As a sci-fi geek, whose only criteria for a good television show is the word "star" in its title, I was quite interested when in recent news scientists started toting the abilities of their latest toy, the Kepler telescope. The Kepler is a satellite named after some German astronomer, whose mission is to search the skies for planets that are similar to our own. The scientist have made the bold claim that, within the next four to five years, we could soon discover earth-like planets capable of harbouring life, hinting that aliens may really be out there.
Are they? Carl Sagan, an American astronomer, using the Drake equation (some kind of mathematical mumbo-jumbo that's supposed to calculate the potential number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy) stipulated that in the Milky Way there would be about 6 million potential planets where we could find intergalactic neighbours. That sounds like quite a few, until you stop to consider that there are 250 billion stars in our 100,000 light-year wide galaxy: that's a lot of space to cover with just one telescope.
By what I understood, judging by the wavelength signatures the Kepler telescope would pick up, scientists would be able to discern if the planets have an oxygen atmosphere. Oxygen is considered to be one of the main indicators that life would exist. Assuming these planets are life-friendly, what the Kepler scientists failed to mention is whether they'll be able to determine if these planets would be hosting intelligent life or the equivalent of uni-cellular amoebas. To a scientist, even a microbe sitting on a distant planet would be considered alien life. To a geek with a Spock doll on his desk, that's not the kind of alien life I had in mind.
As exciting as space bacteria may be, it sounds quite boring, so, instead, let's assume there are aliens: they're beings with the ability to communicate elaborately with each other, build societies, culture and tools, and are aware of their own existence. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of where. With the human race here, chances are there is someone else, somewhere else, asking this very same question, wondering where they will find us. I think the idea of the existence of extra terrestrials is an important thing to consider, because answering the question "What does the existence of aliens mean for us?" is a road to potential self-discovery for the human race. Insight into your own world that you don't normally get, being stuck on the same planet all your life, allowing you to put into question your social construction and the very definition of normality we hold so dear.
If aliens exist, why haven't they visited us? One would think that aliens would be just as thrilled as us to discover that we are not alone in the universe and would stop to say hi at the first chance they'd get. Wouldn't you want to make first contact? There may be six billion people on planet earth, but we all feel alone in the vastness of the cosmos and its silence towards us. Reports of UFO sightings may be a representation of how strong our wish for aliens is. Carl Sagan, however, being the party-pooper that he was, argued that even if only one UFO reporting a year was true, over the last 1 million years, we'd need 1 million aliens sending out 10,000 starships per year during their civilization's lifetime of 10 million years, just to be able to reach the earth at least once.
To make things even more complicated, Einstein postulated that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. it's not that light travels slowly--quite the opposite--but even travelling a hair below 1,079 million kilometres per hour would still require us to sit in a ship for 4.4 years just to reach Alpha Centauri, the star closest to us. Einstein was a pretty smart guy, so I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he's right. Maybe Faster Than Light (FTL) travel is really impossible. Yet, the same thing was said about breaking the sound barrier, until we developed the technology to travel at Mach 1; perhaps FTL is just something we haven't had the need to figure out yet.
Despite Sagan's generous assumptions, with the added possibility that FTL travel is a feasible, the likelihood of aliens finding us is still quite low. Most likely, aliens just haven't bumped into us because space is so big. Or perhaps aliens haven't reached our level of technological savvy that we take for granted.
Yes, I think we take our accomplishments for granted. Since the dawn of time, we?ve gone from being cave-dwelling, to developing the ability to control fire, to building the wheel and make tools. We constructed languages, culture and traditions. We eventually learnt how to store our knowledge, pass it on and we now live in a day where we're figuring out how to read and re-arrange DNA thanks to the very elaborate technology at our disposal. That?s no small feat. And when you consider how old the universe is, we did this basically overnight. Yet alien cultures, unless they're bent on the invasion of planet earth, are always portrayed as technologically superior and far more advanced humanoids who, unlike us, 'get it'.
If aliens are truly enlightened compared to us, they might have stayed at a technological level comparable to that of our medieval times. They?ll have developed sufficient technology to live in peace and harmony with the land and with themselves, without the need or understanding of money, greed or building bigger, better things to compete. If that?s true, we might eventually be the ones that will pay a visit to these people and these are some of the things we might experience:
If Science Fiction has taught us anything, is that aliens look remarkably like us all the time. In Star Trek this was even more so, with the only difference being a haircut and the grooves on someone's forehead. Even the movie District 9 had strange looking aliens that were remarkably humanoid and sported puppy-eyes so that the viewer would feel more connected to the creature?s plight. Aside from the financial convenience of just dressing up a human actor rather than having to rely on extensive CGI, it makes the story more acceptable to the viewer. Had the aliens in District 9 looked like giant furry turds that smelled bad, the audience would have missed the point of the story.
