March 01, 1995

Article at 21C Magazine

Life off Earth

Discovering an alien artiffact on the Moon; a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Religions could crumble, science could grind to a halt, and human culture stultify – that’s the scenario some predict if we discover intelligent life beyond Earth. What are the chances of life existing elsewhere? And would be impact really be so devastating? 

by Wilson da Silva

“As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, a organisation of 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth, I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe, seeking only peace and friendship; to teach if we are called upon; to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of this immense universe that surrounds us, and it is with humility – and hope – that we take this step.”

IT’S A NICE GESTURE: an interstellar greeting card from Earth to all those alien civilizations out there, travelling aboard the two Voyager space probes. But not everybody thinks so. “These are like giant dinner invitations being sent into interstellar space ... with all sorts of clear messages about where Earth is,” says Michael Archer, professor of biological science at Sydney’s University of New South Wales. “Come over here to Earth, there’s lots of good things to eat.”

Archer is one scientist with severe qualms about the impact of extraterrestrial contact. He isn’t the only one. On November 16, 1974, the 305-metre Arecibo radiotelescope in Puerto Rico transmitted a message aimed at the distant globular cluster M13. The 169-second message described some characteristics of life on Earth. At the time, U.S. diplomat Michael A. G. Michaud considered the exercise a political act: he said that such a momentous decision should be made openly, in the full glare of publicity, “with the involvement of public authorities”, and not be left to scientists alone. 

Sir Martin Ryle, a Nobel laureate and then-Astronomer Royal of Britain, wrote to leading astronomers and argued that it was a hazardous folly to reveal our existence and location to the universe. For all we know, he said, “any creatures out there are malevolent or hungry,” and once they knew of us, “they might come to attack or eat us.” Ryle urged that no messages be sent again, and even asked the International Astronomical Union to ban any future transmissions.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, gets a lot of people steamed up. At a scientific workshop in Sydney last year, paving the way for the international Project Phoenix – the most systematic search ever undertaken, which begins in Australia this year – seemingly staid and well-adjusted scholars locked horns more than once. Some regard the very search as ludicrous, others as a noble goal in principle, but in reality, a sad waste of time. 

Biologists say life on Earth has arisen through such a quixotic mix of chance and chaos that it is unlikely to be mirrored anywhere else; as for intelligent life, forget it. Cognitive scientists – at least some of them – say that our brains are such bizarre and quirky instruments, a mish-mash of our evolutionary past, that we can never, ever hope to understand alien signals. But a growing band of space scientists, including Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, Paul Horowitz and Philip Morrison, believe that to question if life exists beyond Earth is legitimate, and that we have the technology to at last test the theory.

“There’s a sort of hazard really as a scientist that you lose a bit of credibility by doing this sort of research,” says Dr Ray Norris, an astrophysicist at the Australia Telescope array who spoke at the workshop. “It smacks of UFOs and science fiction. My own personal view is that it is real science. We’re trying to answer questions about the universe, and to ask if there’s life out there must be a valid question.” 

Norris is a true believer. At least in the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere, and sees the search as bringing major benefits to humanity: “We have a number of problems on this planet right now. People are starving, war; are we going to wipe ourselves out with pollution or destroying the ozone layer? The chances are that another civilization, while it might not have exactly the same problems, will probably have confronted similar problems. The interesting thing is, if this civilization is more advanced than us, then we know it’s been through all this and haven’t wiped itself out, it’s made it through. And that gives us a ray of hope – yes, mankind can survive.”

We may well know in the next few years. In the dry scrub of central New South Wales state, amid fields of wheat, lies the Parkes Radiotelescope. The 64-metre dish is the first to begin an unprecedented, systematic search for radio signals from our local stellar neighbourhood – the nearest 1,000 light years. 

Sunset at Parkes Radiotelescope

For five months in 1995, the dish will scan the first 200 Sun-like stars for signals, listening across 15 million channels simultaneously. It will later be joined by the Arecibo radiotelescope in Puerto Rico, a giant dish 330 meters in diameter whose parabola blankets a whole valley. Another smaller radiotelescope is planned in the northern hemisphere, and the three will conduct observing stints over the next 10 years. 

In the last 35 years, there have been some 60 SETI projects conducted in the United States, Russia, France, Australia, Argentina and Canada; some have been sporadic stints of perhaps two weeks while others have been ongoing. None have yielded definitive signs of intelligent life, although there have been 435 “candidate signals” detected. All of the these were sporadic – they were interesting but unclear, and drifted or stopped before researchers could study them long enough to determine if they were natural or artificial. 

