- Education and Science
Things Everyone (Even Scientists) Gets Wrong About Aliens
The Truth Is Out There
Ever since man first used copious amounts of fire to launch himself into space, the possibility of intelligent life among the cosmos has captured our collective imagination. From little green men in UFOs to chitinous ape-men, we love stories from beyond the stars.
Though we have yet to discover definitive evidence of extraterrestrial life, a wide variety of theories, some based in science and some from people in tin foil hats, have arisen. As such, deciding just what form alien life might take, how it might traverse the great distance between stars, and whether they would be friendly or not can be a truly daunting task. We will proceed to sift through the lore to find the kernel of truth among the mountains of crazy.
Alien Life Can't Exist -- Or Can It?
The Universe is vast. It's so vast, that our galaxy alone contains more stars than all the grains of sand on all the beaches in the entire world. Now consider that there are estimated to be hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Of those uncountable solar systems, at least a percentage probably have planets orbiting them, and of those planets, at least a few must contain the right conditions for life, either similar to terrestrial life or another form, adapted to a different environment.
In fact, scientists now believe many more Earth-like planets exist than was previously thought possible. Within only 30 light years of our solar system, scientists have discovered at least one hundred planets that might be similar enough to earth to hold life. Not only that, but many were discovered toward red dwarf stars, which are much more common than our own G-type yellow dwarf sun.
When you start talking about those kinds of numbers, with billions upon billions of potential life-holding planets, there is definitely at least a possibility of alien life.
Concept Art of Project Orion Spacecraft
E.T. Would Need Hyper Advanced Technology To Reach Earth... A Nuclear Bomb
One of the most common arguments against alien visitors is the sheer distance they would need to cross in order to reach us. Though there are billions of galaxies and trillions of stars, the distance between them is even greater.
Take for example a single light year; the distance traveled by light in one year. That distance is about 5,900,000,000,000 miles. To put that in perspective, the fastest man made object, the Helios 2 probe, would need over 4,000 years to travel that distance.
However, despite the dreams of Star Trek fans everywhere, you don't need a warp drive to traverse great distances in a reasonable amount of time. Take, for example, Project Orion. Project Orion sought to send vast payloads into orbit quickly and efficiently using nuclear explosions. Unfortunately, detonating a nuclear bomb in the atmosphere has some unpleasant side effects, such as death, radiation, and more death.
Put that same craft in space and you have yourself a nice little interplanetary or interstellar spaceship. For the record, that particular idea was originally proposed over 50 years ago, before we even landed a man on the moon. While not the fastest mode of transportation, it would be possible to traverse great distances using technology humanity discovered before some of us were even born.
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They Would Come As Hostile Invaders -- Or Just Scientists
Ever since Orson Welles on-air interpretation of The War of the Worlds caused mass panic, the idea of invading extraterrestrials has gnawed on our collective subconscious. Even noted physicist Stephen Hawking weighed in on the issue, warning of the potential for a hostile invasion.
Hawking's expertise might not cover this particular issue, however, as this is more a question of evolutionary biology than physics. A Darwinian universe rewards a system where many individuals work together. Flocks of birds, schools of fish... Just look at the human race. We can be aggressive and hostile at times, but we also work together, and, as time goes by, we seem to be pushing for a more responsible and benevolent society.
Unless an alien race is radically different from us (see below) they would be forced to learn to work together and accept each others' differences, just as humanity has, thus tempering any latent hostility. In fact, the larger organizations get, the less they can afford to be overly violent. While we have a rather limited test range, only one planet, one can assume that Darwinian principles apply anywhere, because those principles are based on conditions that apply everywhere: limited resources and the need to get to those resources.
The fact is that an overly hostile alien race would likely destroy itself long before it reached the point of sending spacecraft to other stars. Again, the human race itself makes a fine example. If mankind hadn't been smart enough to realize the danger in hostility without reason, we would have destroyed ourselves as soon as we discovered the atomic bomb. We have to make the assumption that, for aliens to develop the technology to reach us, they would have to be able to think logically, and logic dictates that destroying for the sake of destruction is dangerous for everyone.
