Recent scientific findings plus some educated guesses have led some experts to estimate there may be 10,000 extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. Come up with your own estimate using our Drake Equation Calculator.
Would the detection of extraterrestrial life cause the kind of paranoia or alien worship we see in science-fiction shows ranging from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to "V"? In a fresh round of studies, scientists and theologians suggest it really wouldn't have much impact on what we do or what we believe.
The Brookings Report warned in 1961 that the discovery of life beyond Earth could lead to social upheaval. But Albert Harrison, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, says "times have changed dramatically" since then.
Even the discovery of intelligent aliens "may be far less startling for generations that have been brought up with word processors, electronic calculators, avatars and cell phones as compared with earlier generations used to typewriters, slide rules, pay phones and rag dolls," Harrison writes in one of the papers published Monday in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.
E.T. has become so much a part of our culture that the aliens don't seem all that alien anymore. And if extraterrestrial life does exist, it's far more likely to be discovered in the form of microbes on Mars, or signals from a star system that's tens or thousands of light-years away.
Harrison says there are plenty of historical precedents showing that society can get used to the idea of life existing beyond Earth:
"Society has been unfazed by batmen on the moon, the canals of Mars, discoveries of quasars and pulsars, claims that a fossil arrived from Mars, and bogus announcements of SETI detections. Any discovery of ETI [extraterrestrial intelligence] is likely to produce a mix of emotions including fear, pandemonium, equanimity and delight, but in North America and Europe, neither the retrieval of an exobiological specimen nor detection of a dial tone at a distance are likely to lead to widespread psychological disintegration and social collapse. Perhaps we should not worry too much about people who protect their belief systems by denying scientific findings (or recasting them as theory), and it seems unlikely that a 'dial tone at a distance' will shock people who are embroiled in civil war, caught up in genocide or wracked by AIDS and starvation. People conditioned by years of participation in UFO clubs, science fiction and an endless parade of purported documentaries may find the discovery anticlimactic."
That theme carries through in other reports published in the special issue of the British journal. The 17 research papers, which add up to more than 200 pages in all, are based on a series of discussions that took place almost a year ago. The Royal Society brought together some of the world's top authorities on the search for extraterrestrial life to reflect on what might happen if E.T. was ever found — and went on to conduct a follow-up discussion in October.
Here are a few more thought-provoking nuggets from the journal:
- More than 80 percent of religious believers say contact with intelligent aliens would not shake their personal faith, according to a survey developed by Ted Peters, a theologian at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif. About a third of the believers who were surveyed said that E.T. contact might create some sort of religious crisis. In contrast, more than two-thirds of non-believers thought there'd be a religious crisis. Some Christian theologians, such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, say Jesus came to save E.T. as well as humans — while others (including Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner) have suggested that there could be multiple incarnations of alien saviors, Peters says.
- Arizona State University's Paul Davies lays out his concept of "weird life," which suggests that life could operate using chemical machinery different from the usual type, even here on Earth. The concept is reflected in a recent round of controversial experiments focusing on bacteria that are thought to consume arsenic instead of the usual phosphorus.
- Even if evidence of life was found on Mars, it might not be considered truly "alien" life, NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay says. "An organism would be alien if, and only if, it did not link to our tree of life," he writes. That determination could have big consequences. If biomarkers indicate that such an alien form of life exists on Mars, then McKay says humans should feel morally bound to leave that life alone. "We must be able to undo ('ctrl-Z') our contamination of Mars if we discover a second genesis of life," he says.
- The head of the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs, Mazlan Othman, presents her view that the United Nations should take a leading role in coordinating the global response to evidence of extraterrestrial life. Othman got in hot water when news reports made it sound as if she was angling to become an "ambassador to the aliens." In the journal, however, Othman presents a sensible case: She draws an analogy to the role played by the United Nations in considering what should be done in the event Earth is threatened by an incoming asteroid.
- Cambridge University paleontology Simon Conway Morris says we shouldn't worry so much about what to do if we come across intelligent aliens, because they probably don't exist. He argues his point on the basis of evolutionary convergence. If long-term life ever arose beyond Earth, it would eventually result in the rise of a world-subduing intelligent species like our own. And if even just one civilization out of 10,000 found a way to travel beyond its own solar system, "this planet would still have been colonized by people who kept trilobites as pets," Morris writes. That's not the case, leading Morris to a conclusion that he says should still "make our blood run cold." Here's his bottom line: "We never had any visitors, nor is it worth setting up a reception center in the hope that they might turn up. They are not there, and we are alone. So which do you prefer: neighbors with the culture of the Aztecs or a howling silence?"
Are we alone in the universe? What are the implications of E.T.'s existence, or non-existence? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.