SETI proponents expect three types of signals to be coursing through the cosmos: ‘local broadcast’ communications from the home planet; ‘long-distance calls’ between two or more planetary civilizations, or between the home world and its outlying colonies; and ‘beacons’, meant to announce to emerging societies that they are not alone.

The problem with the first two is that, if you’re looking to eavesdrop, you have to be pointing your dish at the right star at the exact time a transmission is sent in your direction. That’s a long shot, so most searches have focused on beacons. But even then, you’ve got to know the frequency of the broadcast too, otherwise it may zip right past your radiotelescope undetected – never mind knowing the modulation so you can decode it. 

Then there’s the number of possible ‘cells’ where a signal might exist, and which researchers need to monitor. Space in incredibly noisy on the radio spectrum; there are stars crashing into stars, suns collapsing, stars spinning around others, and so on. If we were to search the whole microwave region spectrum, between 300 megahertz and 300 gigahertz, the number of possible cells that would have to searched is roughly 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 – enough to keep anyone busy for long time. Luckily, there is a narrower window, between 1 and 60 gigahertz, that is relatively quiet, and where it would be easiest to detect a faint microwave radio signal from across space against the natural background radiation. So far, all of the search programs put together have covered less than a trillionth of all of the cells that could be searched.

The task is not an easy one. But Ray Norris, one of the scientists on the Phoenix project, is not fazed by the enormity of the odds; you’ve got to start somewhere. “When you look at what we’ve done (so far), it’s not surprising we haven’t detected anything yet. You have to look very, very hard. It’s not clear that even now we have the technology to do it properly. I think we’re just getting to the stage where we have got a fighting chance.”

Will we be able to understand them when we do get a signal? The basic assumption of SETI researchers is that the laws governing the universe are the same everywhere. If so, we may be able to communicate by referring to those things we have in common with extraterrestrials – physics, mathematics, and so on, and build a rudimentary ‘language’ of sorts. But no everyone is optimistic. 

Professor Nicholas Rescher, a philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh, contends that extraterrestrials are extremely unlikely to have any type of science that would be recognisable to us, despite sharing the same ‘universal’ laws. They will be very different organisms, with different needs, senses, and behaviour; they will live in planets strikingly different from our own. Maybe in environments where science and technology are not needed for survival. 

He argues that several species have flourished on Earth without developing intelligence, so sentience may not be a necessary adaptation. We should automatically expect it to develop elsewhere. Even if it does, the science of an alien civilisation may also reflect the way they perceive nature, and it might be impossible for us to fathom their view of the universe or their approach to science.

However, artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, of Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology, disagrees. He argues that intelligent extraterrestrials “will think like us, in spite of different origins.” This is based on the idea that all intelligent problem-solvers are subject to the same ultimate constraints – limitations of space, time and resources. In order for life to develop successful strategies for dealing with the world, they must be able to represent the situations they face, and they must have processes for manipulating those representations. He proposes two basic principles for every ‘intelligence’:

  • Economics: Every intelligence must develop ‘symbol-systems’ for representing objects, causes and goals, and for formulating and remembering the procedures it develops for achieving those goals – thoughts and ideas, and languages to represent them.
  • Sparseness: Every evolving intelligence will eventually encounter certain very special ideas – e.g. arithmetic, casual reasoning and economics – because these particular ideas are very much simpler than other ideas with similar uses.

According to Minsky, extraterrestrials will therefore have evolved thought processes and communication strategies that will mirror our own, to a degree that will enable us to comprehend them. SETI proponents largely agree with Minsky, choosing also to believe that there is some ‘convergence’ in the interpretations of the physical laws in all galactic civilisations.

Assuming we do detect an alien signal, how will the world react? Well, you won’t be surprised with the first images people conjure up – flying saucers and spinning lights. You can’t blame them – they’ve been fed a steady diet of this sort of thing for the past 50 years; from films like Earth Versus the Flying Saucers in the ‘50s to the subtly titled TV series UFO in the ‘70s. Even U.S. presidents get into the act: “I am convinced that UFOs exist, because I have seen one,” Jimmy Carter told reporters in 1976.

A scene from the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still

The 1951 classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, might be said to characterise our fears of extraterrestrials. In the film, the alien Klaatu, stepping from his spacecraft, offers a sign of peace to the crowd of humans gathered around him in Washington DC. He retrieves from his shiny silver suit a small vial from which pops out a rare and beautiful flower, meant as a gift to the people of Earth. A U.S. marine promptly shoots him. And Klaatu was humanoid – imagine what would have happened if he was really alien. 

