APRIL 2017 The Costco Connection 31
YES FROM EXPERTS IN THE FIELD
NO FROM EXPERTS IN THE FIELD
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are we ready for
MARCH DEBATE RESULTS
Is private financing of public
infrastructure a good idea?
Percentage reflects votes received
by March 17, 2017.
Results may reflect Debate being
picked up by blogs.
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Jacob Haqq-Misra (on Twitter
@haqqmisra) is a
with the Blue
Marble Space Institute of Science
Seth Shostak is
at the SETI Institute
( seti.org), and host
of the radio program,
Big Picture Science
OUR CIVILIZATION HAS never been more ready for contact with extraterrestrials. Science fiction provides an array of contact scenarios, some of which can
provide a starting point for developing an actual response strategy. And contact
might even help to heal some of the tensions among nations as a way for us all
to unite as citizens of Earth.
The easiest way for extraterrestrials to reach us is to send a message, such as
a radio wave or laser pulse, that we would instantly recognize as a technological
beacon. The SETI Institute has been searching for such signals since 1960. More
recently, Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner began his $100 million Breakthrough
Listen initiative to perform the first all-sky survey for extraterrestrial signals,
using the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes telescope in
Australia. Astronomers and astrobiologists remain ready to receive and interpret
any signals that extraterrestrials could send, while scientists and legal experts
have already started to draft protocols for how we should respond.
Any extraterrestrials who could be on their way to visit us will inevitably
be much more advanced than we are, in both technology and ethics. Any civilization that can successfully travel across such distances, probably spanning
many generational lifetimes, will not be lacking in food or supplies and will
know how to live sustainably over long periods of time. Military officials have
already developed protocols for contact to ensure that we maintain neutrality
and predictability toward any visitors. Contact would inevitably lead to new
technological breakthroughs from observing extraterrestrial technology, while
conversation could teach us even more.
We have nothing to fear from, and should continue to search for, extraterrestrial intelligent life. A radio message, or even a physical visit, from extraterrestrials would tell us that we are not alone in the cosmos. Such knowledge would
ignite the imagination of our own civilization toward aspirations of becoming
an interstellar species. C
ARE WE READY for visitors from space? In a word: no.
You might find this surprising, because whenever extraterrestrials come to
Earth in the movies, we always manage to assemble a welcoming party. Sometimes
we greet them with idealistic citizens eager to demonstrate how nifty earthlings
really are. More often we send in the military, just in case the visitors are ornery
and try to incinerate the planet. But either way, we get our act together and confront these interstellar travelers straightaway.
In fact, we have no idea whether the putative inhabitants of distant worlds
would be friendly or otherwise, any more than the natives of the South Pacific
could be sure whether Captain Cook was coming to fight or frolic.
But no matter. We’re not prepared to receive them, and here’s why. Anyone
who can travel to our planet from the vicinity of another sun hails from a culture
that’s technologically far beyond our own. Consider that NASA’s fastest rocket
clips along at about 10 miles a second. Yes, that would take you from New York
to London in just over five minutes, but it would require 75,000 years to get you
to even the nearest other star system.
Clearly, if the aliens have technology that can manage a journey to Earth, they’re
at least millennia ahead of us. Whatever such high-tech beings intend to do, you
can safely bet they’ll succeed. And by the way, they’d be thoroughly undeterred by
a heroic, Hollywood-style resistance. If our planet is swarmed by aggressive aliens,
the resulting scenario will be Bambi versus Godzilla—and we are not the lizard.
Nonetheless, you shouldn’t be put off by this lugubrious, lopsided scenario.
The chances that extraterrestrials will make a house call are puny indeed. Earth is
but one world among a trillion planets in our galaxy. We might not be on anyone’s
star charts. More to the point, we’ve only been broadcasting our presence, in the
form of radar and TV, since the Second World War. Those signals are unlikely to
have yet traveled far enough to alert any aliens that we’re here and worth the trip.
Bottom line: If they come, resistance is futile. Best plan? Negotiate. C
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