#97: Are We Prepared for Extraterrestrial Life?

As we are seeing more official confirmations of sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects, we may need to consider the possible impact of what such revelations may eventually mean.

At this point, all we are being told is that the origin of these objects is allegedly unknown. We are seeing videos that were formerly classified, and we get to hear from witnesses who may well sound believable and official. Something seems to be out there that we have not been told about before.

In all likelihood, these objects may well have a terrestrial origin. Some rather earthly power may be in possession of highly advanced technology, and they are either showing off their skills or being observed when testing their vehicles. It all may also be a very elaborate hoax or optical illusion. It may well be birds photographed very cleverly. It may just as well be very agile weather balloons…

If these are of terrestrial origin, the would be human-made. The technology is astounding. The flight patterns seem to indicate that the G-Forces operating on them are so extreme that either somebody has invented inertial dampeners (to borrow a Star Trek term) or they are operated remotely or by some form of robots. In all cases, that is quite some flying. Some sightings from decades ago may have been of early models of current technology. Maybe what we are seeing are test flights of secret technology. The origin would probably be American, Chinese, Russian, or an alliance of nations. That may be unsettling enough, but at least within familiar territory.

We may well find out that all the alleged revelations are just a clever publicity scheme to demonstrate the technological superiority of whatever nation has developed them. I personally think that this is the most likely scenario.

Nevertheless, I also believe that we should also consider the implications of an extraterrestrial origin, or even a combination of extraterrestrial and human technology. I may have watched too much Stargate: SG-1 / Atlantis / Universe or The X-Files to entertain such a notion. It could also be that such shows were meant to prepare us to think the previously impossible. Admittedly, Norad has a door labeled “Stargate Command” – even though it is just a broom closet.

But are we really so unimaginative to admit to us the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life? Certainly, we now know that evolution is a powerful force throughout the universe, that there are more planets or moons or asteroids that could possibly support life than we had even thought possible before. Life may just be something that is extraordinarily ordinary in our universe.

Would such a universe look like Star Trek, where alien and human life somehow evolved in a similar timeframe? Had Earth been able to develop spaceflight earlier, we would have been in a completely different situation for instance. Our own history shows fits and spurs, and with things just having been a little bit different, we may have been on the moon thousands of years ago – or dinosaurs could have done it millions of years ago.

How could it possibly be realistic that our existence coincides with that of spacefaring aliens? We could assume that in the Vastness of the universe, due to a quasi infinite diversity in infinite combinations even a low probability of the coexistence of life at a similar stage of development means that it is possible – all it takes out of the 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way, one thousand million has planets supporting life, and out of these, one million has had intelligent life, and of those about 100 have life at the same technological stage. These numbers (except the first) are completely fictitious, but illustrate the evolutionary principle. A more scientific approach is delivered by the Drake equation and similar estimates.

All we know is that we don’t know much about this, but from what we know, our ignorance can be limited and the very possibility of extraterrestrial life needs to be taken into consideration.

The other question is whether we will be able to meet them. Our own technological knowledge certainly – or at least as far as we know publicly – for now precludes us from seeking them out on our own. If there is extraterrestrial life though, it is very likely that if it is technologically possible to traverse large distances, the aforementioned evolutionary principles almost dictate that there may very well be someone out there that could indeed reach us.

Can we speculate on their intentions? Assuming they are somehow like life on Earth, we should perhaps be a bit apprehensive. If they are somehow like us human beings, our apprehension should be on alert. We cannot be naïve in assuming that technological development is directly proportional to moral or ethical development. Our own history has certainly not always shown that. Warnings about contact with aliens are a staple of science fiction. The War of the Worlds was successful for a reason, it spoke to rather realistic fears. Some scientists have warned against seeking out extraterrestrial life, especially Stephen Hawking: “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.”

Such pessimism might be correct. For all we know, an invasion fleet is well on its way after some scouting ships have done their job already. We can always imagine the worst possible scenario. We probably need to, and need to prepare for such an eventuality.

Nevertheless, I would dare to be a bit more optimistic, for two reasons. If UFOs are evidence of the presence of extraterrestrials observing us, they have been doing quite some observing for quite some while. If that is what is happening, it seems to be of scientific interest. A cautious opening and declassifying of materials by US authorities also does not really speak to knowledge of impending doom.

