World of Wonders

Are We Alone?

Let’s hope so

By Gaia Vince | August 26, 2015
The truth is out there.
The truth is out there.

According to Stephen Hawking, “there is no bigger question,” and now Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has committed $100 million to find the answer: Is there is intelligent life beyond Earth?

The scientists at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project are understandably delighted. Certainly many people outside of the astrophysics community also find this an important and pressing question, meriting such an extremely generous cash injection. Others, however, may wonder if there are better scientific quests to fund, such as those aimed at sustaining life here on Earth. As a hobby for a Russian billionaire, listening for aliens in space is no worse than buying European football clubs, although almost certainly less likely to yield success.

The search for ET has been ongoing since 1960, when Frank Drake, emeritus professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, directed a radio telescope at distant stars, hoping to hear a squawk of life. He heard nothing. Hearing nothing has also been the experience, to date, of SETI’s nine million volunteers. But it only takes one squeak, and the universe is a big unexplored space …

I wonder though, what would happen if we actually found intelligent life out there. We are very good at imagining ourselves as the great explorers, heading off to new lands, even to extraterrestrial bodies. We discuss the possibilities of setting up home on our moon or perhaps on Mars, of mining asteroids and the moon for rare Earth elements, and deriving vast amounts of energy from space-based solar panels. But what if the aliens we meet are human-like? What if they see our planet as an exploitable world and, just as we have done for millennia, seek to colonize and mine Earth?

There is no living planet like it in our solar system or, I would bet, in the entire universe, so the aliens would be foolish not to take as much as they could. After all, we humans are already exploiting Earth to our fullest ability—and that’s despite having any viable, practical alternatives.

SETI’s director, Seth Shostak, thinks we shouldn’t worry about hostile visitors, such as those incensed to violence by learning of our nasty treatment of each other, writing that: “Any society that can pick up our radio messages will be at a level of development at least centuries beyond our own. They would be no more incensed by our bad behaviour than historians who learned that Babylonians attacked one another with spears.”

This seems extremely cavalier. I would be inclined rather to probe the crystal balls of the more imaginative sci-fi writers, many of whom offer rather more alarming possibilities. In Meteor, John Wyndham imagines space explorers successfully reaching another planet, only to be wiped out by the inhabitants who, it turns out, are far bigger than them. In that case, the visitors were aliens and the giants were humans on Earth. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen the other way around?

If you believe enough in the existence of ET to spend $100 million or a significant portion of your life on the search, surely you’d do well to heed Wyndham’s cautionary tale and not advertise our extraordinary and precious blue planet to would-be colonizers?



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