my humble view, only great literature can do this. But making a choice from the riches of the world’s literary canon is a nigh on impossible task. Tolstoy? Primo Levi? Gabriel Garcia Marquez? These great writers have encapsulated the dignity, wit, and suffering of the human race. How to pick? I’m assuming it would be considered cheating to try and stuff the whole of the collected works of Shakespeare into our alien literary selection. So I will just fish out one, "Romeo and Juliet" because it is about love and about youth, the fleeting nature of human life and the speed at which tragedy can engulf the most unsuspecting victim.
For our fourth offering, I’m going to revert back to the principles of the Voyager probes and suggest a piece of music. Even if the aliens can understand nothing of our Earth languages, perhaps their sensibilities will still be moved by music. Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" is an affirmation of the positive qualities of the human race which, together with the intellectual challenges of the music, must give the alien race some respect and some hope for the life form they in turn have encountered.
And so we have just one volume left. For all the gravitas and meaning that we have included, one vital element of the human psyche is missing: humor. It may be that our sense of humor gets lost in translation--people of other nationalities find the British sense of humor hard enough to decipher without having to make interplanetary leaps of understanding. But I still think it’s worth a try. My last entry is Douglas Adams’ "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy." If nothing else, it will at least give the aliens a helpful piece of advice: Don’t panic.
Lucy Hawking, Stephen Hawking’s daughter, is a journalist and novelist. She is the co-author of "George’s Secret Key to the Universe," "George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt," and "George and the Big Bang," as well as the author of the adult novels "Jaded" and "Run for Your Life." She lives in Cambridge with her son.