Science Channel - InSCIder

21 Mar

What If Extraterrestrials Are Just Ignoring Us?

Extraterrestrials-ignoring-us-400x328Back in 1924, when Mars made its closest approach to the Earth in two centuries, scientists in the U.S. and Europe eagerly tried to establish contact with the extraterrestrial civilization that many thought might exist there. In Switzerland, astronomers used a heliograph--a giant mirror--to flash Morse code translated into light flashes, in hopes that Martians would notice it and respond. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Chief of Naval Operations, Edward W. Eberly, sent a telegram to Navy radio operators, asking them to monitor the airwaves for "any electrical phenomenon (of) unusual character" that might be a sign of the Red Planet's inhabitants trying to communicate with us by radio. A New York Times article excitedly pondered what the aliens' opinion of their human cousins might be:

...They are of an order of intelligence much superior to ours...It is reasonable to suppose that the Martian knows much more about us than we know about him or his world, and it is interesting to speculate what he thinks of us, of our feverish struggle for a living, our vanities, our suicidal World War, our little gardens and our big deserts. Perhaps he thinks our deserts are pygmies and envies our gardens, for Mars has deserts far more cruel than we can imagine.

But much to everyone's chagrin, the incredibly wise, but possibly envious Martians never bothered to reply to our entreaties, probably because they existed only in humans' imaginations. (NASA's Curiosity Rover has turned up evidence, found in samples of mudstone rock, of past environmental conditions on Mars that once were "favorable for microbial life," but so far, there's no sign that more complex organisms ever existed there.)

But what about other planets outside the solar system? We've had similarly poor results. Astronomer Frank Drake's famous message transmitted from the Arecibo radio telescope in 1974 went unanswered. Worse yet, scientists' extensive efforts to spot radio signals from distant extrasolar civilizations over the past few decades have resulted in precisely one possible 72-second transmission--the so-called Wow! Signal, spotted in data from a radio telescope in Ohio in 1977, which came from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. Subsequent scans of that area with more sensitive equipment, and efforts to beam video messages in response, all came to naught.

Some might take this as a sign that there aren't any extraterrestrial civilizations out there in the cosmos. But there's another, distinct possibility, one that might come as a blow to human pride. What if aliens are indeed out there, and they're deliberately ignoring us?

SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) researchers don't seem to have invented an acronym to describe this concept, so let's call it Manifest Extraterrestrial Heedlessness, or MEH . Cognitive scientist and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky--one of the brightest minds we have--touched upon one possible explanation for MEH in this 1985 essay. It could be that Aliens are such much more advanced what we simply bore them, the way Pong or Space Invaders would seem impossibly dumb to my 13-year-old son.

Communication may be infeasible. Our arguments may apply only to those aspects of intelligence which constrain relatively early stages of mental evolution--stages concerned with survival, communication, and expansion of control over the physical world.

In an interview last year with Discovery News, Florida Gulf Coast University mathematician Thomas Hair offered another possible reason why extraterrestrials might choose to ignore us. It could be that there's no payoff in it, because we don't have anything that they need. "Any ancient civilization is probably not biological," he explained. "...They don't need to come here and steal our water."

A third possibility also exists. It could be, as that New York Times writer dreamed back in 1924, that extraterrestrials have been watching us for a while, and that they don't like what they have seen--our alarming self-destructive tendencies to wage war, ravage our environment, wipe out other species, and make seemingly endless dopey "Harlem Shake" parody videos. Perhaps, in the fashion of Dr.Cornelius dynamiting the ancient human cave at the end of the first Planet of the Apes movie, they figure that the best way to ensure their own survival is to pretend that they never even knew we existed.

Image Credit: Bettmann/CORBIS

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