Astronomy

Contacting Aliens



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I saw a news article that commented that there is debate within the scientific community about whether we should be continuing in attempts to contact alien life-forms. An organization called SETI (which stands for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) has been scanning the sky in an attempt to detect transmissions from far-flung planets. In part, SETI has been funded by the US government. Additionally, for many years our species has been transmitting countless radio broadcasts which could potentially be picked up by any alien species possessing sufficient technological capabilities.

I believe that we should continue attempts to make contact with intelligent alien life. However, in doing so, we should recognize that the chances of success are very small. I will get onto my reasons for continuing communication attempts, and why the chances of success are small, presently but first a bit of background.

I have to admit that some of the arguments against making contact are quite persuasive. They include:

- Fear that aliens would be aggressive

If the aliens who we made contact with were anything like us, then we'd be in grave danger. If we know one thing about human behaviour, it is that, as a whole, we are not altruistic towards other cultures or species. Our base instinct is to take resources to strengthen our position and we are quite willing to do so at the expense of other species or races whom we consider to be inferior, or simply different. Additionally, any aliens that were actually capable of traveling the vast distances through space to reach us would be hugely superior to us in terms of technology. If we look at human military history, it consistently shows that massively superior technical capabilities are usually able to overcome opponents even if they have a huge advantage in numbers.

- Likelihood that it's a waste of time and money

There is a high probability that there is alien life somewhere else in the universe. This might be felt controversial by some but bear in mind that I'm talking about the possibility of life, not intelligent life. We already know that Mars used to have water and that the moon Europa has an ice sea. On Earth, we have seen that even in the most harsh of environments (such as the extreme cold of the Antarctic or the bottom of the deepest ocean) are home to life, however simple.

However, intelligent life (such as that possessed by our species) is an extremely rare occurrence. Put it this way, there's only been one species on Earth (out of the countless millions) that has developed the capability to emit radio signals!

So maybe we're spending money on attempting to make contact when the only life out there is lichen or fish-like creatures?

- Time delay factor

Some of the prospective galaxies that could support life are so far away that it might take hundreds of years for a message to get to them and then hundreds of years for their response to get back. Whilst the receipt of that initial transmission would be extremely exciting, any thought of the quick cut and thrust of a cross Atlantic TV interview would be dashed. If we sent back a question to them, maybe your great great great children might be around to hear the reply!

Those are all strong arguments. Common sense, I admit, probably does say that it's more sensible for us to hide from alien species rather than to actively court them. However, despite this, I'm going to argue in favour of the continued attempts to make contact. My reasons are thus:

- Curiosity

We humans are not a logical species. It is not logical to destroy your environment and yet we do. It is not logical to climb the highest mountain (at great risk to your life) but we do. I am curious to see whether we are not alone in the universe as a technologically sophisticated species. This, alone, overrides all the more logical arguments that I have outlined. However, there are some other arguments in favour of contact that can be thrown into the mix.

- Shared resources

Whilst it's overly nave to expect an alien species to help us out of the goodness of their hearts, commerce between peoples is mutually beneficial. If a capability ever existed to allow the transport of resources between our planet and theirs, then it is conceivable that we could barter materials that could prove extremely useful. It doesn't have to be a raw material either; it might be something like consultancy on how to repair the ozone layer.

- Early warning

No doubt the involvement of the US government in the SETI programme is at least in part from a defense perspective. If we detected a transmission emitting from a planet, it could alert us to the potential danger of an alien encounter. It may be better to be prepared than to be caught unawares if they turn up on our doorstep.

- Future need to planet hop

We're using up our planet's resources at a rapid rate. Already we're seeing the consequences with the detrimental shift of the planet's climate. We know, at any rate, that ultimately the Earth has a limited lifespan, as indeed does our sun. It is conceivable that our species' ongoing existence may be tied up in space exploration and colonization. Alien technology could help us to prolong our species' existence, even if we have to hitch a ride with them.
So, there you are, that's my assessment of this debate and my reasons for supporting the ongoing attempts to establish contact. Indeed, it may all be academic since we've been transmitting radio signals (and will certainly continue to do so) for many years. The aliens may therefore detect us and (if they choose) make contact with us long before we successfully locate them.

P.S. Of course there are those who say that aliens are already visiting us. Personally like the existence of gods, elves, or the Loch Ness monster, I will remain sceptical until I see proof ... but I remain hopeful!

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