Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Lonely Planet

Sandra Parshall

Who among us has never looked into the star-strewn night sky and wondered: Are we alone?

Our own little world is more and more crowded, and we can’t get along with each other, yet something in us looks outward and yearns to discover that Earth isn’t the only planet in the vast universe that has ever given rise to intelligent life.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the
first effort to detect communications from alien societies: in 1960, Dr. Frank Drake turned a radio telescope toward a nearby star called Tau Ceti and began listening for a transmission that would indicate a deliberate effort to make contact. This year is also the 25th anniversary of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute, a private enterprise that monitors radio signals from space using the Allen Telescope Array in California. Other researchers at NASA and around the world have also scanned the skies for “organized” signals that might come from intelligent beings.

So far, they’ve heard nothing. But they’re not discouraged, because they know that humans have barely crossed the threshold into the technological age and scientists simply may not have the right instruments yet to detect the signals they’re listening for.

Astronomers have to date found 30,000 sun-like stars in our galaxy, and identified more than 450 planets orbiting those stars. With increasingly sophisticated technology, scientists will continue to discover planets beyond our
solar system and gather data about distant worlds that might harbor life.

What that life will be like is the great mystery. Dr. Carl Sagan, who believed the universe is teeming with biological beings, was fond of saying that extra-terrestrials were probably no more like humans than a petunia is. But a lot of us can't accept the idea of such bewildering differences. When we imagine creatures from outer space, they are usually bi-peds like us, walking erect. Their bodies have a basically human configuration, although we may depict them as giants o
r – like the lovable ET – dwarfs, and drape them in weird skins to denote their otherness.

Star Trek, on TV and in films, populated the galaxy with humanoids who were basically like us except for a few inoffensive changes to their faces and ears. Old science fiction movies presented aliens that were terrifying precisely because they looked like us but regarded us as nuisances that had to be eliminated or, worse, wanted to eat us. When movie-makers want to create aliens that humans will hate on sight, they tend to make them erect giant lizards, with claw-like hands. (I always wonder how an ET society could fashion delicate, advanced instruments when they have no manual dexterity to speak of.) The 2009 film District 9 took the repulsive aliens concept to a different level by making us understand them and sympathize with them as intelligent beings who loved their children and simply wanted to go home but were treated as dangerous animals by humans. The movie’s South African setting went a long way toward making us side with the aliens. They were disgusting to look at, but we bristled at government officials calling them “prawns” and forcing them to live in conditions not fit for pigs. (It's a great film. Rent it. Watch it. Think about it and discuss it.)

We shouldn’t take too sympathetic an attitude toward aliens, though, some scientists warn. Many think we should avoid alerting them to our existence and location. We don’t have the capability of reaching their home planets, but they might be able to get to ours. A 2006 editorial in the esteemed journal Nature stated, “It is not obvious that all extra-terrestrial civilizations will be benign, or that contact with even a benign one would not have serious repercussions.”

These concerns were raised in 1972, when Carl Sagan’s famous diagram of Earth’s location and renderings of a naked pair of humans went into space on Pioneer 10, and again in 1977 when recordings of human voices and sounds from nature, also assembled by Sagan, were included on the Voyager 1 spacecraft. It’s unlikely that an alien society will come across these tiny crafts (and how would they play the recording even if they found it?), but Pioneer and Voyager will wander interstellar space forever, far beyond our control, and anything is possible.

Dr. Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, seems confident that other intelligent beings are out there, but he has long believed it’s best if we “lay low” and not respond if we ever pick up a signal from aliens. Why? Because they might turn out to be a lot like us. His latest statement on the subject came in a Discovery Channel program called Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking that aired last spring. He warned that aliens may be trolling the universe for resources to replace what they’re running out of at home. “Like us,” Hawking said, “they probably would have evolved from a species used to exploiting whatever it can.”

The optimists at SETI continue monitoring space for messages and have solicited suggestions from the public about how humanity should respond if we get a howdy from aliens. Proposals range from the dull and serious – send them the periodic table in binary numbers (that would keep them away, don’t you think?) – to the whimsical. A teenager suggested inviting the aliens to “Come to Earth and let’s party!” A child wanted to advise them to “get plenty of rest before you come because there’s a lot to see.”

