Astronomers and scientists are no closer to coming to an agreement on whether it’s a good idea to try and make contact with little green space men. Basically, there are two sides to the argument: “What if they’re really cool and give us awesome technology that we couldn’t fathom?” OR “What if they come and zap us with ray guns and take all of our resources?”
That’s pretty much how the debate has gone since proponents of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) set out to make contact with extraterrestrial life by sending radio signals into space 50 years ago. The debate picked up again in February at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science when Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California arranged for a symposium as well as a press briefing to discuss the search. And once again, the discussion erupted into a science nerd fight.
What most of the scientists do agree on is that any intelligent alien life is going to be like, way, way smarter than us. As a species we only have a few hundred years of industrial civilization under our belt, so any life-form that has the power to travel the cosmos is going to likely be much more advanced and technologically superior, i.e. bigger guns. And when more advanced cultures encounter less advanced ones, well, it doesn’t often end in a campfire sing-along.
“We have many examples where a technologically advanced civilization contacted a technologically less advanced civilization,” said science fiction writer David Brin. (European colonizing efforts in Africa and the Americas come to mind.) “And in every one of those cases, there was pain. Even when both sides had the best of intentions.”
Those in favor of SETI argue that aliens are simply waiting for us to reach out before coming down and taking us for rides in their cool spaceships. Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Toronto argued against the example of Europeans encountering Native Americans having only a negative outcome.
“Many of the First Nations of the New World are very much alive, and on the ascendancy, [especially] in the Southern Hemisphere,” she told Slate. “Yes, there was a period of turmoil; but later there was “syncretism, friendship, intermarriage … a slow merging of two societies.”
A “period of turmoil” — that’s a nice way of spinning genocide. Maybe after aliens enslave us for a few centuries we’ll get space casinos and a few craters to set up a trailer park.
Vakoch is an optimist though, and the possibility of finally opening up a communication with extraterrestrial life is something that he’s excited about. “We might learn about alien culture, art, and music,” said Vakoch. If we do ever make contact with alien life, let’s just hope that they want to listen to music and don’t see us as a menu item like the aliens from that old Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man.”