If the human race were to ever pick up an alien like signal, should we respond? On one hand it will be an amazing discovery, finally succeeding in our search to find intelligent life other than ourselves in the cosmos. But on the other, could we be risking the extinction of the human race by exposing ourselves to the unknown and utterly terrifying intentions of those interstellar beings?

By all means this is a very valid concern and one which has been in disagreement amongst some of the smartest scientists on the globe. What gives the notion so much weight is the fact that after more than half a century of passive and active searching for extraterrestrial intelligence [1], we have found absolutely nothing. Zip. So the question begs to be asked – where are all the aliens? If the universe is so massive and the statistics provide so many possibilities for their existence, then why haven’t we detected them yet? The Drake equation attempts to solve this, but it has one ‘minor’ problem – we don’t know what the values of the parameters ought to be [1]. This ‘minor’ issue spits out an answer that ranges in the hundreds of millions, to one that is equal to just ten [5]. While in time some of these variables may become more concrete, for now this is all we have to work with.

Coupling our current models of life with the ‘eerie silence’ we have so far detected, we are faced with a troubling question (known as the Fermi Paradox [6]), from which three viable possibilities have been proposed [2].

  1. We are alone [2].

  2. Civilisations are common, but no one has colonised the galaxy [2].

  3. There is one or more galactic civilisations, but they have not yet revealed their existence to us [2].

Starting off with the first possibility which is that we are alone, then there really isn’t much to be afraid of. The foundation SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life) is self funded and receives most its funds from private investors and philanthropists, so it isn’t diverting any funding away from the hard sciences here on Earth [3].  This is the most bleak outcome, of course, so let us dabble in some other more entertaining possibilities.

Moving onto the second point, we observe that this may be due to three possible reasons. Firstly we may have severely underestimated the difficulty of interstellar space travel. This would also greatly limit the ability to communicate over vast distances [2]. Secondly, the intergalactic civilisations may not have the desire to explore as we do [2]. Our fondness of the explorers which came before us may be an innately human trait. And thirdly, (if true, something we should certainly take as a warning) perhaps many of the civilisations that have unlocked the power of nature (likely that found within fission reactions) and have blown themselves to oblivion [2]. This last reason undoubtedly was the origin for many concerns, and really preludes the suspect behaviour of the third and final possibility which will be discussed in the subsequent paragraph.

There is one or more galactic civilisations, but they have not yet revealed their existence to us [2]. Just think about that for a moment. After it has sunk in, grab your deerstalker because we are going to do some detective work. Many professionals and amateurs have weighed up the potentially high possibility of life evolving and paired that with the fact that no real scientific evidence exists[3] in support of E.T. (that is, intelligent life forms other than ourselves or Steven Spielberg’s bicycle flying… creature). Their conclusions – well there is more than one, so lets break them down.

  • We may be the new kid on the block for all its worth – 13.72 billion years seems like an awfully long time for the galactic civilisations to form their ‘intergalactic councils’. If true, then they really have seen it all and perhaps they have realised that they mustn’t interfere with our progression as a race – we may have to sort out our own problems before we are ready to join their panel [2].

  • Everyone else may only be listening, and not transmitting. Many would argue that this is the smart thing to do – the reasons for which are explained in this third possibility [7].

  • Maybe the reason why the universe is so quiet is because there is a war-mongering, resource hungry civilisation [7]. Although touching on absurdity, the possibility that such as race has depleted all of it’s local resources is actually quite plausible. And while it sounds like I’m about to present the plot to Independence Day, if this was the case then in our story there would be no hero to save the world – we wouldn’t even stand a chance.

And from this final ultimatum – perhaps the seal to our species death sentence – floods all the ethical concerns in relation to our active SETI. Many critics who believe this to be a real possibility that we should take into serious consideration have spoken out.

One of these critics holds a first class honours degree in Natural Sciences from Oxford University. He is none other than Stephen Hawking, and he seems to be very concerned with our attempts to contact alien races. In a documentary for the History Channel Hawking voiced his concerns by saying: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans” [4]. However there are always two sides to an argument. A senior astronomer at the SETI institute, Seth Shostak believes that Hawkings claims are an unwarranted fear. He claims that “If their interest in our planet is for something valuable that our planet has to offer, there’s no particular reason to worry about them now. If they’re interested in resources, they have ways of finding rocky planets that don’t depend on whether we broadcast or not. They could have found us a billion years ago” [4].

