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article imageOp-Ed: The alien contact issue - Do we get it, or don’t we?

By Paul Wallis     May 15, 2010 in Science
The Voyager 2 “hijack” has led to a sudden upsurge of enthusiasm for one of the most important topics in human history, This is thanks partly to Stephen Hawking having the guts to bring up the subject earlier. Now, if someone would use their brains...
Voyager 2 and Hawking have revived a lot of issues, and as usual they’re being handled atrociously. This is not a new topic. It was heavily debated in the 1950s, and most of what you’re seeing is rehash, and pretty abysmal rehash at that. The predictable, brain-dead denialists are equally banal. These are just the current generation of Flat Earthers, supported by a tradition of ignorance that stretches back to prehistory.
The alien question is on a par with Douglas Adams’ story about people getting punished for believing there was life in other trees. Life exists in billions of forms on this planet. Many ancient forms of terrestrial life, like Cambrian life, would qualify as “alien” in terms of their morphologies and physiologies. There's nothing like them on Earth today, and there were huge numbers of species before the Cambrian Extinction.
The chances of life not existing elsewhere are precisely zero. There is simply no statistical possibility that the trillions of tons of water, carbon, etc, already observed in space don’t support life somewhere. Life is chemistry, and there’s plenty of that out there.
Most people know that. That’s also where we’ve created our contact concepts, and not much good it’s done in terms of clarifying anything.
These are the basic contact issues:
1. The Sun is a G class star, a yellow dwarf. Most G class stars are meaner than our sun, and instead of solar storms, fire out live plasma, million degree blasts which would incinerate a planet. We may be unusual for that reason, if no other. Aliens may come from other types of star, and have no use for Earth, a weird yellow star or Earth’s ferociously acidic life forms.
2. Aliens may not be as backward as humans, and have protocols for contact. Unlike our famous tendency to invade new land masses and wipe out the inhabitants with diseases and commercials, they may do things differently.
3. Humanity isn’t exactly promoting itself as a tourist destination. If you saw a planet full of insane apes, mismanaging their planet, killing each other in huge numbers, and making a toxic acid soup of their oceans, would your first instinct be to drop in and say hello?
4. Broadcasts from Earth have already traveled 70+ light years. Aliens, watching our broadcasts, may have already decided to give us a miss, based on that content. No surprise there, anyway.
5. The good and bad alien is purely an invention of human values. The debate, therefore, has centered on “good” aliens and “bad” aliens. We’re already imposing our concepts on aliens, before we even meet them. Why in the name of hyper novae would an alien naturally follow our logic? If you were an alien, asked to comment on Earth, what would you say? “Nice little self genocide operation you’ve got here, mind if we watch?”
One of the original theories of direct contact was that there was no way of knowing whether an alien species was friendly or hostile. Apparently the idea of being alert or exercising judgment wasn’t taken too seriously. The theory more or less created an unknown parameter in alien motives, whether it was real or not.
If you meet another human (it could happen) do you have any preset notions for meeting that person? No, and nor could you. You don’t actually know if they’re friendly or not. Aliens apparently aren’t entitled to this courtesy. They’d have no reason to be anything but neutral, in fact.
The Voyager 2 “hijack” is a case in point in this logic. It’s a pejorative term. We sent out a postcard, complete with a guidebook, intending to make contact. The code coming back is unintelligible- to us, so far. (Put some cracking software on it, and run it until it does make sense. Humanity could fail an IQ test here.)
Wouldn’t it make sense to send an RSVP back, if you found one? Is that a “hijack” of defenceless stationery, yes or no?
Come off it.
Would it not make sense, if you were trying to make contact, to make clear that you’ve added something new, to prove you were who you’re claiming to be? Like a code that takes a bit of work deciphering?
If this is an actual alien contact, we’re blowing it on all two strokes of our collective lawnmower thinking. Figure it out, then get back to them, if there’s a real message, which should have at the very least have syntax, visible content structures and repeating characters.
(On the other hand, we haven't deciphered Sanskrit yet, despite its obvious relationship to modern languages and symbols. Don't hold your breath.)
Voyager 2 is very old, very early, mainly pre-digital, technology. A message may be coded for that level of tech, not the current version.
Then there’s the alien-free version of the situation, notably not getting much of a mention. System checks indicate no damage to hardware, but not that old software. In the old days they used magnetic tapes and other overly sensitive materials which could have been corrupted. The very high UV readings Voyager has been sending back could be an issue or not. It’d be advisable to run some tests on exposure of Voyager style materials to UV, to make sure.
Until then, let’s give the aliens the benefit of the doubt. If we’ve just bumped into some very polite aliens, what do we think? Why do we think that? Do we know what we're thinking about?
I think we need to do some thinking, and chuck out the ancient quasi-intellectual garbage before we drown in it.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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