May 14, 2015
In 1938, the country panicked during a radio broadcast reporting that Martians had landed in New Jersey. We're well past that now, but the echo lingers. There's probably no more intriguing scientific issue than the question of whether we are alone in the universe. It continues to show up in various magazines and books, most recently in the current Popular Science. When it does, it invariably makes the cover. "Should We Contact Aliens?" is by Sarah Scoles, who was once an associate editor of Astronomy Magazine. Her work has appeared there, as well as in The Atlantic, Slate, Discover, and Aeon, among others.
Should we go a step further than merely listening for an artificial signal? Should we try to say hello? Stephen Hawking says no. Because we do not know who or what may be out there, he argues that it would be prudent to keep our heads down and make no more noise than we have to. Scoles takes the opposite position, because there may be much to gain. "Advanced civilizations," she says, "may have engineered a way out of climate change or cracked the code on quantum physics." She sees the possibility of connection with an advanced society as an opportunity we should not miss.
In July 1947, at the age of twelve, I experienced one of the more exciting moments in my life. Flying saucers had recently gotten into the news, and suddenly there were reports that one of them had crashed in Roswell, NM. In that era, I never thought of them as embodying a risk. There was a vacant lot at the north end of Myrtlewood Street, and we used to talk about whether we could maybe flag down a flying saucer (the term UFO had not yet appeared), and persuade the aliens to land on the lot. Today, I try to imagine the scene, with the vehicle descending slowly and every kid in the neighborhood charging in its direction while horrified parents try to intercept them. Those were innocent times.
I'm inclined to agree with both Hawking and Scoles, to a degree. I've always thought that anyone smart enough to design a vehicle for interstellar flight is unlikely to be a barbarian. Therefore we probably need not worry. The downside of that argument is that the individuals who design the starships are unlikely to be the decision-makers in how they're used. Moreover, the threats rising from contact would not be limited to a fleet of armed invaders.
If we were to come away with technological advances, there's no guarantee they wouldn't create major problems. Especially if we were to take advantage of them without having had the opportunity to adjust. We've had two decades to adjust to the internet, and we're still struggling with it.
I grew up with the notion that technological advances are always good. This happened even though I can remember sitting in front of our TV during high school days watching, if memory serves, the first H-bomb test, televised live. This was the one that some scientists were concerned would start a chain reaction and take us all out. Well, you don't know if you don't try.
It's now clear that if we can devise something, we will.
Information that we pick up from another civilization could be disquieting in other ways. Suppose we discover the aliens are considerably smarter than we are? Or that they don't age?
Or that they have completely different social mores? They might, for example, not subscribe to our idea of individual freedom.
So, for the moment, I'm going to do what I always do with this kind of issue: Duck. There's obviously a risk if we start actively searching for others. But maybe it would be worth it.