Possible reactions to contact have been defined by anthropologist Ben R. Finney of the University of Hawaii as being either “paranoid” or “pronoid”: either people will be excessively fearful and distrustful of aliens, or to too trusting. Much of science fiction has followed the paranoid theme. Perhaps influenced by Darwinism at the end of the 19th century, H.G. Wells wrote about the invasion of Earth in his classic The War of the Worlds in 1898. Wells cast the alien as competitor, a natural enemy of humanity and a genocidal invader, and this quickly became the stereotype. 

This mind-set went on to dominate contemporary thinking on extraterrestrials: in the early 1960s, the Brookings Institution delivered a report to NASA concluding that “the discovery of life on other worlds could cause the Earth’s civilisation collapse.” It still goes on today; medical anthropologist Melvin Konner, arguing against NASA’s SETI program, said that “evolution predicts the existence of selfishness, arrogance and violence on other planets even more surely than it predicts intelligence.” 

He considered it philosophically and scientifically naive to think that advanced extraterrestrials might want to benevolently pass on their galactic wisdom to us, and argued that the likely result of contact could be the most cataclysmic disaster to ever befall our species. Aliens would be just as brutish with less advanced civilisations as we have been with our own kind, and we would end up being treated the way we have treated “rhesus monkeys, cows, dogs and dodos,” he said.

Archer, of the University of New South Wales, agrees. “If we had a hard look at ourselves ... we basically clawed and bit our way to the top of Earth, and we’re in the business of wrecking it as we go and wiping out any competitive lifeforms that get in our way,” he says. “If we can’t get on with each other, what chance is that we’ll get on with something as different as an intelligent lifeform that has predatory interests of its own? It would be highly unlikely that there could be any kind of stable relationship possible between two super-predators in the galaxy. Ultimately, we’d be at each other’s throats.”

The “pronoid” school of thought is found in the writings of William Newman and Carl Sagan, and in films like ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, still the biggest grossing film of all time. The pronoid school suggest that there may be universal impediments to cosmic imperialism. They argue that advanced civilisations with long histories must have learned how to be benign or else they would have wiped themselves out long ago. To answer the ‘cannibalistic arguments’ of the paranoid faction, Sagan says that extraterrestrial carnivores, having evolved under completely different circumstances over billions of years, are unlikely to find the sequences of amino acids in human proteins especially tasty or nourishing. It would be cheaper and easier to “synthesise proteins in the amino acid sequences favoured by extraterrestrial gastronomes than to muster a luncheon expedition to Earth”. 

Authors Arthur C. Clarke and the late Isaac Asimov, along with scientists Frank Drake, Paul Horowitz and Philip Morrison, have opined that societies “with superior science and inferior morals” would not stand the test of time. Either way, it is unlikely we will stumble across an Encyclopedia Galatica on interstellar airwaves – more advanced civilisations would not place state-of-the-art knowledge at the disposal of an unknown and morally underdeveloped society, since it could be a threat to their very existence ... at least until it has ‘grown up’. 

Whatever lies out there, whether friend or foe, we as a species are much more prepared for contact than at any other time of our history. Arthur C. Clarke once said that the technical capability of a sufficiently advanced civilisation will be, to us, indistinguishable from magic. They will be more advanced than us: any extraterrestrial civilisation capable of building omnidirectional beacons transmitting strong signals across the cosmos will have to be. 

A scene from ET: The Extra-Terrestrial

Therefore, the relationship will be an unequal one.; but we are unlikely to treat them as gods, as the Papua New Guineans treated white men early this century, or Native Americans treated white explorers half a millennia ago. Popular culture has prepared us for their arrival, and we even have a name for them – extraterrestrials. We have, in countless movies and books, ‘rehearsed’ what we should do when we come across them. Look at the tabloids in every supermarket; not only do extraterrestrials visit us with surprising frequency, they often have with them useful liaison staff like Elvis Presley.

All of this is helpful contends Dr Nick Modjeska, a social anthropologist at Sydney’s Macquarie University: “Doing anthropology on my own society, I have no doubt that there would be some religious people that might conclude that extraterrestrials were spirits. I think we’re in a position in our system of knowledge that we have a slot already to put these extraterrestrials into; we have a term for them – extraterrestrials, ‘little green men’ or what have you. There would no doubt be many misunderstandings about such intelligences might be on about. But I rather doubt that we would for long fall under the assumption that these were gods.”

