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Is Anybody Out There?

     There is no doubt about it, we have been invaded by aliens! Actual alien beings have not traveled to our planet, of course, but they have definitely become a part of our culture. Hollywood has been an especially attractive place for aliens of all kinds. Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Predator, Close Encounters, E.T., Men in Black, and (my personal favorite) Contact have given very diverse answers to questions about whether life exists outside our planet and, if so, what that life might be like. Almost everyone has an opinion on this matter. Pick up a tabloid and there is a good chance you will find a creative story about the latest "alien" and human encounters. A psychic hotline will, for a fee, connect you with life in other solar systems. When an unusual light is seen in the night sky, the popular explanation is a spaceship visiting from outer space. Is there a definite answer to the question of life existing on other planets? 

What Do Scientists Think?

      Some scientists think that the universe must be teeming with intelligent life. Other scientists think life is a very rare occurrence. Still, most scientists agree that intelligent life probably exists somewhere else in the universe. Science requires strong evidence to support claims about our world, so the question of extraterrestrial life is by no means settled. Without hard evidence, though, why are so many scientists convinced we may not be alone in the universe?

      The answer has to do with the vastness of space. There are millions of galaxies in the universe. Our own galaxy, Milky Way, contains hundreds of billions of stars. We have strong evidence that planets exist around other stars, and some scientists believe solar systems are quite common. But even if only one star in a million in the universe had orbiting planets, and only one in a million of those planets were home to some form of intelligent life, then even with this conservative estimate, there would be a million other civilizations out there!

 How Can We Find Out For Sure?

      The most promising way of discovering intelligent life elsewhere is by detecting radio signals from technologically advanced civilizations. Radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) and are not easily absorbed or distorted by cosmic dust in space. Those signals might be intentional messages or "local" communications that we detect when the signals inadvertently reach us (Our own TV transmissions of fifty years ago are now over halfway to reaching a thousand stars like the sun!). Will we detect any signals sent from outside our solar system?

The Search Is On

      Although searches for radio signals have been conducted by various astronomers since 1959, most of these searches were small in scale and short in duration. In 1992, NASA began a comprehensive, extremely powerful scanning project called HRMS. Within a year, though, the project lost its federal funding. The SETI Institute (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) provided private funding for the project which is now known as Project Phoenix. So far, no artificial radio signals have been detected, but only a small area has been searched.

What If We Find Life Out There?

      The purpose of Project Phoenix and similar search projects is simply to detect radio messages coming from outside the solar system. An intentional message would most likely be sent in a mathematical code (math is a universal language) and would probably be fairly easy to interpret. The only way a distant civilization would know their message had been received, though, would be if we answered a signal by sending a response. If we did find other life out there, should we try to communicate?

      Much speculation has focused on whether other civilizations (if they existed) would be friendly. There are some good arguments for unfriendly aliens. A common biological argument is that in nature it pays to be aggressive. Also, perhaps even civilized aliens much more intelligent than we are would think no more about destroying us than we would about swatting flies in our kitchens. A more compelling argument, though, suggests we need not fear other civilizations. If civilizations exist which are more technologically advanced than ours, they most surely figured out long ago a way to live peacefully and responsibly with technological knowledge that could be used for massive destruction. Otherwise, they would have already destroyed themselves.

      Perhaps, though, instead of worrying about the potential friendliness of another civilization, we ought to take a good look at ourselves. What would other intelligent life think about human beings? What impression would our civilization make?  I would be a little embarrassed to invite an extraterrestrial to our world just yet. As one fictional  being in Contact noted, we are ". . . an interesting species, an interesting mix--capable of beautiful dreams, and horrible nightmares." Still, if a technologically advanced civilization has learned to survive for millions of years, then surely we could benefit from its experience. It does seem like we could use a little help right now.

       Intelligent life might be found outside our solar system within the next century. Or, maybe we are truly unique to the universe and we will never detect another civilization. In any case, through the search process we learn more about the world around us. For now though, the question, "Is anybody out there?" remains unanswered.

      The next time you are outside on a clear night, pick a star and instead of making a wish, ask yourself some questions. Might that star have any planets orbiting it? If so, do any of those planets have life? And if so, is there a being looking your direction, pondering the same thing? There is no harm in a friendly wave.

2006  Dirk Oden

   
   
 

 

 

This site was last updated 09/05/06