Probably one of the highest risk/reward activity in modern science is being conducted by a very small group of astronomers: the search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations (SETI). Because they are trying to answer a purely hypothetical question, SETI astronomers certainly have detractors that wonder if the pursuit is worth even a modest investment.
But answering the question “are we alone?” would have a profound cultural and theological impact on our view of our place in the universe.
A panel of experts pondering this question were at opposite ends of the universe at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington D.C.
Emphasizing that radio and optical searches are growing exponentially, Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute predicted contact with E.T. within 20 years, “if our precepts are correct.” In other words, SETI observations over the past two years have cast a bigger net over the galaxy than in the previous 50 years of searching.
Howard Smith of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was downright dour, however. He reiterated his strident thesis that was picked up by a British tabloid two week earlier: There’s nobody out there. Intelligent life is highly improbable. Or, at least it’s highly improbable we’ll ever find it, he said.
The shortcoming of Smith’s hypothesis is that it is blatantly pre-Copernican thinking — that Earth holds a special place in the universe. His conclusions subtly flirt with the idea we are the only fruit of God’s handiwork. And, in that context, he is eager to emphasize our critical need for stewardship over this planet. “We are probably alone and will have to solve our own problems,” he said.
Astronomical discoveries over the past 400 years have consistently reasserted the Copernican Principle — the latest being the Kepler Space Telescope’s harvest of over 1,200 planets orbiting other stars.
As Smith tried to whittle away at the number of potentially habitable Kepler exoplanets, Shostak couldn’t resist taking a goal shot. Extrapolating from the Kepler data, he estimated that there are at least 10 trillion trillion Earth-like planets in the entire universe. “You would have to believe in miracles if E.T. did not exist!” he asserted.
Smith countered with The Fermi Paradox. If alien civilizations all around us some would be smart enough to travel faster than light and they’d be here by now. So, if aliens exist at all, they are not that clever. Nor have they been able to come and conquer us, which would have a statistical probability in a universe teeming infinite worlds. There’s gotta be at least one Darth Vader out there somewhere.
The esteemed Harvard science historian, Owen Gingerich, dismissed this debate by simply saying, “We cannot extrapolate from just one example of intelligent life.”
Nevertheless, this dialogue leaves me as optimistic as ever of finding E.T. In fact I would say it is a 50/50 bet that SETI tells us that “we are not alone” before the great space observatories needed for conclusively finding Earth II are ever built. That is, assuming aliens uses radio or optical transmissions for saying “hi.”
But what would happen next?
Shostak’s optimism is mollified by his belief the first signal detected will not be readable because of the need for larger radio telescopes with better time resolution to tease out frequency or amplitude modulation. And, even if that is accomplished, decoding the message content may remain elusive for many generations.
The AAAS participants pondered how finding E.T. would impact the great world religions. Surveys show that only 10 percent of religious people think that such a discovery would challenge their view of God. In fact the popular evangelist Billy Graham belied in extraterrestrials.
The teachings of Islam are a bit ambivalent on this question said Nidhal Guessoum of the American University of Sharjar, United Arab Emirates. The Koran says that because Allah is omnipotent, creation is ongoing in a universe full of grandeur. The Koran also describes Allah as “Lord of the Worlds,” and implies there are other Earths in the heavens.
But the Koran also paints an ultra-anthropic view of the universe. Humans are Allah’s lieutenants and put smack-dab at the center of his creation.
The existence of E.T. would be more problematic in Christian theology.
In the “fall from Eden” as described in Genesis, the entire universe is cursed because of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve (which is a basic tenant of Catholicism). A sentient being living 10,000 light-years away may not take too kindly to this idea. Imagine, the alien is supposed to believe that it’s doomed to death and judgment because a small-cranium naked biped living on a subgiant rocky planet once bit into a spheroid of carbohydrates, sugars, and water.
The essence of Christianity is redemption through God’s sacrifice of his only son. Because aliens are not descended from Adam and Eve must they be separately saved too? Or did they pass the Apple Test?
Jennifer Wiseman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is optimistic that finding E.T. would exemplify the greatness of God. “We would have a wider view of creation that embraces and integrates religious and non-religious ideas.”
Smith said that the precepts of an all powerful creator in Judaism would accept the idea of life off the Earth.
So, our first question for the aliens might be: “Got God?”
Image credit: SETI Institute, NOAO