Third Stone from the Sun
"Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying." -- Arthur C. Clarke
The SETI Institute, partially funded by NASA, searches the universe for signs of intelligent life, using arrays of radio telescopes to listen in and try to detect transmissions from other planetary civilizations. In thirty years they've come up with nothing. SETI's response is that "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
Despite the "absence of evidence," one third of the American public believes extraterrestrials may be in our midst, ignoring the classic question posed by Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi: "But where are they?"
Like Fermi, I'm skeptical. Many years ago my Navy ship spent a few months in a West Coast shipyard being overhauled. In the middle of our stay, there was a UFO scare all across the western United States. There were media reports of alien craft sightings and even the testimony of people who claimed to have boarded spaceships. Everyone on board my ship knew they hadn't. This outburst of UFO mania was caused by a few of our guys who went out one night to explore the shipyard and found some weather balloons, covered them with fluorescent paint, and sent them off into the night sky.
I think about this whenever I hear claims of UFO sightings, alien landings, and Air Force cover-ups or observe the mythmaking that surrounds alleged alien hot spots such as Area 51 or Roswell, New Mexico.
If there are cosmic strangers in our midst, where would they come from? There are about 200 billion stars in our galaxy, and trillions of galaxies in the universe. Scientists continue to discover more and more stars that have planets orbiting them much as our planetary home orbits the sun. At a 1961 meeting in Green Bank, West Virginia, astronomer Frank Drake unveiled the Drake Equation, which predicts that there may be as many as ten thousand technologically advanced civilizations in our galaxy. Astronomy's first television star, Carl Sagan, put that number at over a million.
So it must be conceded that there is at least a mathematical possibility that there are other civilizations in the universe and that there is also a possibility, however remote, that one or more of them may have visited the Earth by some means or another.
However, the narrative that echoes so strongly in our culture isn't simply that we may have been visited by aliens. We are bombarded on all sides by the fear we will be attacked by them. This scenario permeates books (The War of the Worlds, Childhood's End, The Puppet Masters, Stephen King's The Tommyknockers) movies (The Blob, Alien, Independence Day, Cowboys & Aliens) and television (The X-Files or V, with its tagline of "They come in peace to enslave mankind"). Not to mention the ongoing legend of Orson Welles' 1938 radio version of The War of the Worlds, which was broadcast on Halloween and convinced many listeners that Mars was invading the United States.
These collective cultural story lines, corollaries of the Cold War and anti-immigrant hysteria, do not correspond to any actual interstellar event. But they do correspond to our life on earth, where invasions (Vietnam then, Afghanistan now, Ukraine pending) are the norm. Indeed,War of the Worlds was a commentary on the British Empire, similar in spirit to the film They Live, in which the aliens were the ruling class.
The threat we actually face is that we earthlings are at a cosmic tipping point where the earth may be destroyed through nuclear war or die from pollution. Physicist/television star Michio Kaku suggests that our galaxy may be filled with thousands of civilizations which committed suicide by "element 92" or by what we politely describe as climate change. Our real challenge comes not from outer space but, as the SETI website notes, from the fact that "We are stuck with our own planet Earth, and we need to take care of it."
Any alien civilization we encounter here on Earth will necessarily be at a much higher technological level than ours, otherwise they wouldn't be able to get here. This means they will have gone far beyond our relatively low-tech planet of 3D printers, robots, computers, and code-driven software. Alien technology would be hyper-productive and have made scarcity unknown, with a dazzling abundance the basis of life for all. Under such circumstances, what will they have to fight over, either between themselves or with us? We have nothing they need. If aliens do stop by to visit, they will come in peace.
In 1949, the noted astronomer Albert Einstein explained the essence of a high tech society that could fully care for the population here or on some distant planet: "The means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child."
Michio Kaku puts it more generally: "Civilization must function with a high degree of cooperation among its peoples."
Earth is a most uncooperative place at present. We have the ability to create universal abundance but insist that no one without money can have access to it. Since billions of people are now unable to find employment, the size of the world market is shrinking rapidly. Many countries based on high tech, especially the U.S. and China, can fill that shrunken market by themselves. A world war over market access, almost certainly a nuclear conflict, draws closer each day.
We know the oceans will evaporate in three billion years and the sun will burn out in five billion years. That is a very long time, enough time to figure out how to deal with those inevitable disasters. We face a much more immediate life and death challenge. We will either follow Einstein's blueprint or become just another piece of cosmic dust.