A message from outer space. Proof that we are not alone in the universe, that other intelligent beings, whether benign or dangerous, are out there and trying to reach us. First contact may well come one day, and it will change us and our world forever.

Do you want it to happen in your lifetime? Or do you believe we’re better off never knowing whether other worlds are populated? How do you think you’ll react if you hear the news that an alien society has contacted Earth? Will you be afraid? Excited? How do you think the governments of Earth should respond? Will it bring the nations of Earth together or will fear of the unknown future drive us farther apart?

(Credit: The photos of Earth and the Pioneer plaque are NASA/Goddard Space Center images.)


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

It's a fascinating question. It seems equally possible--and equally impossible--that we are alone and that we are not alone.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I can't wait. It's one of our favorite dinner party topics--if aliens were landing, and you could know about it and see it but you would die--would you rather know and die? Or never know?

And, Sandy, I agree about District 9. Genius.

Sandra Parshall said...

I have no doubt at all that other intelligent life forms are out there. And although I'm as far from being a scientist as anyone could get, I don't know why Carl Sagan was so sure aliens would be radically different from us. If the entire universe is made of the same basic materials -- and that does appear to be the case -- why wouldn't similar life forms appear in far-flung places? The factors that would make a difference would be atmosphere and gravity, not the basic ingredients of life.

In addition to expecting dominant species akin to humans, I'd love to know what kinds of animals and plants other worlds harbor. I'll bet no other planet has anything as cute as a kitten or a panda. :-)

Julia Buckley said...

Fascinating! I suppose I am happy enough to have this remain in the realm of the possible--sort of like the Loch Ness creature.

But I would only want us to make actual contact with other living creatures if we could foresee a happy interaction. And as some of the scientists warn, there probably won't be any foresight if and when those meetings occur.

Diane said...

Like you, Sandra, I see no reason to think we are the only advanced (sort of) intelligent life forms in the universe. Though I disagree with your thought that they would be like us because of the 'ingredients' that make us a life form are universal. Why would that be necessarily so? Even on Earth, species are being discovered all the time now that don't depend on the same basics to exist that we do. Who knows what would give life somewhere else.

And if another intelligent species is out there, whether or not we meet may not depend upon them being invited here. Or us there. Neither would necessarily expect the other to appear.

Patg said...

Nice subject. War of the Worlds is your guide to why contact will not be physical for a long time. Our bacteria will not jive with each other. But talk we will and try to exploit each other is a given. That's the nature of intelligence. Yes, I know, we all want to think of that high minded good-two-shoes attitude that we should have, but 'it ain't gonna happen' and that's why Hawking suggests caution and Sagan is always considered a little naive.
As for ingredients for life, take a look at what is under Antartica and along the ocean floors and you will see right here on Earth how much is possible. Intelligence is the question.
Frankly, something I'd like to see written about is what it will be like if we discovered that we are alone in this galaxy. Can you imagine all the crappy governments and religions being set free over that many light years???? Yuck!
What would happen if we did come across another intelligent species will always depend on how agressive they are. So let's say that they can't reach us and we can't reach them--then we will communicate (and let's hope it get's out of the hands of government) we'll find out nothing we have beliefs in exists anywhere else in the know universe, and there will be great depressions (raging panic and hysteria belongs in the realm of fiction) before we do what we always do and accept, adjust and go on in a normal manner--which will mean thinking up ways to exploit the situation to our advantage.

Kate L. (Guppy) said...

Thanks for posting about both anniversaries - I have an interest in the subject, but not enough to have caught that on my own.

I believe that with a universe as vast as it is (or, at least, is currently known to be) it would be unreasonable to think that this is the only planet with living beings. But I also think that it's more than possible that our chances of connecting with life elsewhere are limited by time as much as space itself - after all, anyone out there who discovers Earth now will have missed the dinosaurs, so it's likely that there *were* living species on other planets that are now extinct.

And because this is a writers' blog, let me recommend one of my favorite, successfull sci-fi stories that involves evidence of extra-terrestrial life without ever introducing an actual alien: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.

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