Other ethical issues that I have thought up include the potential for lethal diseases to wipe out one race or the other; our duty to protect rather than harm (be that accidentally or intentionally) the other life form (considering it is an issue we have amongst ourselves nonetheless); and what this potentially means for the worlds religions (but lets not go there). In the scheme of ethics however, the foremost issue we must deal with is definitely the intentions of extraterrestrials, and there is obvious division amongst all of us really. From this arises another ethical issue – what right do the SETI scientists have to make the decision for active SETI, or for anyone for that matter [8]? In my opinion this issue is put to rest by a FAQ response on the official SETI website:

While we can’t pretend to know the behavior or motivations of extraterrestrials, there’s little point in worrying about alerting others to our presence by replying to a signal detected by SETI. That’s because we have been unintentionally broadcasting the fact of our existence into space ever since the Second World War. Any society capable of interstellar travel – and therefore be a possible threat – would be able to detect these signals. In other words, the evidence for our presence on Earth is already moving into space, and has so far reached several thousand star systems [3].

A brilliant infograph of this can be seen below[7].

To add to this, any civilisation with that sort of technology would likely not have any difficulty in detecting us anyway – for it will be about 25,000 years before our messages even reach the first system for which they are intended [8]. However in saying that, another brilliant rebuttal is provided by Ian Stewart, a mathematician at Warwick University: “Lots of people think that because they would be so wise and knowledgeable, they would be peaceful. I don’t think you can assume that. I don’t think you can put human views on to them; that’s a dangerous way of thinking. Aliens are alien. If they exist at all, we cannot assume they’re like us” [4].

Clearly there are very strong points made from either side of the arguments. So I think the real question comes down to weighing up the risks with the rewards. While an intergalactic civilisation may be out to harvest the Earth’s resources (killing us in the process), my opinion remains that the discovery and contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation may very well unite us (in the sense of the human race as well as common expressions of life within the universe) and through cooperation may lead to the ensured existence of our species for many millions of years into the future.

To conclude with, I believe an important consideration to take into account is that we are only just coming into an age of technological advancement as well as scientific progress. I mean, less than 500 years ago humans thought that we were the centre of the universe [9] (in fact, some politicians still do). And in that comparatively tiny amount of time, our knowledge about the universe in which we live has increased by leaps and bounds, ultimately humbling us in the process. This is key in highlighting that we don’t have the slightest clue of what expect from the large cosmic dock our Earth is found within. Akin to Carl Sagan’s remark [10], I believe contact with an extraterrestrial race WILL be the hint that saves us from ourselves.

P.S. This image* [11] provides a rather interesting read. Check it out!

*Contains Profanity

Terminology:

E.T. = Extraterrestrial

SETI = Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

FAQ = Frequently Asked Questions

Deerstalker = A hat often associated with the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes

References:

[1] – Bennett, Donahue, Schneider, Voit,  2014, The Cosmic Perspective: Seventh Edition, Pearson, Chapter 24: Life in the Universe (Page 711)

[2] – Bennett, Donahue, Schneider, Voit,  2014, The Cosmic Perspective: Seventh Edition, Pearson, Chapter 24: Life in the Universe (Page 717)

       Note: It was far easier to state each page number once here than with each connotation in-text.

[3] – FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) | SETI Institute. 2014. SETI Institute. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.seti.org/faq. [Accessed 19 October 2014].

[4] – Is Stephen Hawking right about aliens? 2014. The Guardian . [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/apr/30/stephen-hawking-right-aliens. [Accessed 19 October 2014].

[5] – Carl Sagan – Cosmos – Drake Equation. 2014. YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlikCebQSlY. [Accessed 19 October 2014].

[6] – Fermi Paradox. 2014. SETI Institute. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.seti.org/seti-institute/project/details/fermi-paradox. [Accessed 19 October 2014].

[7] – Where is the Evidence of Extraterrestrials?. 2014. From Quarks to Quasars. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.fromquarkstoquasars.com/where-is-the-evidence-of-extra-terrestrials/. [Accessed 19 October 2014].

[8] – Jeremy Bailey, Lecture 18 – The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). 2010.

[9] – Geocentric model. 2014. Princeton University. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Geocentric_model.html. [Accessed 19 October 2014].

[10] – Pale Blue Dot Quotes by Carl Sagan. 2014. Goodreads. [ONLINE] Available at:https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1816628-a-pale-blue-dot. [Accessed 19 October 2014].

[11] – Lets say for whatever reason you’re the first human to ever make alien contact. : space. 2014. Reddit. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.reddit.com/r/space/comments/165opl/lets_say_for_whatever_reason_youre_the_first/. [Accessed 19 October 2014].

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