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by Jerry Oltion

E.T. Shmee-T


Exoplanets are big news nowadays. In the last decade NASA has dedicated an entire space telescope, the Kepler mission, to search for planets around other stars, and it came up with thousands of candidates, most of which have been confirmed. We now know for a fact that nearly every star out there has planets around it.

The number of habitable planets is debatable, but the percentage is small no matter what criteria we use. Still, small doesn't mean zero, and given that our sample is less than a millionth of the entire number of stars in the galaxy, and our galaxy is just one of billions in the universe, it's a safe bet to say that there are lots and lots of habitable planets out there.

Are any inhabited? That's the billion-dollar question. Actually, that figure is probably an order of magnitude or two low. Astronomers, and the governments who fund them, are spending an unprecedented amount of money on studies dedicated to finding exoplanets and determining if any of them host extraterrestrial life. Twenty-five years ago SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, couldn't get enough funding to buy a radio tuner, but nowadays observatories worldwide are donating telescope time and astronomers are building careers as they pursue the search for signs of life beyond Earth.

When interviewed, these astronomers often say that finding extraterrestrial life will change everything. It will finally prove that we're not alone in the cosmos, and that humanity is neither unique nor special. Some say it will humble us (but in a good way). Some say it will inspire us to greatness. Others, like renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, warn that being discovered by an alien civilization could destroy us. Whatever their slant, the one prediction nearly everyone has in common is that the effect on human society will be profound.

I'm not buying it.


Been There, Done That

Why would I say that? Because we've gone through this same scenario dozens of times already, and it hasn't had a profound effect yet.

For practically all of human history, people have believed that the Moon was inhabited. The "Seas" were believed to be actual seas, and the shores were supposedly lined with cities. Some of those cities were so immense you could see them as big circles, and you could even see the roads leading from some of those circles to others. To be sure, there were people who preached that the Moon wasn't inhabited, that it was a perfect, unblemished orb, but anyone could see that wasn't true. It was blotchy as a pizza. Nobody with any imagination bought the official story.

In the late 1500s, Dominican friar Giordano Bruno preached the doctrine of Cosmic Pluralism, in which he argued that the stars are distant suns with their own planets and those planets have inhabitants. It's often said that he was burned at the stake for this belief, but it's far more likely that he was burned for more heretical beliefs about eternal damnation, the Trinity, and the divinity of Christ. Belief in other beings was simply too common at the time for anyone to care.

More recently, the renowned astronomer William Herschel, in a 1795 essay entitled "On the Nature and Construction of the Sun and the Fixed Stars," argued that the Sun was inhabited. His reasoning? Because all the other planets were known to be inhabited, it would be silly to think that the Sun wasn't.

In 1837, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith reportedly stated that the Moon was inhabited by people that averaged six feet tall and dressed "in the Quaker style." More generally, his belief was that God wouldn't have wasted the myriad worlds that must exist out there in space; therefore they were inhabited.

In 1862 French Astronomer Camille Flammarion published La Pluralité des Mondes Habités (The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds), and in 1894 he reported exciting new observations of Mars that included sudden flashes of brightness along the planet's terminator (the shadow line between day and night). In 1897, H. G. Wells published The War of the Worlds, which described those very flashes as the launch signature of the Martian invasion.

Then there was Percival Lowell and his canals on Mars in the late 1800s. Lowell's stock as a professional astronomer was so solid that when he said he saw canals, and that the canals connected vast, ancient Martian cities, he was believed as readily as people nowadays believe that the Earth is round.

What effect did this belief have on humanity in general? Zip-o.


The Big Shrug

People didn't care about life on other planets because nobody was going to visit those planets anytime soon. In ancient times we didn't know how far they were, but we knew we couldn't reach them. In later times when we learned the scale of the solar system, we knew we couldn't reach them. Even in Lowell's time, rocketry was a good way to blow people up but not seriously considered as a means of interplanetery propulsion.

So we were free to think whatever we wanted about extraterrestrial beings; nobody was going to prove us right or wrong.

Nowadays we have pretty solid evidence that nothing but microbes could be living today on any of the other planets in our solar system, and even that is looking pretty doubtful. If there are actual alien beings out there, they have to be on planets circling other stars. And other stars are insanely far away compared to the planets in our solar system. Anybody who speculates about those guys is safe from ground truth for a long, long time.

Of course we might hear from these distant aliens via radio. SETI keeps listening, and they did actually detect one signal that has never been explained away, but it contained no information and has never been repeated, either. Hardly anybody thinks it was an alien transmission, and those who do think so aren't losing much sleep over it.

But what if we did get a radio signal, an unmistakable signal that we could decode into a photo of a bug-eyed green alien grinning toothily at the camera? The media would have a heyday with it, and linguists would excitedly try to decipher the alien language (assuming there was an audio track or a written document accompanying the photo), and scientists and engineers and venture capitalists would hang on every transmission for a hint of exotic new techologies that could be exploited here on Earth...and everybody else would go to work on Monday just as they normally do. There would still be rent to pay and food to put on the table. Until and unless alien technology changed that, people's basic day-to-day existence couldn't change much or they'd wind up homeless and starving.

