Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Strange Signals to Outer Space

Oh my goodness! The aliens are all going to come shoot lasers in our ears and suck out our brains through straws! Or at least, the author of the Nature article entitled “Ambassador for Earth” is laboring under that impression. Now, honestly, the wording is nowhere near as Apocalyptic as I made out and based on the current alien lore it’s actually a common fear that extraterrestrial civilizations would probably be militant or at least that contact with any such “advanced” beings would be intellectually detrimental to the human race. The issue truly under question in the article is whether or not SETI (one of the most credible organizations searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence) should shift their focus from listening for radio waves that are alien in origin to sending their own. The excitement also comes along with recent development of a French satellite that can pinpoint planets around distant stars, essentially rendering the human race capable of aiming our own communicative attempts at isolated places where we think there may be other intelligent beings.

The common belief about extra-terrestrials is that they are excessively militant and frequently visit Earth in their spacecraft that utilize technology that is millions of years ahead of our scientific comprehension. They also abduct millions of people from their cozy beds at night, take them up into the Great Beyond in their ridiculously advanced spacecraft and probe, prod, and otherwise violate them. Now, I watch Star Trek and The X-Files as much as the next person… probably more, in fact, being the nerd that I am. But when you look at the facts—the way the extra-terrestrial hysteria coincides almost entirely with the Cold War, for example—you realize that all of this mayhem and mania about creatures coming from the sky and treating us the way that we treat lab rats was really a cultural outlet for the omnipresent threat of utter annihilation. For almost forty years of, not only American history, but World History the human race was on the cusp of extinction: with the simple push of one button an irreversible chain of events would have led to a nuclear holocaust. And the best place to vent all of this anxiety about things falling from the sky? Why, make things fall from the sky! In the form of flying saucers and creepy little creatures with bug-eyes, large heads, and a penchant for probing. Of course paranoia about creatures from other worlds goes back to the late 19th century and, in fact, appears almost anywhere in the past 100-some years whenever a society needs to release its fears of invasion, war, or other imminent peril. Yet the widespread beliefs and common conceptions that are currently disseminated throughout our culture come almost entirely from this Cold War paranoia.

What was the point of telling you all of that? Well, in all reality I don’t think any alien civilization would be millennia ahead of us in terms of technology: centuries, perhaps, but not millennia. If anything they’d either have the same technological capacities as us or be in a completely different (and probably less advanced) evolutionary stage. This is, of course, presuming that the ideal conditions for life exist on the other side of the galaxy in any way similar to ours. That being said, since most of the planets in the universe formed at or around the same time, it would be safe to assume that the elements that eventually led to intelligent life forms as advanced as ourselves would also evolve at around the same rate on other planets. Assuming that there are other life forms in the universe as intelligent as we are (which is, honestly, a safe assumption since to assume we are the only sentient beings in the infinity of the universe is incredibly egocentric) they would also have to be at a stage in their intellectual development that would allow them to hear our transmitted radio waves. Basically, the thought that some warmongering aliens are going to fly over and destroy us just because they know that we’re here is a ridiculous concept. If we can’t fly over and destroy them billions of lightyears away, why do we think that they could do so to us?

If these aliens could truly receive our signals and also return them it would really only serve as a massive intergalactic Instant Messenger. It’s doubtful that any other civilization in the universe would be capable of long-distance deep space travel. Even if they had this capability, the Nature article states that it would take decades for our message to reach their planet even traveling at the speed of light, and it would probably take centuries for any extra-terrestrials to actually physically reach Earth (excluding the possibility that they have developed Warp drive, in which case it would take them only a few years at Warp 9.2… what an unpleasant trip). And given that it would take so long for these beings to reach us, I’m sure we’d detect them while they were on their way and be able to either establish contact with them once more and ascertain their intentions or (at the very least) be able to prepare ourselves in the defense of our home planet. Unless of course, they’ve also developed a Cloaking Device in which case we’re just screwed.

Seriously, I think that SETI should go ahead and start shooting radio waves at promising planets. I would love to see the beginnings of an intergalactic conversation (though I won’t, since any message would take just as long to return and therefore there’d be about a 50 year lapse between replies). I see no immediate danger in sending such a message at all (though admittedly, if I’m completely wrong and Mulder’s UFOs show up the next day to blast us to bits… well… Chris Carter can say “I told you so.”) The sooner we begin to transmit deliberate messages into the cosmos, the sooner they can reach their destination and the more of us nerds will still be alive by the time we receive a reply in seventy years. And that would be truly awesome.

“Ambassador for Earth” Nature 443, 606 (12 October 2006)

Image 1: A comically rendered book cover for H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. The plot focuses on large mechanized “creatures” who shoot destructive laser-type beams at pretty much everything that they see and destroy it instantly. The novel was written in 1898 and fits into a sub-genre of literature known as “invasion literature” which reflected the growing anxieties in Western Europe before the First World War. Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation also caused a considerable amount of panic when people actually believed that aliens were invading the world, reflecting again the considerable world tensions of the time period. It should be noted that, despite the strange looking green creepy creatures on this cover… there aren’t any creatures in the novel. Just machines.

Image 2: This is a poster from a movie that was also called “Grave Robbers from Outer Space.” Just, don’t ask. It was directed by Ed Wood, known infamously as the worst director ever and starred Bela Lugosi, Vampira, and Lyle Talbot. One example of the extent of craptasticness displayed by the movie is during a graveyard scene when a fake headstone falls over and it was deemed “fine” and left in the final picture. The premise of the movie was that aliens are resurrecting dead humans as zombies and vampires in order to stop them from creating what is metaphorically an atom bomb. Despite showing the strange eccentricities of a select few in Hollywood, this 1959 cult classic further illustrates the Cold War paranoia, both of unknown beings coming from the sky and the threat of annihilation from our own technological advances (mainly nuclear weapons).

Image 3: A scantily clad extraterrestrial featured as a dancing slave in a particular memorable Star Trek episode. While most Cold War era texts dealing with aliens saw them as a strange and frightening threat, Star Trek embraced the possibility of peace and cooperation between species. Other instances of the advocation of tolerance in Star Trek include the Japanese helmsman Lieteunant Sulu and the Russian navigator and security chief Ensign Chekov, as well as a black Communications Officer: Lieutenant Uhura. Aliens, in this case, were stand-ins for Soviets, Blacks, and all other groups who were fighting for equal rights and fair representation. Essentially, the point was that if the human race can get along with aliens than they can get along with each other.

Image 4: The X-Files not only embraces the lore of the Cold War alien hysteria, it expounds upon it. The “little grey men” can not only travel to our planet, abduct us, modify our memories, collaborate subversively with the U.S. government, and unleash deadly plagues amongst the human race, they can also shapeshift, take on the appearance of pretty much anybody and (as shown here) play baseball. X-Files aliens jive generation X and the underappreciated nerd who was coming more and more into the mainstream during the 1990s thanks to the advent of computers and the internet. What better to plot about on rudimentary message boards than the government cover up of the Roswell Incident? Is there anything more solidly nerdy in the entire world than a paranoid fear of the Man and aliens put together?

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