Friends, fans and loyal readers of SOA, over the past few weeks I’ve taken you to some pretty dark places. Despite my best efforts I seem to gravitate there; I guess what they say is true, and no news is good news (or maybe I’m just a pessimistic jerk who validates his own existence by comparing it to the suffering and ill fortune of others).
But I wasn’t always this way. When I was still a young man, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (if you can imagine such a thing) my eyes turned skyward. I always wanted to be a writer, yes, but for a time I considered a career in aeronautics engineering – the science of building spaceships. You see, I was a very introverted child with few friends (see my last post), so I spent the majority of my time buried in the realm of science fiction – particularly Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.
I grew up watching The Next Generation on television, and I was always enamored of the idea that one day, humanity would band together as one people and explore the stars. There was something Utopian about the idea of leaving behind personal avarice in favour of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new civilizations and boldly going – blah blah, you probably know the rest. Captain Picard and his crew never cheated on their spouses (in fact, they didn’t have spouses); they never tried to fuck one another over for a promotion; they approached new cultures with an open mind and an outstretched hand of friendship. Hell: they didn’t even drink.
(Okay, it’s not quite Utopian)
They adhered more-or-less strictly to the Prime Directive – a rule that forbade them from meddling in the affairs of other species (which to me is an outstanding foreign policy) and their crew was totally egalitarian: everybody had a chance to progress equally, with absolutely no prejudice shown to any one member of the crew. Star Trek illustrated the very best of what we can be; the brave crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise showed us a world where we could work together towards a common goal and leave behind such archaic sentiments as aggressive imperialism, jealousy, greed and revenge. For a kid like me, the idea of serving on board a Federation starship represented the pinnacle of my childhood dreams of exploration and adventure. The closest I could ever come to that kind of career, I figured, was to work for NASA and take part in the real-life version of what I saw every week on TV.
Of course, I quickly realized that designing spaceships in real life was far less about the aesthetics of where to put the warp nacelles and far more about extremely complicated math and physics, and since I lacked the patience to sit down and learn calculus and trigonometry I decided to stick to writing about space voyages in lieu of actually making them happen. But I never lost that sense of wonder when I looked up at the night sky and dreamed of meeting the myriad cultures I was absolutely sure were flourishing beyond the farthest star.
Yuck. That was entirely too sentimental for this blog. You’ll forgive me – I’m not crying, I just have a piece of childhood stuck in my eye.
Anyway. Meeting intelligent extraterrestrial life is probably one of the greatest cornerstones of the science fiction universe, from the “soft” sci-fi worlds of Star Trek and their ilk all the way up to the “hard” fiction brought to you by powerhouses like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. I like to think of it as a cultural dream shared by a significant fraction of humanity – clearly it’s a popular concept when you consider the amount of fiction produced dealing with our first contact with alien races.
For the record, I don’t plan to touch on Area 51, alien abductions or anal probes, because that will lead me right back down the road to Tinfoil Hat man, who has appeared far too often in these posts (besides which, government conspiracy is fodder for a whole other post).
Instead I’m going to operate from the standpoint that we have yet to be contacted by extraterrestrial intelligence. I think this makes sense, because let’s face it – any alien culture sufficiently advanced to develop faster-than-light travel (more or less a necessity to get anywhere in a galaxy that spans something like seventy thousand light years across) probably wouldn’t have an awful lot of interest in a culture that still practices genocide, fossil-fuel pollution and organized religion. It’s like Jeff over at Keep Your Coins said: why would an advanced culture be champing at the bit to talk to a bunch of people who can’t even hit Mars with a remote-control car?
That’s not to say I don’t believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life – quite the opposite.
Years ago I read about a scientist called Frank Drake who was one of the founders of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a well-known branch of NASA). Dr. Drake famously developed an equation, later named after him, that looked like this:
For the uninitiated, here’s how it breaks down.
N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
- R* is the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
- fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
- ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
- fℓ is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
- fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
- fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
- L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
- Clearly, this guy didn’t have much of a social life.
- Dr. Drake’s original estimate from back in 1960 plugged in numbers that resulted in a total of ten potential intelligent civilizations in our galaxy; more recent estimates range anywhere from one (just us) all the way to fifty. Of course, given our limited knowledge of the universe at large, we could be way off – it’s possible our galaxy is chock full of space-faring civilizations who just haven’t bothered knocking at our door.
- Which, of course, begs the question – why not?
This morning, I found an article that included an interview with the one and only Dr. Stephen Hawking (those not privy to science and technology will know him as the oft-parodied quadriplegic scientists who spends his free time reinventing the laws of physics) dealing with this very question.
Dr. Hawking has long been a proponent of the idea that life does exist in the universe outside of our little ball of dirt and skyscrapers, and as I said, I tend to agree with him. The universe – even our galaxy – is just too damned big and well-designed for humanity to be the only organisms in the neighbourhood. Dr. Hawking deals with that in his interview: according to him, there are three possible reasons why E.T. hasn’t come knocking at our proverbial door. (And for the record, I’m aware this list will read as 1, 1 and 1. I haven’t got the patience to fool with WordPress to fix it. Sue me.)
