Is there Life Beyond Earth?

Xploration "Life Beyond Earth" episode now available for free on Hulu here.

As I mentioned in my last blog, there were a couple of really interesting philosophical / political / sciencey questions that came up on our shoot a couple weeks ago.  The first of which was: “How do you define intelligent life?” This is important because when scientists do find life on another planetary body, people are going to want to know if we can skype with it.

Let’s assume we have a nice, easy definition for “intelligent life” (we don’t, but let’s assume we do). This leads us to our next big question:

 

2. What should we do if we discovered intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?

First of all, where would we find intelligent life?

Well, we would likely find it on one of these exoplanets that everyone is talking about lately.  "Exoplanet" is short for extrasolar planet, which means it’s a planet outside of our own little solar system. Now, some of these exoplanets are more relevant than others. We’re looking for the potentially habitable ones – the ones that have the necessary ingredients for life as we know it. The ones that are not too hot and not too cold. We’re looking for the exoplanets in the aptly named “Goldilocks Zone.”

This seems pretty straightforward. Let’s just send a satellite to one of these exoplanets in the Goldilocks Zone and find aliens, right? Wrong. The closest habitable exoplanet that we know of today is like, 13 light years away.  This means that it would literally take 13 years to get there if we could travel at the speed of light. And, as you know, it’s impossible to travel at the speed of light (~300,000,000 meters / second AKA ~670,600,000 mph).  So far, the fastest long duration spacecraft that man has created (Voyager 1) can move at 38,000 mph.  Even at that incredible speed, it would take us roughly 230,000 years to get to the nearest habitable exoplanet.

Sorry aliens.  See you never.

 

Okay, we can’t go there any time soon. But what about communicating with each other?

Allen (as in, Paul Allen) Telescope Array!

Allen (as in, Paul Allen) Telescope Array!

There are ways that we can listen for and send out signals to extraterrestrial life. Actually, we've been signaling our presence, via electromagnetic waves, for nearly a century! Our TV broadcasts, mobile phones, and satellite transmissions continue to venture out into the vacuum of space at the speed of light, basically telling aliens “HI I’M HERE, LOOK AT ME.”

In the past, there have also been (controversial) initiatives to intentionally  send “messages” to extraterrestrial intelligence. But this brings up a really interesting semi-philosophical issue – should we be signaling out our presence to other intelligent beings? 

Stephen Hawking gives a big “Hell No” on this topic.

"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet." – Stephen Hawking

Hawking has said that announcing our presence to other intelligent life could lead to a situation like that of the Native Americans meeting Christopher Columbus. It didn't fare well for them.

Hence, any alien movie ever.

 

Fine, we’ll just listen for their electromagnetic waves and hide here as quietly as we can! But, wait....can they find us anyway?

Yea. They can find us anyway because of those, you know, pesky radio waves we’ve been sending out for nearly 100 years. But we haven’t had any contact yet (sorry, UFO believers), so perhaps they haven’t noticed we're here!

Neil deGrasse Tyson actually has a great segment about this very topic in his book, Space Chronicles.

“For all we know, the aliens may have tried to get in touch centuries ago and have concluded that there is no intelligent life on Earth.  They would now be looking elsewhere.  A more humbling possibility is that aliens did become aware of the technologically proficient species that now inhabits Earth, and drew the same conclusion.” - Neil deGrasse Tyson

How’s that for a piece of humble pie? Perhaps we don’t even know what “intelligence” looks like because we haven’t even seen it yet.

What do you think? Should we be trying to communicate with intelligent species? And how would the world change if we were successful?