How would human react to the discovery of intelligent extraterritorial beings beyond earth?
In the late 2017, astronomers noticed a eerie object–known as Oumuamua– soaring through our solar system, tracing out a hyperbolic trajectory through the Inner Solar system via the Sun as the locus, and eventually left our Solar system. What captured the imagination of the public is its peculiarity– it doesn’t conform to our stereotypes of comets or asteroids. Its extreme aspect ratio ( weight to height ratio), the tumbling end over end behavior, seemly under non-gravitational accelerations, move like comets but didn’t have the classic tail of one, seems to defy all natural explanations. Although most scientist still considers it as a natural object ( but currently without a natural explanation), some scientists go further and argue that its a piece of alien technology.
One of such scientist is the eminent Avi Loeb, a professor of Astronomy from Harvard University. His most recent book “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth“ explores the controversial preposition that Oumuamua is of extraterritorial intelligent origin instead of a natural one. After outlining the several naturalistic explanation and pointing out their shortcomings, Avi proposes how a highly intelligent being can manufacture it and what are the possible intended purposes, which explains the peculiar characteristics that it has. Among those proposed purposes are lightsails, buoy as a pointer of the Local Standard of Rest( LSR) or an intelligent-made junk.
Unlike the usual God in the Gap argument, Avi doesn’t say that “this is not yet explainable, therefore it must be alien”. The argument is more sophisticated, and therefore more convincing than that. Not only currently known natural mechanisms fail to explain what Oumuamua is, but one can also propose well-known non-naturalistic mechanisms to explain it. What stands in our way to accept the alien technology hypothesis is that we aren’t convinced that “they” do exist out there.
“Extra claim requires extra evidence“, an aphorism popularized by Carl Sagan–an astronomer, science popularizer and who is also a pioneer in the search for extraterritorial intelligence– is often used to reject the alien hypothesis, and in this case here, it is of no exception. But then, is there anything so controversial about the existence of extraterritorial intelligence? There are as many exoplanets — the planets that resemble earth– in the Milky Way galaxy as the sands on the beach. Given the amount of time they have since the beginning of the universe and the sheer numbers of candidates, and given that life can evolve to an intelligent form (we are a stellar example after all), it’s no surprising that intelligence can also evolve elsewhere and can send probes around.
What mainstream scientists rightfully reject is the standard UFOs stories that we often hear over the conspiracy YouTube channels—“they” are visiting us, abducting us and communicating us while manage to keep their traces pretty well hidden at the same time. The hypothesis that Oumuamua is made by alien intelligence doesn’t even remotely belong to the same category.
Now how we approach Oumuamua can have a profound impact on how we deal with science and technology; it raises our consciousness level. Oumuamua has already left our Solar System, so there is no hope to further study it. The jury is still out and there is no way to change the positions of those who already made up their minds, as we have no way to uncover more data. But if we immediately close out the alien hypothesis and insist that it must be natural, the next time a second Oumuamua comes, our study will orient towards naturalistic explanations and miss the cues that point to the other direction. But if we keep an open mind and allow it to be of alien made, we just might be able to correctly decipher the message in the bottle.
Contrary to what some may think, the idea that there are advanced civilization out there is definitely less controversial than some of the exotic, cutting edge physics research like multiverse, extra dimensions and supersymmetry. Considering that we spent billions of dollars building the Large Hadron Collider, and several more billions per year just to maintain it, all in the (vain) hopes of chasing after symmetry particles, the fund that the search for alien intelligence receives per year is paltry by comparison. Compared that to the amount we spend on weapon stockpiling, it’s not hard to see that our priority is hopelessly misplaced.
In fact, the central message of the book is not so much that the Oumuamua is a technology of alien origin, but rather that we need to spend more on the search for extraterritorial intelligence. Not only a lot of required technologies are less exotic and cheaper than we think ( and therefore, doable. Consider the money well-spent!), but also, the discovery of advanced alien civilization is a soul changing experience. Imagine that we suddenly find ourselves no longer the only high intelligent sentient being in the universe, how would the nations on the earth react to it? Would it be a wakeup call for us to stop the pointless military arm racing and put more effort in combating global warming? A lot of the problems that humanity face are tragedy of the commons, so there is no incentive to fix them because in the immediate short-term, no one stands to gain from the solutions. The discovery that we are not the only ones out there can very well prompt us to unite, not really because we need to confront the alien invaders, but because it makes us realize that how rare and precious it is to be able to get life to this point where we can listen to the echoes of the universe and meet another stranger from afar. Therefore we have all the more reason to take care of this earth and engage in space exploration for diversification purpose!
Reading this book rekindled the passion in me, the passion that was first ignited when I was 10 years old one midnight when I was looking at the stars. That was a starry night, and the light pollution wasn’t so bad back then. Those who are into star gazing must come to realize how magnificent the stars are, and by contrast, how petty we humans are. And yet still, we are here! Blessed with the senses to appreciate the universe, and to fathom the laws behind it; how can that not fill our mind with awe and admiration?!
It is therefore no surprise that I resolved to become a scientist that night, “to read the secret of the Old One”, as Einstein said. Even though in the end I didn’t manage to become one, but the child-like wonder in me never died, and I was as curious to natural world as I once was when I was young. Being able to meet with a visitor from an alien civilization would be the apex of all human scientific dreams and pursues, and it would be mine as well.
It’s my hope that we can devote more resources– both in terms of money and human talent– into astrobiology and the search for intelligence life beyond earth, and it’s the purpose of this book as well. On this basis alone I must recommend the book.
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