Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Implications of Finding Aliens – Example 1

One of the justifications for writing and reading this blog is that finding aliens is important to us. But why would that be? Perhaps only finding a certain type of alien would be important, or perhaps we are mistakenly thinking it would be important.

Let’s try to break down the implications of a successful hunt for aliens. The simplest result would be we discover they exist, but there is no way to do anything more than just know that. We have observatories of some sort, and a brilliant astronomer and his/her team find some clue that indisputably says there are aliens on a planet a long way away. And probably none closer. Years of careful work goes into this, and we discover that they inhabit this planet, let’s call it Planet S for success, and fly around the solar system there, but don’t go any farther. This discovery was made on the basis of something, it doesn’t what matter for the discussion here, but whatever that was, it was incontrovertible. Other scientists took a long look at the process and the data, and concluded that what was observed was the result of alien engineering. Maybe it was interplanetary shipping that was seen, with a ship detected going from one planet to another. Nothing natural looks like that.

So we spend a lot of our time watching them, maybe seeing a ship go from planet to planet every few months, and the hard science result gets even more solid. Yes there are aliens on Planet S, and it is so far away we can’t do anything about it. Cheers for the science community. Maybe some prizes are given out. Maybe funding is increased. Another result is that the thousands of stars that are closer don’t have this at all, and we gradually confirm that there are a few alien populations around which are detectable, and maybe some that have never reached interplanetary space travel and are invisible to the new technology. By and large, the galaxy is uninhabited.

Now, the public all over Earth gets to read about these results, and figures out finally the result is in, and we know. A few aliens exist here and there. Some impertinent people ask: “So what?”

Scientists will have a new area for funding proposals, which is figuring out why so few worlds have aliens. Suddenly the study of alien civilizations gets some interest. A little niche of science is created and a small community of scientists starts having meetings specifically dedicated to Planet S, and others which are identical in ten ways to it, which is where other aliens might be. There are hardly any of them.

For the rest of the public, after a week or two, Planet S falls out of the news, as new results will only be coming in every few years at best, and then the information is just going to be a little update on what has already been found. People mention it in conversations at cocktail parties. Commenters, trolls and other people alike, mention it once in a while. But nothing else happens.

Social inertia is a great thing. It provides us with a context in which to live. But it is hard to change. Our society here on Earth would be largely oblivious to the existence of an alien civilization on Planet S. Maybe it would become the subject of a science fiction novel, or two or twenty. Maybe some journalists would interview various scientists on their opinions about the planet and its aliens. Maybe someone would compose some music using it as inspiration.

Possibly the first important effect of the news that there is an alien civilization on Planet S, other than to redirect some small fraction of science funding, is to confirm to some skeptics that whatever was found, say interplanetary shipping, was a smart thing to do. After all, another civilization is doing it, and they are older that we are, and therefore more knowledgeable, and therefore must have a good reason for it. So we budget for more interplanetary space travel and exploration, and think even harder about how to do it, and Earth’s adventures in our own solar system get a boost. In time, this might advance the date on which we first make some interplanetary mining or something else by some months or years. The course of history has been changed by an iota.

Then the loneliness sets in. After some years, the science is confirmed over and over, and we realize that aliens are not going to visit us, probably ever, and we are likely not to find any to talk to, no matter what we do. The galaxy is a bit too large. We are virtually alone. The finding of aliens is something like the finding of no aliens, except that finding no aliens is a negative result, and it might also mean we don’t know how to find them. We didn’t know how to find them so we didn’t find them, but maybe we are not looking correctly. Once Planet S has been discovered, that option is all over. We know what type of planet they live on, and how few there are of it. We know there aren’t any in any reasonable travel distance. We know we simply have no one to talk to.

As part of the example, assume that the distance to Planet S is too large for any signals to be received, and certainly sent. So the philosophical and emotional results of being alone set in after some time. Here we are, with no one to bother us, forever. What we do will make no effect on anybody. There are no friends we will ever meet in the galaxy, and no enemies. Maybe the interest in star traveling for ourselves will diminish. What is the purpose of going to other solar systems now? Nobody is there waiting to be discovered. Nobody has built some nice more primitive civilization for us to help out. Nobody to have a war with. Nobody to do trade with. Nobody for anything at all.

Loneliness on a planetary scale has never been experienced before. Even the Lotus Sutra from 2500 years ago talks about a universe full of other beings. In this example, we finally know that it is pretty much empty of other civilizations. Nobody to share anything with. Nobody to provide us with different art objects. Nobody at all.

The implications of this example of possible scientific discovery are more intangible than tangible. We would need a long time to get used to being isolated, but not being the only creatures in the galaxy. We are not that special, as there are other intelligent creatures, which we will likely never get much details on. Maybe this will deflate out collective ego, if there is such a thing.

The bottom line is that life will go on, perhaps marching toward our own asymptotic technology, but without any inspiration coming from the heavens. Nothing to do here except live and then go extinct.

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