Geeks, hackers, and various sundry denizens of the tech blogosphere, lend us your ear: You’re ruining science news. Every single funny thing science finds, you all immediately have to yell “aliens!” And then they have to post a second, follow-up article just to say, no, it’s not aliens. And that, of course, just fuels the conspiracy theories because that’s just what they WOULD say!
Weird radio signal from a star? Not aliens. The “Wow!” signal? Not aliens. An aurora popping up in the sky? Not aliens. NASA makes an announcement? Not aliens. An actual US Congressman had to ask NASA about aliens on Mars at a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. NASA has actually had to publicly deny that it is running a child slavery ring on Mars.
You see what you have done, geeks? This is why we can’t have nice things.
Never mind whether there are aliens or not. Let’s work on being worthy of meeting them first.
We Suck At Finding Aliens
The first thing everybody asks is “Where are the aliens?” This has a whole formal theory called the Fermi Paradox, which takes two of these cool little vector animations to explain:
But we’re already jumping ahead of ourselves just to be asking this question. An old XKCD cartoon summarizes the point nicely. On a planet that has been around for some 4.5 billion years, we have just now set up SETI and begun searching the heavens in the past four decades or so. For us to ask why we haven’t found any aliens by now is the equivalent of signing up for an email account and demanding to know why our inbox isn’t full one second later.
But even the simple step of opening a channel to listen for signals from E.T.s is already based on assumptions that could be way off the mark. Humans are a social species; we therefore assume that any intelligent life form would be just as anxious to get in contact with us as we are to talk to them. Maybe we’re unique in that; maybe other species don’t give a rip about contacting anyone. They could be shy, paranoid, or just not wired for social interaction like we are. Or then, there’s the hundreds of other possible ways aliens could be frantically messaging us, and we’re just not looking in the right place with the right equipment on the right spectrum.
When we try to imagine the possibilities, our fragile little brains crumble under the task.
We Suck At Theorizing Aliens
If you ask the average person to draw a picture of what they think an alien from another planet might look like, you’ll see the result conform to standard SF tropes 101. People will either draw a human with a rubber forehead, or a variation on other known Earth life forms, such as an octopus body with crab claws and deer antlers. It turns out humans are really lousy at imagining something without a familiar hook into our present reality.
Our first contact with extraterrestrial life could range from dormant spores drifting through
space for millions of years, to robotic probes sent by another civilization just like we do, to sentient trees that talk through sonar, to a species that has discovered other natural forces that let them break the laws of physics as we currently understand them.
When imagining the unknown, the first things you have to throw away are the words “no,” “can’t,” and “impossible.” Had you not come from Earth, you would have said these exact words if you were asked about plants that eat meat, lizards that change color at will, birds that swim and fish that fly, or a civilization which had learned to split atoms for energy. It is due to this limited ability of the human mind to imagine the truly unknown that any attempts we make to find alien life is likely to be based on bad assumptions.
Here’s one possibility you never see come up: The aliens are blind. Or at least, they evolved without eyes. They evolved with other sensory organs instead and communicate through secreting chemicals. These aliens would never see stars and hence would be unaware of a universe out there at all, at least until they invented devices that could detect the visible light spectrum. So they’d never even think to ask if other life forms exist on other planets orbiting other stars, because they’re only dimly aware that stars are a thing.
There’s thousands more possibilities that never get brought up either! What if we, too, are “blind” on any one of dozens of other sensory inputs that could be common to other life forms?
If We Ever Do Meet Aliens, We’ll Suck At That Too
Neil deGrasse Tyson should be familiar to our readership. Here he is telling you why first contact is likely to be disappointing:
Geek culture is loaded with instructions on what to do if you meet aliens. Yes, because that’s the most pressing concern in your day-to-day life, right? But beyond the good Dr. Tyson’s observation, and beyond all the alien-relations-preparedness charts you can find, it’s easy to poke a hundred other holes in our assumptions about a first-contact scenario.
- Maybe the aliens really consider dolphins smarter than us, they just measure on a different scale than we do.
- Maybe we would scare the bejabbers out of them. How do we know the way we look and act doesn’t make us terrifying cosmic monsters by the rest of the universe’s standards?
- Maybe they’re not sentient. Even if they flew here, maybe they’re parasites on a moving asteroid, an enslaved species following the orders of their overlord, a hivemind like bees where no individual is actually intelligent on its own, or even just the breeding stock colony on a generation ship. If an alien sees a human driving a car, should they assume that that human understands internal combustion engineering?
- Maybe they eat sentient species. Yum yum.
And the biggest wrong assumption you see made is that aliens who came to Earth would have to be amazingly advanced, because they traveled “faster than light” to get here. Here, use this one weird trick to cross interstellar distances without moving faster than light:
Have a lifespan billions of years long!
Never thought of that, did you? It’s not that the stars are too far away, it’s that the human lifespan is so pitifully short that we die of old age before we get there. But right here on Earth, we have a species of shark that can live for five centuries, lobsters that appear to be biologically immortal, and an Aspen tree colony that has lived for 80,000 years, so we know it’s possible. To a being whose lifespan numbers into the eight digits, a trip of a few thousand years would represent a short nap to them. They don’t need a faster than light drive then, they could just sit on a wood crate, launch it with a slingshot, and patiently drift through space for 6,000 years. Finally, some peace and quiet.
Whatever the other possibilities, our own experience here on Earth should already show us that our attempts to plan ahead for alien first contact are futile. We already come from a planet of fantastic diversity.
Can We Please All Shut Up About Aliens Now?
The universe is wonderful and magnificent even without any aliens in it. We have thousands of scientific frontiers to push before we even think about meeting aliens. We haven’t met anywhere near our full potential yet.
We have all the time in the universe to meet the neighbors. Let’s finish cleaning – or even building – our own house first. When we get interesting enough, they’ll come to meet us.