Saturday, August 1, 2015

Aliens Are Dummies? The WSJ Piece That Many Will Still Believe

As humans have continued over decades to search for extraterrestrial signals, a number of different takes have surfaced as well as proposals, advice. In an article I wrote in 1978, 'We Are Not Alone', I warned that our hitherto emitted radio and TV signals could already have betrayed our position to an alien civilization. I suggested that if humans had any residual smarts at all they would take care to conceal their radio presence in future rather than announce it, because we could not be sure who or what might pick the signals up and what they'd do in response.  I then cited physicist Freeman Dyson, who in a 1972 speech, asserted that the extraterrestrials we're most likely to encounter would be “like a malignant, technological cancer spreading across the galaxy” and we’d "do well not to wish for any meeting."  He predicted that it would be the most aggressive species we'd be most likely to meet, and we'd likely regret it.

I also cited British Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Ryle, who pleaded for extreme caution in the nature of radio band signals we send, and advocated for restricting any and all types of electro-magnetic signals and noise emanating from our planet. He warned that it would be foolhardy to be anything but passive listeners given we don't know anything about alien intentions .

More recently, this has echoed  in new warnings from Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, comparing the aliens that are most likely to visit Earth (because of stupidity on our part, i.e. in actively beaming messages) to the first colonizers of the New World - who decimated native populations for resources and territory. Musk, Hawking and others have urged that we do not move to "active SETI" which entails designing radio telescopes to actively transmitting messages as opposed to mere passive reception.

The general tenor of discussion then, has been that the aliens  likely to be contacts will be: a) super -intelligent, far in advance of Earthers' best, and b) highly aggressive.

Never mind. In his WSJ piece (July 25-26, p. C5) Joe Queenan assures gullible readers  (of which there are likely to be many) that "scientists don't want to let on they are searching for signs of average intelligence".

As he facetiously notes:

"The logic is infallible. If aliens were really smart, it stands to reason they would already have contacted us."

Adding, to clarify:

"Really, really smart creatures would want to let us know they were there, if only to show off, the way people who went to Harvard can't order a BLT without letting everyone in the room know they once wrote for the Crimson."

Not really!  And again, though to me his angle was tongue in cheek, it definitely could be literally misconstrued by a hidebound human chauvinist - who would have his belief reinforced that either: a) humans are the only advanced species in the cosmos, or b) any other species would be at the level of "incompetents" compared to us (Queenan uses the analogy of the East Germans before being absorbed by W. Germany)

The reality is that we're more likely to make first hand physical contact with extraterrestrials than radio contact. The logic and basis for this were well laid out in the paper ‘Galactic Civilizations: Population Dynamics and Interstellar Diffusion’ by William Newman and Carl Sagan, in Icarus, Vol. 46, June 1981,

The authors' logic was impeccable and simple. Any civilization worth its salt would at some point enter an Atomic age. Weapons of ultimate annihilation would become widely available as well as potential for nuclear power, possibly fusion. A civilization entering this age would either come out much more advanced and in one piece, or destroy itself. It is the latter category that would most likely limit itself to only radio contact.

The former would be able to parlay their awesome new power into fusion energy, and also interstellar space flight. The latter would open the doors to planetary conquests, given, as the authors noted, interstellar colonization would more likely be accomplished by a technologically aggressive species.  Hawking, for example, compared their arrival on Earth to the arrival of Columbus' expedition to the New World, resulting in the decimation of the Arawaks. Thus, the simple disparity in technology would result in the elimination or the absorption of the less advanced species - without even the veneer of a "war" declaration.

How advanced could such aliens be? Russian astrophysicist I.S. Kardashev, put forward a three-class scheme:[1]

I: Able to harness the equivalent power of the planet Earth
II: Able to harness the power equal to a typical star (10^23 kw)
III: Able to harness the power equal to a typical galaxy (10^33 kw)

Plausibly, an encounter with either Types II or III would amount to Earth hominids elimination or absorption - though it is difficult to see how the latter might work. (Perhaps literally, as food, see e.g.
the Twilight Zone episode 'To Serve Man'). On the other hand, an encounter with a Type I may have more potential for genuine exchange, even if at the analogous level of a human mathematician trying to teach a backward child residue calculus.

What we should not do, is buy into Queenan's theme of meeting or contacting "average" aliens. In terms of actual galactic civilizations, there is no such thing - except perhaps for humans.

[1]Shklovskii, I. and Sagan, C.:1966, Intelligent Life in the Universe, Dell Publishing Co., p. 394.

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