‘What if’ is the two word phrase responsible for all great thoughts. In science; “What if I can build a quantum string generator in my kitchen?” In mystery novels; “What if NUMA really had a militarized arm?” Even in romance paperbacks; “What if that smoking hot stripper cum millionaire lawyer wants to have lots of meaningless sex with me?” You get the idea. Every great idea ever conceived of in the history of humanity has come from that simple two word phrase.
Today we are going to look at another great “what if” scenario. Before I do I need to synopsize a lengthy caveat that appears under the original article. While one of the authors of the paper referenced therein works for NASA, this has nothing to do with NASA. This is not your tax dollars at work, this is great minds at play. And being able to share something like that is a rare and wonderful thing.
Our BFF Ian O’Neill from Discovery News hangs out with cooler people than I do but isn’t snooty about it.
There’s no subject more fertile for debate than hypothesizing about the nature of extraterrestrial beings.
So, in a study carried out by researchers affiliated with* NASA and Pennsylvania State University (“Would contact with extraterrestrials benefit or harm humanity? A scenario analysis,” arXiv:1104.4462v2 [physics.pop-ph]), several intelligent extraterrestrial encounter scenarios are examined. One of the scenarios is a sci-fi favorite: what if we encounter an alien race hell bent on destroying us?
But this isn’t mindless thuggery on behalf of the aliens, and they’re not killing us to get at our natural resources, they have a cause. They want to exterminate us for the greater good of the Milky Way.
Yes, they consider us cockroaches. Cockroaches left in charge of increasingly advanced and destructive technology.
Let’s face it, with ecosystem destruction on a global scale and greenhouse gases being belched out into the atmosphere at record rates, to a distant alien observer we may look like a destructive civilization spiraling out of control — and they wouldn’t be far wrong.
Therefore, as the ET logic may go, if we’re making such a mess of our own back yard, if we venture deeper into space and become a true interstellar civilization, what hope is there that we’ll treat the rest of the galaxy (and the other beings in it) with any respect?
“A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilization may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand,” the study says. “Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilizational expansion could be detected by an ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) because our expansion is changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, via greenhouse gas emissions.”
Of course, ETI might just be an aggressive race, so like Stephen Hawking’s recent warning, the authors of the study suggest that perhaps we shouldn’t transmit too much information into space.
The authors explore other scenarios as well, including other destructive outcomes of encountering an alien race. Positive and neutral outcomes are included.
One positive outcome that could arise from bumping into a friendly ETI is that it takes our fledgling race under its wing (tentacle) and helps us, technologically, to push deeper into space. Perhaps they’ll even let us join their Interstellar Rotary Club! They might even join forces with us to repel another, less-friendly alien race — something that would be advantageous if we find ourselves embedded in a galactic ecosystem.
But what of the “neutral” outcomes? Well, say if the ETI is incomprehensible? They may be too alien for us to communicate in any meaningful way.
As noted by the Guardian, their entry requirements into a hypothetical Interstellar Rotary Club may be wrapped in bureaucratic red tape, making the whole “alien encounter experience” a bore. Said aliens may even just turn up unannounced, “District 9”-style, and impose on our planet like a friend’s sofa. They might be content just eating snacks and watching our TV.
Needless to say, all these scenarios are completely constructed from human experience — any study into the hypothetical nature of ETI will have a heavy anthropocentric bias. What if we encounter an alien civilization whose intentions are completely baffling? What if we can’t decide whether their intentions are positive, negative or neutral?
Well, I suppose that’s why we need studies like this.
There have been tons of books written about the possibilities of first contact. From Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, to David Brin’s Uplift series to Jack McDevitt’s Chase Kolpath series, to the thousands of worthy looks at the concept, the idea has brought wildly diverse concepts.
No one asked me, but since I’m writing this and you’re not, here’s what I think; they’ll be more like us than we’ll be comfortable with. Kind of like the stranger you meet in a new city who knows as much about your home town as you do, if not more so.
How we deal with that will decide how the future unfolds for us.
Or we could just be assimilated.
Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!