I just read an article called “SETI’s mega alien hunt shovels more data onto IBM’s cloud” at The Register, which is a UK-based tech site with a satirical twist. The article’s subtitle is “Citizen boffins: Help find the alien that ultimately kills us all.”
SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, uses radio telescope arrays to gather hundreds of terabytes of data each day. That’s a lot of data to process. So they’re releasing 16TB of radio transmissions from the Allan Telescope Array (ATA), located near San Francisco, to IBM’s cloud under SETI@IBMCloud. The idea is that citizen coders can build apps capable of querying the data and possibly detecting information SETI technicians might have missed.
Theoretical Physicist and Cosmologist Stephen Hawking has gone on record as stating he believes aliens will destroy us if they ever find us. It’s not like they’d even have to be all that hostile. They could destroy our culture the way Europeans destroyed Native American cultures when they first arrive hundreds of years ago, the ramifications of which are still being keenly felt today.
I suppose that’s possible, but is it likely?
I doubt it.
There are a few things.
Almost three months ago, I wrote a short story called Searching for Life Outside the Anthill. I was leveraging The Fermi Paradox which states that given the number of stars in our own galaxy, the probability of life evolving on planets other than Earth should be rather high, and yet we find no evidence of such life, at least intelligent life.
Of course, given SETI, we assume that such life will be trying to communicate across the vast distances of interstellar space using radio transmissions. My wee tale was a fictional explanation about why we aren’t finding such life.
I’m not sure why someone of Hawking’s stature and intelligence is making such a big deal about all of this. In the history of the human race, there’s been no credible evidence that our planet has been visited by extraterrestrials, so what are the odds that “ET” would drop in on us any time in the foreseeable future?
Pretty darn slim.
If they did, what could we do about it?
It depends on who they were, what they were capable of, and their intentions.
Science fiction has been milking the theme of contact with alien life for a long, long time. Sometimes the aliens are friendly such as the Vulcans (but not the Borg) in the film Star Trek: First Contact (1996), and sometimes not, as shown in Independence Day which was released in the same year.
The problem with science fiction is that it’s dependent on the human imagination to conjure up what intelligent alien life would be like. But if it’s truly alien, then we most likely don’t have a clue as to its nature. They might be so different from us that communication isn’t possible. They might not even consider us intelligent, depending on their criteria.
It may be they are so alien that even if they detected our planet and knew of our existence, they’d totally avoid us. Maybe that’s why we haven’t found “ET” yet. He, she, or it doesn’t want to be found.
Does that mean projects like SETI are wasting their time? Maybe. Does that mean we should abandon the search? No, I don’t think so.
We can’t build starships that travel to other star systems the way we’ve seen in the various flavors of Star Trek, so the only way we have of exploring the galaxy is observation from Earth or from some form of technology we’ve launched into space such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
While the search for life outside our solar system can be exciting, I think humanity faces a more relevant challenge; putting boots on another planet in our own solar system.
Inventor and visionary Elon Musk wants to put people on Mars in the most dramatic and outrageous way. Who knows? His plan may work (though his timelines are insanely ambitious).
There are a lot of problems to solve before we can put people on Mars and especially if our intent is to colonize the planet, the effects of radiation and microgravity on the human body being the chief among them.
Yes, I think we should still “watch the skies” for evidence of life beyond our solar system, but the really, really big adventure we should be pursuing is the further exploration of our own little solar neighborhood.
That should keep us busy for a few decades or maybe a few centuries.