Yet even if we are at a moment in time that could lead to peaceful first contact, the ramifications for human societies would be immense. Are we prepared for such an expansion of our worldview? Are we prepared to extend our abilities to be welcoming to others also to beings that may be more different from us than each other? We have proven time and again that xenophobia is a constant in human societies. We are seeing such behavior again increased during the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Just imagine what extraterrestrials would know about us already. They will have watched our movies, our television stations, seen our news, learned about our history and our politics. Have we really become more peaceful after World War II? Steven Pinker maintains that this is the case, but some disagree, especially more recently. As much as I would like to agree with Pinker, as much as I would like to be hopeful, as a historian, I am cautious in my judgement.

There may well be a reason that extraterrestrials could be watching us. If they are, it stands to reason that they would just as well remain cautious about contacting us. They might certainly be right in their apprehension.

Maybe the question needs to be reframed. Rather than to only ask whether we are prepared for extraterrestrial life, we should wonder, is extraterrestrial life prepared for us?

See also: my earlier reflections on the matter, 23 years ago

#87: Stargate as Classical Science Fiction

The Pandemic has made me a bit nervous. As a consequence, I have felt it to be difficult to concentrate on any new form of entertainment, and have chosen – as I understand, like millions of other people – to revisit some older shows or formats that are still familiar. This has led me to re-appreciate and rethink some old favorites that may have faded over time in the mass of new material that has emerged since then.

When you think of science fiction shows or franchises, people will typically mention Star Trek and Star Wars. Sure, both shows take place in space, but one (Trek) is science fiction, the other is, well, complicated. What role does science actually play in the Star Wars universe? Or better, what is science fiction?

As there are as many definitions as there are consumers of science fiction, I would propose the following limited set of parameters as minimum requirements:

  1. Science: discussion of real and extrapolated scientific ideas
  2. Politics and Society: The discussion of political and social utopias or simply alternatives, as facilitated by the philosophical reflection about other cultures and worlds, which may point to the possibility of changes to our own culture.
  3. Ethics: The discussion of classical philosophical, ethical and psychological problems through the plot
  4. Mythology and Religion: an engagement with themes of a mythological nature, the building of new mythological narratives, the raising of questions about the nature of existence

This list is probably not perfect but may serve our needs here.

As to Star Wars, aside from some episode of Clone Wars or Rebels, I cannot remember any science-centered story, nor any protagonist that would be a serious scientist. Points 2-4 though are well represented. With Star Trek, all notes are typically hit, but in my opinion less so recently. Ever since the Kelvin-timeline movies and Discovery, Star Trek has been following the Star Wars path more closely. The science that remains (the spore drive) is treated almost like magic, and actual scientific discussion is rare.

This is where Stargate is different, in all its incarnations (SG-1, Atlantis, Universe). Stargate is even interdisciplinary: There are natural scientists (Dr. Carter, Dr. Lee, Dr. McKay, Dr. Zelenka, Dr. Rush, Dr. Volker), humanities and social science scholars (Dr. Jackson, Dr. Weir, Jonas Quinn), medical doctors (Dr. Fraiser, Dr. Lam, Dr. Beckett, Dr. Keller, Lt. Johanson), and several engineers, bureaucrats, diplomats, and specialists. Lead characters with a doctorate other than medicine are almost unheard of in the other bigger franchises (notable exceptions: Dr. Bishop on Fringe, Dr. Sato on Enterprise and Dr. Balthar in Battlestar Galactica – both though underused in their scientific functions. Spock and T’Pol don’t have human doctorates).

Besides personnel, Stargate episodes frequently and sometimes exhaustively discuss science (real or extrapolated). Science drives the plot, experiments are made, success or failure (sometimes catastrophic failure!) can occur, and even the real scientific community is brought in. Just as Dr. Stephen Hawking guest starred in Star Trek TNG, Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye guest star on Atlantis.