While we may be primed for contact, we are all still limited by what we can imagine. Remember the frightening lifeform depicted in the film Alien? That was no alien, the swing-jaw rat of humble Earth has a similar apparatus for feeding. There are creatures on this planet that incubate inside others and burst out of them, feeding on their host, just like the seemingly bizarre and alien creature in the film. 

The diversity of life on Earth alone can often shock us, never mind what we may find out there. Even our wildest dreams, we are unlikely to come close to imagining what sentient life elsewhere in the cosmos will be like. Developing over billions of years under different conditions on a planet around another star, they are very likely – even if originating on an Earth-like world – to take a completely different evolutionary pathway as the dice of chance mutation and adaptation rolled differently countless times over the billions of years. 

But even if we can’t imagine them, or cannot understand their signals, a discovery alone will have enormous consequences. “Clearly the discovery of strong evidence for an extraterrestrial intelligence would transform the vision we have of humanity,” contends Professor Lawrence Cramb, head of astrophysics at the University of Sydney. It will, for one, deal coup de grace to our anthropocentricism. 

Finding out we are no longer alone will be seen by some as a liberating thing, by others as a marker for the collapse of the comfortable structures they knew. Religions could have a tough time. Do aliens have a soul? Were they also created by God? If they are unaware of God, does this not challenge his universality? Some think that the detection of a signal alone could obliterate faiths, if they cannot find a way to integrate the new reality into the dogma. But then again, we know that the once Earth-centric Catholic Church managed to survive Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin; in some cases, it chose to accept scientific advances (such as the Earth spinning around the Sun). In others, it chose to ignore, dismiss or not engage them (such as evolution).

There will also be some mild hysteria. Masses of people may gather, establishing whole movements that argue the necessity of listening to the wisdom of the aliens. Perhaps they ill gather around radiotelescopes and chant prime numbers, flocking to dishes as if they were techno-Stonehenges.  

Parallels in human history are not comforting – the less developed civilisation has been on the losing end of the equation almost every time. Faiths dissolve along with worldviews, people question the status quo, invariably comparing it with the new, more developed culture they have encountered. Most worrisome of all, a people’s confidence in themselves and their abilities is shattered, leading to a breakdown in initiative and the rise of the cargo cult. Take the Central American nation of Belize: it began getting U.S. satellite TV in 1985. Almost overnight, cultural practices borne over centuries changed, and life began to revolve around the television set. A people who had never heard of baseball began barracking for the Chicago Cubs. Their civilisation was never the same.

Contact with more advanced beings could conceivably deal a body blow to terrestrial science. Why continue basic research on Earth when the extraterrestrials have it all figured out anyway? This will certainly be the way many of the public and the squadrons of penny-pinching politicians will see it. It is, of course, also possible that with an explosion of knowledge from the stars could also see terrestrial science flower in a new renaissance. Having failed to see a spectacular expansion of native research following the arrivals of technically advanced Europeans in Latin America, Africa and the Pacific, this scenario appears doubtful.

It has been said that contact with an extraterrestrial culture could be the most important event in human history. A meaningful exchange between terrestrial and extraterrestrial cultures would certainly rattle humanity to the very core of its being. Just as it is impossible for us to predict what extraterrestrials will be like, it is also going to be impossible to predict what the full range of human reaction will be. Some of it will be good, but if history on Earth is any guide, a lot of it will be bad. But at least we are more psychologically, and perhaps even technologically, prepared for contact than the Mayans and Aztecs were four centuries ago, or the Polynesians were another 100 years later.

Some argue that the consequences are so potentially devastating, we should shut all search programs down, and stop any broadcasts. For the latter, it is too late. When Sir Martyn Ryle raised an almighty ruckus about the first directed transmission into space, SETI pioneer Frank Drake wrote to him, saying that it was really too late: “The deed is done, and repeated daily with every television transmission, every military radar signal, every spacecraft command ... They’re too far away to pose a threat. I think that hostile tribes bent on war, be they terrestrial or extraterrestrial, destroy themselves with their own weapons long before they have any notion of how to attempt interstellar travel. The more peaceful nations, who study science and have perhaps cracked the secret of immortality, are more likely to be benevolent, shy, and wary of contact for their own reasons.” 

Even if no signal is detected, we will have something to learn. The University of Sydney’s Cramb: “I happen to think there aren’t other intelligent beings in the universe, and I think an increasing demonstration that we are alone will have an impact on the collective consciousness and the part humanity has to play in the world. The obligation (will be) on humanity to protect our natural environment.”