It is possible that not all real aliens will look like giant furry turds that smell bad. Some might look like the Mulefa, the spine-less diamond-shaped sentient creatures one encounters in The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman. The Mulefa, having no hands, relied entirely on their trunk to grasp things. More elaborate tasks required the work of multiple Mulefa rendering things that we take for granted, like tying a knot, a work that had to be shared. Because of the need for each other the Mulefa were a co-operative and united people that formed very close-knit communities. Their entire culture developed around their limited prehensile abilities creating dependence which was necessary for their survival. Humans have two hands, one of the driving forces behind our technological advancement, creating complete autonomy among us. This might explain our greedy, selfish nature.
Of course the Mulefa are a work of fiction, but similar creatures may exist in the universe who might remain completely baffled not just by our attitude, but by the tools we have been able to build and use thanks to our appendages. Consider the following: a computer's keyboard, the ability to drive and change your radio station at the same time, holding a book while flipping pages, or the simple act of holding a knife and fork while cutting your steak. Everything that we use and defines who we are culturally is based entirely on the way we're shaped.
While religion could fall under the heading of culture, I think it deserves its own place since religions in general are relics of a time gone past that humanity is still struggling to shed. Religion was a form of social control during a time when there was no governance with standards on human rights, which tried to reform humans in behaving better, hence the ten commandments. Religion also played the role of science, because it fantastically attempted to explain all the unexplainable around us; as humanity matures the need for religion decreases--mostly due to its inability to adapt to the times and scientific discoveries; religion, however, won't go without a fight: discovering that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around didn?t stop people from praying. The discovery of aliens may simply give religions another hard blow, but zealots aren't ones to give up easily even when the overwhelming evidence is sitting in front of them (dinosaurs, anyone?).
Although the Bible never mentions humans as the sole beings God created, Christianity has actually been making some surprising statements: that aliens may indeed exist, and that if they do, they're just part of God?s great plan of creation. Do they know something we don't? Regardless, this is surprisingly open-minded and almost refreshing for a religious group, until you stop and think how they feel about gay marriage. I sure hope the aliens aren't gay, or the Pope isn?t going to be too happy.
Islamists have it easier since the Quran has statements like ?every earth has a prophet like Muhammad?, which seems like a blanket statement that every alien has their Jesus. They might not have the same name or even look like them, but the ingredients of leading their people to salvation might be the same. Unfortunately, when you consider that different Islamic sects can't get along among themselves for seeing a few details differently, I doubt we'll welcome our Islamic alien brethren with open arms either. Other religions, like Judaism or Buddhism, might simply shrug and carry on, as their religions are more about a philosophy on how to live life with themselves and others, just as long as the aliens stay the Hell away from their daughters.
In general, the existence of aliens may completely confuse very religious people: it will suddenly confirm that we are not God?s only children and that we're really not all that special after all. And if aliens have their own religion, who will try to convert who in order to save the other?
If we're not engaged in war or having sex, money is the next thing in our minds. As soon as we will meet aliens, we will start looking for ways to monetize the discovery: we'll sell them technology, liberate them from their resources, and set up franchises on their homeworld. That is, if we're the first ones to make contact.
Simon Conway Morris, a professor of evolutionary paleobiology at Cambridge University, suggested that aliens may not be all that different from us: they?ll be greedy, violent and short on resources. Professor Morris sounds a little paranoid, particularly by leading discussion panels titled ?Predicting what extraterrestrial life will be like--and preparing for the worst?. Simon says that while it would be nice to smile and wait for the aliens to save us from our civilization follies, chances are that any extra terrestrial that will pay us a visit may simply be looking for a place to live or searching for water, minerals and fuel they need. We might be in their way.
This shouldn?t come too much as a surprise as humans don?t exactly have a great track record either: think of when white man first arrived to the Americas. The natives welcomed the strangers with open arms and offered to share what they had. White man killed the natives and took everything. Today they're a little sorry for what they did. There's no reason why aliens would feel any remorse for doing the same to us. Or us to them, if we get there first.
War is what we do best. No matter the time in history, there has always been a conflict taking place somewhere on our planet among ourselves: we usually fight over land, religion or just for the plain scope of taking power, so the chances of us instigating a galactic war would really not be that surprising. In Robert Heinlein?s Starship Troopers, the story begins with space marines intimidating a group of aliens called the Skinnies, by performing a raid through their city, just to show who is in charge. Later, as the story progresses, we discover that the bugs, a race of Arachnids the characters are engaged in war with, have been pushed into fighting by the actions of the humans. Heinlen?s book was less about space combat and more about delivering a political message of what was wrong with society back then. And yet, despite his utopian perspective of how the world should be, some of the fallacies that make who we are remained.
Galactic war may actually have some technologically and economically beneficial side-effects for humanity. Much like World War II, which saw the development of a myriad of inventions, such as the radar, a war with aliens may stimulate us to find ways to make space travel as common-place as driving a car. It may also speed up the process of colonizing other promising worlds. Having every human that has ever existed living on the same planet is akin to that analogy of keeping all of one's eggs in one basket.