This is not a trivial observation. Scientific reasoning and thinking – in all possible disciplines – seems in short supply right now. It is one of the purposes of science fiction to actually communicate science. Without it, all the other elements mentioned can still exist, but it should be science that ties everything together. The highlighting of scientific thinking, the portrayal of scholars and scientists – granted, in fantastic scenarios, but still – is sorely needed in our world which so deeply relies on science.

This should not be given up for the sake of entertainment, or for the assumed expectations of the audience. Let’s hope that whenever the new Stargate series – which is reportedly in the planning stage – will finally hit the screens, that it will remember its original formula which has inspired so many young would-be scientists and scholars so far.

#65: Sine Ira et Studio: The Strength of Dispassionate Criticism

It is easy to get caught up in the issues of the day. There is always some grave injustice somewhere, always some issues that endanger human life, other life on earth, even the planet herself. It is easy, and very compelling, to translate the emotions we all have about deeply important issues into a language reflecting this emotionality. How else could we speak about it? How could we possibly stay calm in the face of a hurricane threatening the very existence of some or all of us?

There has been the old suggestion to approach such issues without ire and agitation – sine ira et studio. This does not mean that emotionality, agitation, ire even would not be justified; on the contrary. But we need to ask us: What are we trying to achieve? Are we aiming for an end to injustice? Are we trying to convert people to our cause? Are we asking people to change their mind?

Human beings – most animals probably – are prideful. Any criticism that aims to be heard would be wise to be adapted to such a situation. There would not be such a saying if it were easy; it is not. But it works, it is effective, it allows for the respective other to abandon their position eventually with honor. If you respect other people – in spite of their positions – you allow them to respect you in turn, and this opens the path to a necessary conversation and honest exchange in which justice can finally prevail. Convincing others is a skill, it takes time, patience, respect, empathy, even love.

Love towards those that you perceive to have wronged you is an outrageous demand, of course. Socrates was killed for it, so were Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King jr, and so many others. We need to accept who people are, help them accept themselves in their truth, and help them see the consequences of their actions. As it also says, hate the sin, not the sinner. If we believe in social justice, this includes the belief – necessarily so – that each and every human being is precious – whether perpetrator, victim, or neutral party – because life itself is precious and deserves to be treated with dignity.

Ire and rage are easy, studious agitation comes naturally; neither creates sustainable peace. Only if we move beyond feeling righteous in our moral crusade will we be able to see that to change hearts and minds, we need to recognize that even our opponent in a specific matter has both a heart and a mind, no matter how we may resist that notion. The more dispassionate our stance can be (in spite of our emotions within) the better we will face whatever is out there. Stoicism – whether you know it through Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Star Trek‘s Spock – is not an instruction to not have feelings. It is an instruction to utilize your feelings in a manner that they will not stand in the way of solving the problems you need to solve. Sine ira et studio.

#59: Why Really Big Conspiracies Cannot Exist

We all may believe somehow that there are some bigger forces pulling the strings of society. We all know that money matters in politics. We all know that powerful people somehow are connected with each other. We all know that strangely, if you ask the question “cui bono” or “who benefits,” you will always get some answer that confirms that something sinister has been going on all along. We all know that there are people who have more information than we, and that those who control information, control the world. We all know.

But we know also other things. We know that powerful people are only powerful because they rely on others to help them. We know that if you need big things to be done, you will rely on many people to work for you or help you. We also know that power does not last for long, that people – especially powerful people – are always in competition with each other, and that the slightest weakness shown will find someone else filling the gap. We know that people like to talk, even if they have been paid to be quiet. We know that some things eventually will get out.

The bigger the conspiracy, the more complicated it will be to make it work. Even small conspiracies regularly fail and are discovered, just because people are people. Why would it work on the large scale?

Is Coronavirus a real threat? Certainly so. Every country in the world has had to deal with it, every country has their own experts, their own agenda, their own politicians who would like to stay in office, their own people that they do not want to see dead or hurt, their own economy that they need to function – because it is in their interest for the world to function, and not for it not to function. Exceptions are terrorists that exist not in order to function but to create dysfunction. But a state, even one as mischievous as Communist China, seeks self-preservation.

