A recently published paper is causing somewhat of buzz in the astrobiology nest. It is, more specifically, this one, published by Dr. Seth Baum and colleagues in Acta Astronomica this month. Entitled…
“Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis“
…their paper outlines an original approach to conceptualising the various potential scenarios that may arise if humans were to detect and/or make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial civilisations in the near future. To many people outside of the astrobiology field, and science generally, the title may sound like science-fiction. It would appear that scientists regularly dispute claims of the existence of extraterrestrial UFOs, attributing them to terrestrial sources, psychological phenomena or sleep paralysis, whilst simultaneously conducting research into the possible philosophical and sociological ramifications of possible contact with intelligent species elsewhere in the universe. This seems hypocritical, right? Well, not entirely.
Since the middle of the last century, against the backdrop of greatly expanding space technology and understanding, scientists have hypothesised about our place in the vast universe and whether we were alone or not. When it comes down to it, why would we be? All the evidence we have collected so far seems to suggest that we live on a pretty normal planet, our parent star is of a fairly common variety and our corner of the galaxy isn’t all that extraordinary. If there are 9 sextillion (remember, 9 x 1021) stars out there, many with a family of planets in their orbit, surely more than 1 of those worlds would have life of some kind or the other clinging to its surface? And if there was life, even if it was almost vanishingly rare, could there be another species that evolved the higher intelligence and sentience that humans possess somewhere out there in the reaches of space? This question has proved tricky, paradoxical even. Accordingly, it’s known as the Fermi Paradox, after the Italian astronomer that first posed the riddle to the wider scientific community, where it was met with unexpected consternation. Over 50 years on and it remains a question without an answer. There are however plenty of theories on offer that may come close to providing a solution.
These are all covered in ample detail in the paper by Buam and colleagues, who provide a wealthy outline of the various theories that are currently popular. I don’t have room to cover all the explanations here, but most have been mentioned before and are acknowledged as such. I would still definitely recommend reading their paper as it provides a jargon free summary of current thinking on the Fermi Paradox as well as some more sensible and thought-provoking ethical and philosophical considerations. The standard militaristic and religious ramifications are covered, whilst thinking of ET as a predator species is always unsettling despite the possibility of it being true. A comprehensive analysis of the ethics surrounding this topic, and that of our possible astronomical neighbours, is also covered in sufficient depth to provide a solid understanding of the complex issues surrounding the premise of detecting and communicating with extraterrestrials. My favourite, and probably the most controversial, idea proposed by the authors is that an advanced universalist civilisation may destroy humanity in order to protect the planet, and the rest of the universe presumably, from our ecologically destructive ways. Excess atmospheric greenhouse gases are easily detectable from impressive distances, even with our early planetary imaging technology and mass spectrometers, and rapidly rising carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere may elude our neighbours to the fact that we are expanding and industrialising rapidly and without due consideration for the long-term habitability of our planet. This statement was picked up by Ian Sample from the Guardian who penned this article with it at its centre. It is currently bouncing around on social media sites like Twitter and science-friendly Reddit.
So, returning to our original case of apparent hypocrisy on the part of the scientists regarding UFOs : how can you separate the fact from the pseudoscience? As always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence: evidence that just isn’t there. Scientists don’t dispute the fact that it is theoretically possible for extraterrestrial civilisations to exist, but there has been no concrete evidence suggesting that they do. The fundamental fact at the centre this issue is that it is simply too early into our technological development to have been noticed by intelligent extraterrestrial civilisations at any appreciable interstellar distance. We’ve only been using radio waves for about a century and actively exploiting them for scientific research for half that. Radiation travels at a finite speed – the speed of light, which means we’ve only leaked clues as to our location and intention into the surrounding 100 light-year volume of space. By galactic standards, this is a very small distance, despite the fact that exchanging information with a civilisation 50 light years away would take at least 100 years if you factor in the return journey.
Another angle on this issue takes the guise of the oft-cited Sustainability Solution. This provides an ecological model that suggests that exponential growth across the universe is unsustainable, as it is on Earth. Therefore, interstellar expansion by a colonial civilisation would be too slow to have reached us by now, perched out here on an arm of the Milky Way, 27,000 light years (give or take a thousand) from the galactic centre, if their civilisation was born during the early stages of the growth of our galaxy. In fact, chances are if this was the case they would be extinct by now: the exponentially increasing social and technological complexity likely to be experienced by a populous advanced species would most likely lead to its eventual self-destruction via warfare, resource depletion, cultural collapse or some unforeseen technological singularity. This is a message worth heeding, and one I (and others before me) have raised using the decline and demise of the Easter Island civilisation as an analogy.
It is good to see that astrobiology is taking a suitably controversial line into the mainstream media, but it remains important not to get swept up in sensationalism. As the authors repeatedly mention, no one, including them, really knows what to expect if/when we encounter our galactic neighbours; it may be 10 years from now, it may well be never. However, this paper is a good example of the kind of imaginative exercise that we would need to implement in the future to ensure that as many possible eventualities are accounted for. We wouldn’t want to make a bad first impression!