ET Probably Isn’t Coming

In an excerpt from a book of essays by scientists discussing the search for extraterrestrial life, an astrobiologist wonders why aliens would even bother with Earth.

To make the point, he runs through a list of common sci-fi alien invasion movie plots. Like when the monsters come to Earth looking for slaves. Or lunch.

Alien races enslaving each other is a common trope of many science fiction universes. While enslavement of defeated enemies or other vulnerable populations has regrettably been a common feature of our history on Earth, it’s hard to see why a species with the capability of voyaging between the stars, and therefore having already demonstrated the mastery of a highly advanced level of machinery and of marshaling energy resources, would have any need for slaves. Constructing robots, or other forms of automation or mechanization, would be a far more effective solution for labor — people are feeble in comparison, harder to fix, and need to be fed.

Maybe they will arrive looking to steal the Earth’s water or other raw materials.

The problem with this supposition is that there are loads of far better sources of water in space… you’d have access to a far greater amount of water in the icy moons and cometary halo of the outer solar system. You’d also find it much more practical to operate in deep space, rather than trying to suck up the oceans against the gravitational pull of the planet Earth. And as with the water, it’s hard to see why aliens would bother extracting material against the gravity of the Earth when the asteroids are composed of the same basic rocky stuff.

Of course the process of just getting here in the first place is a major physics problem. Instead of sending bulky, fragile life forms, our first extraterrestrial visitors would more likely be “sentient robots as emissaries”.

Although alien invasion films like “Independence Day” often do huge box office,1 thought exercises like this that address the science (and pseudo-science) behind them are actually more fun. I even enjoy it when people like Neil deGrasse Tyson take a science poop all over big sci-fi movies.

But then, I’m strange. Possibly alien?

What To Do When ET’s Phone Call Arrives

While life continues chaotically forward (sorta) here on Earth, there are still people looking upward and outward for signs of life, intelligent or otherwise. They’re also trying to figure out what we will do when, and they do believe it’s when, not if, a message arrives.

Within the International Academy of Astronautics, a group has drawn up the “SETI2 post-detection protocol”, a set of guidelines of how scientists should address the issue.

Including, how to tell the rest of us.


It’s that part that worries them most since any message received is likely not going to come from a spaceship we can see hanging over New York City. Or say something particularly intelligible.

“In this day and age of social media, it’s almost impossible to keep anything under wraps for more than a few hours,” said Davies. “[The veracity of a signal] will take a long time to check, I don’t think you’re ever going to have an absolutely clear cut signal, but instead something that’s just on the edge of detectability. It will be a long drawn out process, and possibly take decades to resolve.”

But even if SETI scientists keep mum on the discovery until it has been verified–whether this process takes a few months or a few years–there’s no guarantee about how people will react to the news. As pointed out in a report from a NASA workshop in 1993, “reactions to a detection can range from indifference…through millennial enthusiasm or catastrophist anxiety, to full scale paranoia…a few reactions would probably be irrationally extreme or even violent.”

I would bet on that “irrationally extreme” reaction from far too many people, especially those currently running the show who wallow in rumor, paranoia, and conspiracy theories.

Anyway, I find this aspect of scientific preparation very interesting, even though I only know enough about the science to understand that direct, meaningful contact with another species is extremely unlikely at this point.

It’s not that I believe we’re alone in the universe. Only that the universe is a really, really, REALLY big place and all of us are subject to the laws of physics.