Let’s take China as an example. My criticism is of the government and the governing ideology, not of the people of China, or of Chinese culture and values. Everytime I criticize a country I criticize the government. Covid-19 was first unleashed in China. Whether or not it was accidentally released by a lab is immaterial. What is important is that the Chinese government first lied about it, spread their lies to the WHO and any country that would listen, and impeded efforts to find out the truth, and still is. We still do not know the official number of Covid-related deaths in China, but it will be so many that the complete lockdown of Wuhan was deemed necessary. Now, Communist China is a country that has perfected the machinery for coercion, surveillance, even on an international scale. Yet they still were not able to contain information completely, eventually, and we will find out the rest. We know enough to know that whatever China did, whatever they tried to hide, equates probably that which allowed Chernobyl to happen. The Chinese government knows this and is very nervous about its future – and it should be. Once the incompetence and mendacity and outright cruelty of such a dictatorship is exposed for all to see, it will try to exert strength even more, but the mask of civility has cracked even more, and the truth will come out. The big conspiracy – to hide the truth – has failed where it matters most: that the fact that there was a conspiracy itself is now known.

Nazi Germany was not able to hide the Holocaust. The Soviet Union was not able to hide Chernobyl. Democracies aren’t even trying hard enough to hide whatever may need hiding. Surely, there are official secrets that will need to be protected. But that is different from a vast conspiracy of a magnitude that was hidden from public view.

The theory of the day is that Covid-19 is not really as bad as people think. Allegedly, the tests are wrong, infections are measured incorrectly, people who are dying do not do so allegedly because of Covid but with Covid also present. Nevertheless, we are shutting down societies due to some nefarious plans made by virologists, Bill Gates, and some world governments, again allegedly. The purpose, not sure. It holds no water. How would you coordinate thousands of scientists from different countries (some of which are direct competitors, even in trade wars or real wars with each other), which politician would deliberately crash their economy – which would endanger their reign and their power and their reelection, and what has Bill Gates done wrong at all (other than having released subpar versions of windows pre-XP (which was in 2001)? Because really, Vista was great overall, 7 was perfect, and 10 is not perfect, but almost there)?

Granted, there may be some conspiracies out there that could be hiding something real. That depends on how many UFO documentaries you have watched. But even in this case, some information has been released, and there the conspiracy seems to be not about what “they” know, but about the fact that “they,” in fact, do not know as much as people think “they” would know. Personally, that is even scarier to me…

But overall, the logistics it would take to pull off a grand conspiracy is mind-boggling. 300 years faked in the Middle Ages, as Heribert Illig alleges? Does not work. Germany not an independent country with no peace treaty? No, the 2+4 treaties eventually fixed the problem, and occupation has ended. “The Jews” have been secretly running the world? Constant pogroms, the Holocaust, anti-Israel propaganda and activism make that difficult to believe. The Lizard People are in control? You mean, the Silurians from Doctor Who? Q Anon? Q Who? Atlantis is real? Is the Stargate too?

My alien overlords are telling me that if I don’t shut up, Q will visit me from the Q continuum, and he will send me to Atlantis immediately with a snap of his finger, unless Captain Picard can intervene in time.

#6: Star Trek Discovery: Mea Culpa

I have sinned, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I disliked Star Trek Discovery when it came out. Somehow it seemed too different, both in style and tonality resembling more the newer Battlestar Galactica and others. To me, Star Trek was always a stage play, with better funding than the original Doctor Who, of course, but barely. I disliked the movies because they were too cinematic, and cherished the TV shows for being minimalist.

Now I felt I was seeing 10 lights where there should have been only four (and if you do not get this, you may not know as much about Star Trek than you think — just kidding. This kind of passive-aggressive fandom nerdiness is never helpful. But seriously, TNG 6.10-11 “Chain of Command I+II” should be required viewing).

Everything is urgent, flashy, you need subtitles, Klingons look different again, what the Data is a “spore drive”, and why are there holograms, and a holodeck, etc. Who are these people on the bridge that I never get to know really. — Eventually, I got it out of my system.

Star Trek fans can be the most unforgiving. But we’ll come around, hopefully, eventually. Discovery is great, and it may even had a better start than most other Star Trek shows in each of their own awkward first seasons.

Rewatching season one, this show clearly needs to live long and prosper (couldn’t help it).