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Opinion Columnists 22 Aug 2017 Should we keep looki ...

Should we keep looking for aliens in outer space?

Published Aug 22, 2017, 12:27 am IST
Updated Aug 22, 2017, 12:27 am IST
Stephen Hawkings has warned that life on Earth is at risk of being wiped out by a disaster.
Representational image
 Representational image

Are we alone in the universe? This is a question that humanity has asked itself for millennia, and one that we have only recently begun to try and answer. Given the enormity of space and our limitations, the search for alien life is unlikely to bear fruit anytime soon but scientists are scouring the great beyond with the help of radio telescopes for a hint of an extraterrestrial species. At the same time, we are sending information out to the heavens. In 1974, the most powerful message ever beamed into space, the Arecibo message, was transmitted from Puerto Rico, aimed at a star cluster 2,100 light years away and carried with it basic information about humanity and earth.  More physical means have been used, such as the Mars Rover looking for signs of life on Mars and Voyager 1, a space probe loaded with information about Earth along with a Pulsar map aimed at helping any extraterrestrials that may chance upon it to find their way to Earth. The creator of the pulsar map, Frank Drake, also attempted to determine how many alien civilisations might exist in the Milky Way by means of what is known as the Drake equation. While largely theoretical and limited by gaps in our scientific understanding, the Drake equation nonetheless theorises that several thousand such civilisations exist in our galaxy. That then brings us to the question asked by Enrico Fermi: given that there are billions of stars and galaxies, why have we found no extraterrestrial life?

Known as the Fermi paradox, this question has been pondered over by scientists, some of whom theorise that it is possible that humanity is the only intelligent life in the galaxy, and possibly beyond. While this may reek of hubris, other theories are more disturbing: that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself, or that advanced civilisations may have damaged their environments to the point of extinction. Instead of looking for life, proponents of this theory believe we should be looking for the ruins of alien civilisations. Stephen Hawkings has warned that life on Earth is at risk of being wiped out by a disaster.  Would we even know it if we did encounter an alien life form? The biodiversity on Earth provides a clue: from the tiny and nearly indestructible Tardigrades to bacteria that live on heat alone, the variety of life tells us how different alien life could be.  Earthly technology also provides a clue as to how actual contact with an advanced species may go: it is likely that contact may well be with alien constructs and not the aliens themselves. Again, Hawkings has a warning, saying that contact with a highly advanced alien species may end in the extinction of humanity. 

 

Regardless, there are protocols in place for what to do if contact is ever made, and one set of these has been formulated by the SETI projects Post-Detection Taskgroup. It calls for sharing the news with world governments and drafting a response. Ultimately, the most effective resource we will be able to call upon in such a situation will be the science fiction writers.  But while the implications of contact have been discussed at length, the theological implications will also be significant. Incredibly, Pakistani science fiction actually addressed this issue in the 1989 film Shanee. Here, an alien arrives in Pakistan and falls in love with Babra Sharif. They get married and have a child, but when she discovers his alien origins she becomes hysterical not because this is possibly the most significant event in human history, but because she married a non-Muslim. Luckily, Shanee reveals that there are interstellar Muslims as well and all ends well. When the inevitable does eventually happen, let’s hope we fare as well.

By arrangement with Dawn

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