Though it isn't a guarantee that we won't someday be fighting off horde after horde of psychotic aliens, we can rest assured that, if anything, a first encounter would probably come off more like humans studying gorillas than Cortez crusading against the Aztecs.
Yeah Right, Star Trek, Aliens Aren't Humanoid
Science fiction movies are often divided into two categories: Low budget movies where aliens are just extras with a prosthetic nose, and big budget movies with fancy CGI and crazy looking creatures never seen on earth. Most of the time, the big budget movies are praised for knowing that there's no way aliens could possibly look anything like us...
Unless of course, we take into account a neat little phenomenon known as convergent evolution. In short, convergent evolution is when genetically unrelated species develop similar traits when exposed to similar environmental circumstances.
Now let's take a quick look at the human body and why it developed the way it has. The shape and build of the human body is the simplest way to put together a structure that can effectively manipulate tools, and as is well known, simple usually survives. Two appendages for locomotion and two appendages for holding and using matter. Even the digestive system is laid out in the most logical way possible. Food goes in up top and comes out at the bottom. This layout allows gravity to assist in the digestive process and means the body doesn't need to spend as much energy to make energy.
Finally, consider an alien race evolving under similar circumstances to Earth. In order to develop tools and thus create technology, one needs to manipulate matter. In order to manipulate matter, one needs something to precisely grip and move it. A pincer won't do, a claw won't do, even a tentacle has some drawbacks. Opposable thumbs are probably the best way to go. Though it probably wouldn't look exactly like a human hand, they would probably be somewhat alike. In fact, in order to function and thrive as a tool using, technology creating society, aliens would need to share a few basic biological similarities to humans.
Of course, this doesn't cover aliens that evolved under radically different circumstances. Still, the idea that aliens couldn't look even a little like us is a bit of an oversight. Who knows, maybe the first time we encounter an alien spacecraft, Spock himself will beam down to greet us.
Aliens Won't Detect Us For Thousands Of Years... Unless They DO Have Advanced Technology
Remember that thing about the Universe being ridiculously huge and how traveling it would take forever? Well even light needs time to cross such vast distances. The closest star to us (other than the sun of course) is Alpha Centauri, and light needs four years to get there. Mankind has been pumping electromagnetic radiation out into the universe for around 100 years, so the volume of space through which our radio waves have propagated has a radius of 100 light years.
Considering that our galaxy is around 100,000 light years across, it's going to take a while for "I Love Lucy" to reach even our closest neighbors Even if aliens are actively looking for us, they'd have to be absurdly close in terms of interstellar distances to detect us within the next thousand years.
The one flaw in this premise is that we are making the assumption that our visitors from the stars only understand as much about physics as we do. As previously mentioned, one can traverse great distances using technology we ourselves consider outdated, but there's no reason that an alien civilization couldn't be more technologically advanced than we are. Their grasp of the universe's natural laws might allow them to manipulate it in ways we can only imagine.
Light, as we know, travels at speeds of 300,000,000 meters per second. Ripples in the fabric of the universe, on the other hand, travel much much faster. Things get even weirder when you start diving into quantum physics and all the crazy laws that govern the universe on the very small scale. There's no denying that we directly affect the quantum world just by watching it. As unlikely as it seems, perhaps an alien civilization could devise a way to detect such changes at great distance. The truth is that with science progressing as quickly as it is, we won't know what is and what isn't possible for a long time to come.
I Want To Believe
Whether or not aliens exist, and what form they take will be up for debate right up until we actually make first contact, and probably after. However, we can't afford to make assumptions without seriously thinking things through. We should be prepared for anything from hostile crab-monkeys riding nuclear powered spaceships to benevolent octopus scientists traveling through wormholes.
Perhaps first contact is thousands of years away. Perhaps humanity will reach for the stars and find that we are alone. We may never know. Until then, we'll just have to enjoy our Star Wars and Star Treks, our creepy blue puppet aliens and our fuzzy CG monsters. From the trees of Pandora to Serenity Valley, let our imagination run wild, and on behalf of aliens everywhere, may the Force be with you.