Admittedly, the circumstances around which live evolved on Earth (according to the secular viewpoint) are pretty specific, and exponentially difficult to duplicate. Therefore, it’s possible those conditions never existed anywhere else, and while Dr. Hawking is firm in the belief that life exists everywhere, there’s a good chance it never developed far enough to start building SUVs and hot dog stands and bidets. If we encounter life in the universe, it might well be in the form of gelatinous blobs that wobble all over Planet X devouring unusual (but equally unintelligent) plant life.
Dr. Hawking was reticent to even bring up this second point, because in his own words it’s “pessimistic”, but I’ll admit it sounds pretty reasonable too. Basically he suggested there’s a blueprint to the way intelligent life forms and develops in the universe – rational creatures go from pointed sticks and sun worship, to steam boats and pocket watches, to 747s and nuclear weapons, at which point some kind of evolutionary kill-switch engages and they extinguish themselves. Looking at the way our own technology often out-paces our ability to use it responsibly, this postulation isn’t outside the realm of credibility. Being a bit of a closet optimist, I find this one hard to swallow – even if we manage to completely bugger everything up, I like to think other cultures might be able to outgrow the desire to push the Big Red Button.
This one suits me best, and agrees with my earlier estimation. It’s quite possible there are lots of intelligent civilizations running hither and yon all over the galaxy in fancy spaceships, meeting and greeting other civilizations who’ve reached a similar level of evolution. They just haven’t noticed us yet. This makes sense: if we take something like Star Trek as an archetype for what constitutes an “advanced” civilization, we’re nowhere near it. Aliens taking the time to talk to us wouldn’t be much different than us trying to have a meaningful conversation with a bunch of amoeba. Assuming an alien culture has managed to survive to the point where they’re venturing out into space in a meaningful way (i.e. not just sending up satellites so reruns of The O.C. show up with clearer picture) they wouldn’t have an awful lot to learn from a bunch of near-simians who haven’t even figured out how to stop murdering one another and raping their planet yet, and who spend their free time converting their language into a barely-decipherable code of catch-phrases and acronyms.
Dr. Hawking makes one more good point – even if we were to be contacted by an alien race, we might be well-advised to think twice before accepting that collect call. Star Trek and its ilk lead us to believe that more-or-less every race we encounter will be pretty benevolent, but there’s no saying that’s the case. It’s just as possible we might encounter something like this:
or, God forbid, a whole planet’s worth of these:
(What. The. Fuck.)
Realistically, advanced cultures would have about as much to gain from talking to us as we would from starting a dialogue with a bunch of amoeba. So what would be the point? Well, we haven’t managed to cock up the Earth badly enough yet to make it totally undesirable for a group of alien foragers looking for a nice, green planet rich in natural resources – and then there’s always the cheap slave labour.
Dr. Hawking equates the scenario with Columbus meeting the indigenous Americans – and we all know how well that turned out for them.
There’s a distinct possibility that all of SETI’s efforts to contact other civilizations might wind up being one big homing beacon for every galactic bully within a parsec to come down here, steal our collective lunch money and give us an interstellar swirlie. And what do we do if Bill Pullman, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum are all busy with other projects?
That’s to say nothing of the fact that we’re awfully xenophobic as a people. There’s a damn good chance that even friendly aliens might be received somewhat unpleasantly were they to turn up tomorrow:
(Come on, you know you’d kind of want to do that)
In his book Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke says “the stars are not for man”. I tend to disagree with him. In fact, I think it’s our exploration of the universe around us that will one day bind us together in the way Gene Roddenberry foresaw.
Worst-case scenario we’re invaded by evil aliens bent on conquering our planet, and we’ll be forced to band together as one race to fight for our survival (and likely die – I doubt nuclear weapons will be a deterrent against a civilization advanced enough to prove Einstein wrong).
Best case scenario we’ll meet a bunch of relatively friendly aliens:
who will welcome us into the interstellar community. The realization that we’re no longer alone in the universe will allow us to overcome our petty differences, stop looking at one another in relation to those differences, and realize we’re all part of the same human race. Then, in the words of the great Bill Hicks,
“[We could] take all that money we spend on weapons and defense each year, and spend that money feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over – not one human being excluded…and we can explore space together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.”
That’s the future I’m hoping for. I hope I’m alive to see it. Even if I’m not, I’m going to keep looking up at that night sky, waiting for the day we’ve fixed our shit to the point where our neighbours will finally come knocking, asking to borrow some sugar and inviting us to a really bitchin’ party. Until that day, I extend this traditional nerd greeting to each and every one of you, who I genuinely like (even if I don’t always act that way): live long and prosper, my friends.