Because I'm a hopeless optimist, I believe that the most important thing that would come out from a war with aliens would be that it could actually have a beneficial effect on society as a whole. Think about it: would it suddenly matter to a Jew if he was fighting side by side with a Muslim, when aliens bent on the destruction of all humans were looming overhead? Humans seem to thrive in finding differences among themselves and then using that to create groups. Perhaps this is as a result of a natural need to compete. Unfortunately, sometimes this competition goes too far and we have things like racism, gender inequalities, sexism and offer forms of oppression. Put some aliens in the mix and suddenly it would be all about US versus THEM. Our physiognomy alone could be the driving force in bringing us all together, into one united group, bent on kicking some alien ass (or whatever the aliens have that passes for an ass) back into where it came from.
Although the reproductive abilities of any aliens we encounter might be nothing to what we're accustomed to, they may not be that surprisingly different from anything that?s already on planet earth. Aliens could be a single gender specie that reproduces by sharing genetic material with each other, kind of like flowers. They could simply make a clone of themselves without the need of a partner, picking their gender as they please, kind of like sea horses. Or, as a creature grows older, it simply splits into two new versions of the same creature, kind of like an amoeba. Considering, however, that humans? desire for sexual exploration has seen no limit here on earth (bestiality, anyone?), it might not be long until ?Sexual Encounters of the XXX Kind? will hit the shelves of your local adult video store. Or prepare yourself for the inevitable and just rent some Hentai (green tentacled creature raping Japanese school girls, anyone?)
Although Kirk did hit it with those blue-skinned Orion slave girls, there's a good chance that we will not be able to reproduce with aliens. We already can't do that with any other specie on earth, never mind creatures that come from a completely separate and closed biological environment elsewhere in the galaxy. Their concept of what a 'penis' and a ?vagina? would look like might be baffling--and downright scary--to us assuming they even have something similar. Unlike the aliens on Pandora, the imaginary planet in the movie Avatar, the chances real aliens will look anything remotely humanoid are pretty slim. Not that this stopped the protagonist, Jake Sully, from 'bonding' (if you know what I'm sayin') with the Na'vi's princess, Neytiri; however, I can assure you that had Neytiri looked more like, say, a giant squid, nobody would?ve argued with the movie?s villain that Pandora's inhabitants would?ve tasted better battered and fried, served next to a Chianti.
Discovering that aliens exist will make big news for a while--it will be among the most important historic events of our kind, second only to the wheel, controlling fire and porn on the Internet; however, I have a feeling that thanks in part to the active amount of science fiction we have had the fortune to witness over the last few decades alone, it won?t really be that big of a deal for long. Oh, there will be those people always adapting the latest New Age Whatever that will immediately practice whatever philosophical or religious customs the aliens have. But the rest of us will carry on and still show up for work on Monday.
To be honest, despite Professors Morris' paranoia, he may have a point. If the principles of Darwinian evolution should be universal he believes that given the right environmental conditions, it is "inevitable" that intelligent life would have developed elsewhere in the universe. If aliens civilizations exist, it would not be inappropriate to assume that there are alien technologies, implying that they may have heard our signals. If that's the case, why haven't they answered? Professor Morris reasoned that, if he was the aliens, "I'm not sure I'd answer the telephone". With that philosophy in mind, perhaps humanity should not make the call until we have the fire-power to back ourselves up. I'd much rather have people complain that we're treating the aliens poorly than have them bent on annihilating us. Though, considering our track record, maybe that's not such a bad thing.
The reality of the lack of answers--or any signal in general--is more likely caused by the great distances involved in space. Light travels really fast, but it's remarkably slow from a galactic perspective: it takes one hundred thousand years for the light from one end of our galaxy to reach the other end.
Too big a concept?
How about this: it takes about 8 minutes for the sun's light to reach earth, that's how far it is. If you could turn off the sun, Earth would still enjoy almost ten minutes of light before they'd notice. Radio signals travel at the speed of light as well. This means that if aliens 100 light years away were pointing their listening instruments towards Earth, they would only hear what had been transmitted 100 years ago today. Today's attempts at communicating with aliens would reach them 100 years from now. We'd hear their potential reply 200 years from today. One hundred years ago Guglielmo Marconi was just starting to play around with long distance wireless transmission and those signals, strong as they were on Earth for covering thousands of kilometres, would only be detectable 0.00081 light years away from our planet. Not only we haven't kept our alien neighbours up at night with all our noise, they don't even know we live next door.
Ultimately, it all boils down to one problem regardless of whether aliens find us or we find them first, which is neatly postulated in the Fermi Paradox. This paradox, so named after the Italian Physicist Enrico Fermi, basically asked: if the universe is so old and the number of stars so staggeringly huge, which would imply that a significant number of extraterrestrial civilizations exist... where the Hell are they?