Of course there's the faction of people who believe in UFOs, and believe that those UFOs are piloted by alien beings from another solar system, already here in our midst. Never mind how supremely advanced the alien technology would have to be in order for them to reach Earth from there; some people believe the aliens have done it and have come here to study us.

Even so, the collective impact on humanity of this belief is also close to zero. The people who believe in UFOs spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince other people that they're not crazy, but that's about it. In terms of behavior change to humanity as a whole, nothing.

But what if UFO-style aliens were proven to exist? What if the movie Arrival was real? The arrival of a spaceship might cause a news-cycle sensation, but unless the aliens on board started buying real estate and moving into our suburbs, I'm betting the reaction would be a great big collective yawn. It simply wouldn't affect most people's lives. Again, food and shelter would still be paramount, and unless the aliens somehow changed that, their mere existence wouldn't change the need for a job.

Nor would it change the things we do for fun. Rock climbers would still scale Half Dome, knitters would still knit sweaters, and sports fans would still gather around the TV on game day.



You might suspect the proven existence of aliens to affect religion. After all, we're supposedly made in God's image (at least according to some beliefs), and if the other guys look like something dredged out of the deep ocean, people are going to assume we're God's chosen, and they're not.

So what's new? People think that about their football teams. We pray for divine intervention every day, expecting God to step in and change the laws of physics in our favor because we're special. Does anyone seriously believe that attitude is going to change anytime soon? If anything, the existence of bug-eyed monsters will make people all the more religious as confirmation bias reinforces their existing beliefs.

What if the aliens look like us? It's a long shot, but evolution could come up with the same basic body plan in response to the same selection pressure that humanity faced.

Well, then, there would be a wave of missionaries rushing out to convert the heathens—just like the myriad waves of missionaries we've already seen every time a new group of humans was discovered right here on Earth. This time that evangelism might have to be done via radio, given the vast distances involved, but it would differ little in principle from what we've already experienced.


Interstellar War

Again with the vast distances. It's really, really far from here to anywhere. The UFO fringe notwithstanding, it's going to take an incredible amount of energy to send anything but photons to another solar system. The best we could do on any reasonable timescale would be a micro-miniaturized robot. Aliens might have vastly superior technology, in which case they might be able to send much more massive payloads, but we're talking energy on the order of a civilization's annual output just to build and launch a starship with a crew of a couple hundred people. If an alien civilization was so far ahead of us that they could afford that kind of thing, the odds of them considering us competition are insignificant. They might consider us pests to be wiped out before we proliferated, but it wouldn't be a war. It would be an extermination.

What are the odds of that? I don't know about you, but I'm not losing sleep over it until we see the hazardous materials warning poster tacked to the Moon.


Encyclopedia Galactica

If alien contact is ever made, it's almost certainly going to be by radio or similar means. We'll start talking to one another. The distances involved mean that conversations are going to take years between "Hello" and "Hi, yourself." So it's most likely that any transmissions we receive will be intended to be one-way, at least for the short term. And if our first messages sent into the vasty deep are any indication, they're most likely going to say, "We're here. This is what we look like. Here's some of our music. We think Einstein got it mostly right."

It's that latter bit that's really scary. What if the aliens send us everything they know? The radio spectrum suddenly fills with information on everything from energy sources to social engineering to wacky religions, and everyone on earth with a radio telescope can listen in.

That could spell trouble. Any nation that gained the upper hand in any significant way would have a limited amount of time to press that advantage before some other nation achieved the same thing. Anybody willing to bet what the first use of controlled matter-antimatter annihilation or zero-point energy would be?

So yeah, that scenario is bad. Really bad. Which means unless the aliens were really stupid, or really malevolent, or so alien that they couldn't imagine the consequences, I think we're safe from that.


The Big Silence

I think the most likely scenario is just the opposite. I suspect we're never going to hear a peep from anyone other than ourselves. Why? Because we don't see any sign of alien civilization anywhere. Enrico Fermi posed the question in 1950 and it's still as big a question now as then: "Where are they?" If life was common in the universe, at least some of that life would have evolved ahead of us, spread out, and dominated the entire galaxy. Yet we don't see anything. Ergo, life is not common.

It's hard to prove a negative, but the more we listen and look without finding anything, the more unlikely extraterrestrial life is going to seem. At some point we're going to conclude that it's either incredibly rare or nonexistent. How is that going to affect everyone?

You guessed it.

That said, I think it's great that writers explore the question and publishers publish their stories. Because whether or not anyone is out there, we can still learn a lot about ourselves by speculationg on the possibilities.


Jerry Oltion has been a science nut since he was old enough to spell "curious." He has written science fiction almost as long, and has done astronomy somewhat less. He writes a regular column on amateur telescope making for Sky & Telescope magazine, and spends many, many nights a year out under the stars.

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