Neil deGrasse Tyson on why we find alien invasions so terrifying

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Jun 6, 2014, 2:41 PM EDT

Neil deGrasse Tyson knows why we're so scared of visitors from another world, but he also wonders if we should be.

Humans have been dreaming about the idea of alien visitors, in fiction and in science, for ages now, and though there are hopeful visions out there (Carl Sagan's Contact and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind among them), many of us still picture the appearance of aliens as something more like War of the Worlds: a scenario of conquest and mass slaughter to be feared, not embraced. Stories like AliensThe Thing and Independence Day only serve to keep this idea alive in pop culture. For many of us, aliens will always be scary, and Tyson can sympathize.

Speaking earlier this week at a screening of the final episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey -- the revival of the classic series in which he serves as host -- Tyson contemplated some of the things he wishes the 13-episode miniseries could have gotten around to covering, including what might happen if an advanced alien civilization made contact with us, or as he put it: “What it would mean to come into contact with life that we would judge to be intelligent, or that other life would judge us to be not intelligent.” 

Tyson directly addressed predictions that any aliens who found us would be so advanced (because traveling the distance from another habitable planet would require very advanced technology) that they would judge us to be inferior and simply destroy us, specifically the prediction of famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

“[Hawking] commented that if aliens came upon us, they would clearly be more advanced than we are, because they’d traverse large gaps of space to get here, and they would just enslave us and suck our brains out,” Tyson said.

Hawking's view of how aliens might view us is a popular one, and a source of nightmares for anyone who's watched the famous chestburster scene in Alien one too many times. Tyson understands why, too: Because throughout history, we've done the same thing to each other.

“We actually have some evidence of what happens when a high technological culture meets a low-technology culture,” he said. “Our species bears this out multiple times in the history books, and it doesn’t bode well for the culture that has less technology."

So what does Tyson believe? Well, he has hope that any alien society so advanced that they could travel here might be a bit gentler about their approach to a less advanced civilization. For him, it's wrong to assume that aliens would treat us like we've so often treated ourselves.

"But I would say to fear an alien for that reason is more a reflection of how we know we treat each other than it is on how we could ever possibly suspect an alien to treat us. And so why should we be the measure of hatred in the universe?”

We might never know if Tyson's right, but there are certainly plenty of optimistic tales of alien encounters out there, too, so perhaps we can take a sunnier view while we watch the skies, waiting for visitors and wondering how they'll view us.

The final episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey airs Sunday at 9/8C on FOX.

(Via The Washington Post)