Can Alien Life Save Us From Ourselves?

Stephen Hawking helps launch Breakthrough Initiatives.

Stephen Hawking helps launch Breakthrough Initiatives.

By Brandon Engel: Stephen Hawking is one of contemporary history’s greatest living geniuses. He is a leader in the fields of theoretical physics and cosmology as well as something of a medical miracle; having battled the motor-neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for the majority of his life, he operates a computer with his cheek in order to communicate. Today he is currently the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, at DAMTP in Cambridge, previously he served as the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge – a position once occupied by no less a scientific personage than Sir Isaac Newton.

In the past, Hawking has been cautious about his involvement in attempts to communicate with extraterrestrials, asserting that potential alien encounters would likely be disastrous for humankind. Any serious warnings from him, however, seemed largely unnecessary, given that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project has been poorly funded and largely staffed by volunteers over the several decades of its existence. Anyone who concluded that Hawking is against SETI work, however, was mistaken. In collaboration with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, on July 20 he announced the creation of the “Breakthrough Listen” project at a press conference at the Royal Society, another group to which Isaac Newton belonged. The project will be endowed with $100 million over the course of 10 years.

The plan is to use powerful radio telescopes around the world, such as at the Parkes Observatory in Australia and Lick Observatory in California, to listen for alien signals. About a million stars will be observed by the project, which will focus its efforts on frequencies between 1 gigahertz and 10 gigahertz, which is thought by experts to be the most likely range for finding meaningful communications. It’s estimated that the amount of data gathered in one day of Breakthrough Listen will be as much as was collected in a year of previous SETI endeavors.

Alongside “Listen” is a similar but smaller-scale effort called “Breakthrough Message”, centered around composing a message to send to any alien life that we may find. Message will incorporate an element of competition, with a prize pool of $1 million for the winning creation of digital messages that reflect humanity and its values. Project leaders have not yet committed to sending any such message even if another civilization is found on some distant planet, but the possibility is being carefully considered.

Any attempt to communicate over interstellar distances is, of course, a very tricky business.

Breakthrough’s approach may be superior to the system used in the Voyager spacecraft: the launching into space of physical material containing information about Earth and the human species. This attempt seemed to be more of a publicity stunt rather than an actual, viable means of transmitting information to extraterrestrials. The chances of another civilization actually finding such a physical artifact within the vast volume of space is almost zero, despite what we may have seen in Star Trek.

Some more outlandish theorists claim that we have already come into contact with alien races, and they have already shared an impressive wealth of information with us. Over the last fifty years, it’s clear that we’ve witnessed a massive influx of technological discoveries that would have been unimaginable to those just several generations earlier. Some of these breakthroughs — powerful lasers, fiber optic internet, and advanced microchips — are believed (by a vocal few) to be proof of back-engineered alien technology. It’s hard to find credibility in these claims, but they nevertheless ignite a hope that extraterrestrial communities may assist us in the future, should we ever find a way to reach out.

Even if Breakthrough Listen detects a faraway culture and Breakthrough Message gives us the means to communicate with it, there might not be much that can be said. We have no way of knowing the ways in which alien lifeforms have evolved, and if their conceptions of time and space are anything like our own. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” After all, consider what aliens would think about us if they accidentally detected one of our transmissions, say, a YouTube cat video?

Complicating matters is the universal speed limit – the speed of light in a vacuum – faster than which no message can travel. This means that it will take several years between transmission and reception, even if we detect intelligent life orbiting one of the stars closest to our home planet. All things considered, it’s highly implausible that aliens could teach us how to live in peace with our fellow creatures, preserve our Earth’s environment or how to address any of the other problems that currently affect us.

If we do end up communicating with aliens, the outcome will likely reveal more about our own personal perceptions and biases than anything else. In the words of Fermilab physicist Don Lincoln, “When we talk about the more intelligent extraterrestrials, we’re really holding a mirror up to ourselves. If we didn’t see ourselves in the vision, we wouldn’t find them nearly as fascinating.” Ultimately, the notion of extraterrestrial peoples encourages us to see outside ourselves, and imagine new, alien, ways of doing things.

7 thoughts on “Can Alien Life Save Us From Ourselves?

