Will citizens of earth be unfazed by alien contact?

By Raina Khatri

Learning that we're not alone in the universe could spark street riots, global economic shutdown, or grave announcements of apocalypse from religious leaders. But it's much more likely that none of those things will happen, said astronomer Seth Shostak on Feb. 20 at the 2011 AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C.

Speaking in a session titled "Astronomical Pioneering: The Implications of Finding Other Worlds," Shostak, from the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, noted that one-third of Americans believe extraterrestrials have already come to Earth. “I calculate from the polls that 35,000 people a day are being abducted by aliens for experiments their mothers wouldn’t approve of,” said Shostak.

Confronted by a real scientific discovery, “Would the people go nuts?” he asked. “Well, that’s presumptuous, because what if they’re nuts already? But I don’t think so.”

Most speakers in the session agreed with Shostak that we fully expect aliens to exist—and to contact us. In a discussion before an audience of about 100 people, the five panelists discussed the implications for various faiths of finding intelligent life elsewhere.

Nothing in Christian doctrine overtly argues against the existence of aliens, said Jennifer Wiseman of the AAAS Science and Policy Programs office in Washington, D.C. However, Wiseman stated, finding them would raise tough questions for Christians.

When Nikolaus Copernicus concluded in the 16th century that Earth went around the Sun, the concept challenged the Catholic Church for centuries. “Ultimately, Copernican science was found compatible with the Christian faith,” said Wiseman. “Will the discovery of other life be otherwise?”

According to Wiseman, some Christian thinkers worry that intelligent life elsewhere would throw mankind’s significance in the eyes of God into question. Others maintain that all living beings, including aliens, would be important to God.

Nidhal Guessoum of the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates seconded these concerns for the Islamic faith. He believes aliens we may encounter would be so advanced they would be post-biological, capable of engineering their own bodies. “If they are so far ahead of us, how will we be important, even spiritually?” Guessoum asked.

Guessoum pointed to several verses in the Qur’an that specifically mention other worlds. The verses use language such as “lord of the worlds” and “seven Earths,” making it easier for Islamic scholars to accept the concept of life elsewhere.

However, one speaker dissented. “You will forgive me if I speak bluntly,” said Howard A. Smith of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We are probably alone, and we will have to solve our own problems.”

Smith said that if advanced life forms existed, they would have visited us by now. And if they do exist, they are so distant that they are beyond our reach. “Those folks will never enjoy an episode of I Love Lucy,” he joked, referring to our leaks of electromagnetic broadcasts that now extend more than 70 light-years from Earth.

The growing number of exoplanet discoveries goes against Smith’s viewpoint, said Wesley Traub of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Many of these are small bodies, not much larger than Earth—a crucial factor in their possible support of life, Traub stated. Rocky planets about twice the diameter of Earth represent the upper limit, he said: “If you have a planet larger than that, it’ll be a gas giant.”

Traub predicted major discoveries soon. “Sometime in the upcoming decade and a half, we will find at least five nearby planets where we can begin searching for life,” he said.

A successful detection won't shock anyone, Shostak claimed. In the early 20th century many people believed there were civilizations on Mars. Aside from Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of the “War of the Worlds,” the impact upon daily life on Earth, he noted, was zero.

“It’ll be a very messy news story,” Shostak said. “It’ll take about a week, and it’ll be over.”

Smith countered Traub's optimism by describing the conditions for life as too specific. The shape of a planet's orbit, the distance between the planet and its star, and the size requirements of the planet itself are among many factors that combine to create insurmountable odds against intelligent life arising anywhere else, Smith said.

“We are special,” he said, reflecting on his Jewish faith. “We are blessed.”

Raina Khatri is a senior majoring in physics and English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She has worked as an intern at the American Physical Society and the Center for the History of Physics, and she currently writes for Physics to Go. Reach her at raina.khatri@hope.edu.

February 22, 2011

Biedler Prize for Cancer Journalism

IFoRE #SciCommSunday