Thursday, March 8, 2012

Do You Believe There Are Aliens?

There is reason to believe, granted the sheer enormity of the universe, that there could be life on other unknown worlds. It is indeed the rational position on the matter, given that the more we learn of other solar systems, we’ve also come to discover that there are indeed earth-like planets out there—i.e. planets which closely mimic the earth’s privileged position in its solar system and possess similar set of factors which helped sustain life on this planet. Nevertheless, it is also useful to stress (and this emphatically), that there has been no definitive confirmed extraterrestrial life out there. This is not to say that there necessarily isn’t or that there couldn’t be—it is just to say that to the best of our knowledge, Life has not been found anywhere else YET. This is what keeps SETI occupied as they search for possible signals from possible civilizations out there in the mind-staggering expanse of space.

This realization should make proponents of the whole ancient alien idea a little bit more modest and humble with their claims. It is admirable that these pro-ET discussants have thus far maintained a dignified civility with their elucidations, but I would caution that we do not allow ourselves be carried off entirely by what can at best be described as hopeful conjecture. As anyone neutral on this matter would have observed, this discussion makes more sense when we are granted the liberty of making a lot of generous assumptions and speculations. Now, unless we’ve become blinkered sci-fi enthusiasts, we needn’t blur the lines between hopeful speculations and verifiable facts.

Now, what exactly would alien life look like? Have we made space in our deliberations for the fact that we could indeed stumble upon technologically less advanced, carbon-based extraterrestrial life forms? What about technologically less advanced non-carbon-based extraterrestrial life forms? Seriously, why do we assume that aliens must necessarily possess superior technology and/ or are capable of harvesting us for their benefit? The answer would be because it seems to be the familiar motif generated by imaginative sci-fi writers. I think it can be deeply entertaining to ponder the vast mysteries that will yet be unfolded to us with the passage of time, but I’d be caution against some overweening presumptuousness on the basis of inconclusive and highly speculative sci-fi literature. While the ideas tossed about in popular sci-fi literature can eventually become reality, it wouldn’t help things to treat it as such now. The best one can hope for in these circumstances is that people who have consumed a staggering amount of sci-fi literature would find themselves sufficiently motivated to want to conduct real science with a view to bringing refreshing new perspectives and insights into what we now cavalierly accept. Indeed, such transformative paradigm-shifting moves may make some of these exciting sci-fi ideas an eventual reality.

I say these because there is no shortage of conspiracy theories and fantastical but improbable notions that are making the rounds. 

Now let’s get on with the physics…

You would pretty much have to say that the entirety of modern physics and cosmology are on shaky grounds if we are to grant the leaps needed to make some of these ideas come through. At the barest minimum, if possible alien spacecraft is to traverse the mind-boggling distances required for deep space exploration, they need to fly at or very close to the speed of light—in fact it would be better if they could fly at faster-than-light speeds. But nothing in physics suggests that anything the size of a spacecraft –no matter how powerful (no matter the vast amount of energy you would burn for such a vessel to fly) –can ever hope to approach the speed of light. Not only do you have to ponder the vast length of time it would take these possible aliens to traverse galaxies shuttling around in spacecraft which albeit more powerful than anything this planet has ever known is nonetheless demonstrably slow at astronomical scales, you would also have to wonder how long these possibly non-carbon-based life forms can possibly live. Can this alien non-mechanical life form live/survive for say 500 years on one single leg of a deep space odyssey? 1000 years? 5000?

Indeed, to make some of these ideas work we would have to seriously tinker with contemporary physics: we would have to revise or discard general and special relativity theories; the concept of time would have to get another meaning or look; the speed of light will pretty much cease to matter in calculations if we can experimentally prove the existence of superluminals (objects which display faster than light motion); we might even have to revise the already experimentally verified idea that the universe is expanding i.e. the fabric of space-time is still expanding as stars, planets and indeed galaxies continue to fly away from each other. We might also have to invoke and provide evidence for the existence of wormholes etc.

But let us now limit ourselves to interstellar space travel. If indeed there are aliens zipping around in superluminal propulsion spacecraft in this galaxy alone, then it becomes at once conspicuous why in all these years they have not been able to make contact. Why has SETI not been able to at least spot a signal from these proposed advanced civilizations? Granted we are not talking about flying from one end of the Milky Way to the other (that will easily take 100000 years flying at the speed of light), why haven’t they been able to make any contact at all? The closest known stars and brown dwarfs are within or less than 16 light years from our star. This means that if the stars closest to us have planets that contain advanced alien life forms that could fly around in superluminal jets, we should have had one of those civilizations approach this distinctive planet on this solar system in less than 17 years! SETI was created in 1984 which makes it 28 years. If they have not seen anything approaching extraterrestrial intelligence all this time, we would be led to conclude that a) the possible alien life forms might be found even further away in this galaxy (if at all) or b) no matter how highly technologically advanced we suspect these proposed beings are, they are subject to the same physics as we are and thus could not possibly have erected superluminal jets.

None of these observations is designed to put a dampener on the possible ecstatic expectations of alien visitations that some might possibly harbor. It might be that if there are other life forms out there, we may never know. Also, it may be that by the time they eventually discover this planet we might have long ceased to be here having already destroyed ourselves and wrecked the planet with nuclear weapons. Another enthralling possibility given the 5 billion-year proposed life expectancy of our sun is that whatever race of humans are around in another 100,000 years will be as advanced over us presently as we currently are from microbes—this is so that any possible visitation by aliens would perhaps not fill the humans existing at that time with anxiety and/or trepidation.

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