  1. Breakthrough’s approach may be superior to the system used in the Voyager spacecraft: the launching into space of physical material containing information about Earth and the human species. This attempt seemed to be more of a publicity stunt rather than an actual, viable means of transmitting information to extraterrestrials.

    I think this is grossly unfair. I don’t think Sagan or anyone else involved ever suggested that, in any way, this was a viable means of transmission (which also goes for the Pioneer plaques). Which still doesn’t make it a mere publicity stunt. I would call it a grand poetic gesture and one that was aimed at us, not ETs. I don’t think it matters if no-one ever finds those artefacts; it is still stunning to think of Bach, Mozart, Chuck Berry, and all those other sounds – and images too – floating for ever between the stars.

    And all of that and no mention of the Fermi Paradox (even to dismiss it)? Shame…

  2. We’re out in a backwater of the galaxy. Visitors to this region are likely to be:

    1) criminals on the run

    2) very aggressive explorers/vanguards of conquerors

    3) political or economic refugees (a consequence of #2, above) which may or may not be quality individuals of their species.

    None strikes me as optimal for contact with a technologically-superior species. Rather, as a recipe for getting ourselves dominated or exploited by them.

  3. Ah, and now my own hobby horse!

    The Fermi Paradox doesn’t seem like a proper “paradox.” It’s not self-refuting and doesn’t toss itself into an undecideability loop. It’s really the Fermi Conundrum.

  4. @Reziac

    A backwater relative to where? Galactic centre seems a rather nasty place, lots of radiation for a start. We could be right in the middle of the ‘goldilocks zone’ for all we know right now. There are estimates that put this as stellar orbits between 10,000 – 30,000ly from the centre, which puts us on the outer edge of the ‘galactic habitable zone’, but even this is being increasingly called into question. It seems we still have nowhere near enough information to say.

    As for your ideas on ET’s motivations, be this backwater or not, I can see little reason to limit them to the three simple options you have offered.

    @Jim Henley

    As it happens, I agree with you, but sometimes there is a case for using the commonly accepted term. (And, to be fair, ‘paradox’ does get one’s brain cells scrambling for a resolution in a way that ‘conundrum’ doesn’t. Well, for me, anyway…)

  5. @Fin Fahey: Awesome. But what if the real answer is that the aliens are usage pedants and just don’t want to hang with us now?

    Just kidding of course: There are no aliens. Which is weird. But apparently the universe is just weird.

  6. @jh

    Well, I’m with Buckminster Fuller on ET – “Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the thought is quite staggering”. I’m quite agnostic about the whole thing, though I do see people making substantial emotional investments in both ends of the argument, from UFO trufans at one end of the discussion to the likes of Frank Tipler at the other. I have friends who run to both extremes.

    But I do enjoy the SETI arguments and discussions, when they are rational that is. And I do think that the whole exercise, even if does sometimes take up scarce radio telescope time, is really valuable. Just for a start, it forces us to question our place in the universe, and it compels cross-disciplinary thinking in a way that few other questions do. I think I’ve learned quite a lot from it.

    Personally, FWIW (I’ve a life science background, BTW) – my best guess is that life is very common, just based on how quickly it arose here – biology as an emergent property of chemistry, if you like – but intelligent technological life, well, not so much. Hardly an original view, that.

    Therefore, I think that real results are coming in right now, not from SETI as such, but from exoplanet research. Fifty years ago, no-one thought planetary systems were as ubiquitous as we now find them to be, in fact some thought there might only be a handful, including ours in the whole galaxy. So it’s already contributed a lot, just by detecting exoplanets. When we go on to, for example, detailed spectra of their atmospheres, perhaps even surface detail, we’ll be getting a bit closer to some resolution of the Fermi Wossname, I’d say. Plodding stuff maybe, but that’s science…

    [Funny how, in old time/Golden Age SF, people embarking on long interstellar journeys never seemed to have any idea of what they were going to find at the other end (well, because Adventure!!! No Spoilers!!!). You’d think, if you were going to invest in a gigantic generation ship, you’d spend a little bit of petty cash on a few space telescopes, just to select targets for a start. Subverted by a number of authors, though, Aldiss’s Non-Stop comes to mind…]

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