#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.