Thursday, May 3, 2012

Why search for Aliens?

Gliese 581c  NASA Image

The search for extra terrestrial intelligence has been going on for fifty years and still we have not found anything concrete. The recent discovery of "earth-like" planets like Gliese 581 c is re energizing this effort. Will we ever encounter intelligent life in the cosmos? If there are other beings in the universe where are they, and why haven’t they said hello?

In thinking about this blog I came to realize I have many more questions than answers.

What would it mean for our human civilization to discover that we are not alone? Some UFO enthusiasts claim that governments are already aware of intelligent visitation of our planet, but for whatever reason they are keeping it secret. One of those reasons might be the social repercussions of knowing that aliens exist. How would people of faith interpret first contact? Any interstellar civilization would have to be far more advanced than us. Would the fact that far more powerful beings are hanging over our heads induce mass hysteria?

Stephen Hawking, one of the most respected and renowned physicists of our times, argues that we should not broadcast ourselves, that it may be dangerous to contact alien life. After all, we have no knowledge of intent. When it comes to first encounter between “primitive” and “advanced” societies we only have human history to go on and it’s not a pretty picture. What if they want to assimilate us, enslave us, or simply wipe us out?

Gliese 581d NASA Image
The late Carl Sagan argued that any civilization capable of interstellar travel would de facto be benign. The argument goes that overly militant civilizations would not have survived their atomic age or other potential ages of technologically-induced oblivion. Only beings advanced beyond such aggression would have made it to the stars, so we have nothing to worry about. If you had to guess, which do you think it is?

I think it comes down to the fact that we are a curious lot and we just need to know one way or another. We will continue to explore space for many reasons: for resources, for entertainment, for scientific knowledge, and for prestige. Finding extraterrestrial life is central to all those rationales. If there’s one thing I’m sure of it’s that we’re going to keep looking.