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Sunday, May 12, 2013
Outer Space ... Science ...

When I was a kid back in the late 50s and 1960s, I recall there being a lot of cheezy Sunday-afternoon science fiction entertainment available at the local movie house and on the black-and-white TV stations. One of the most popular cinema genres back then was for our planet to be invaded by aliens from space, who arrived on big saucer-like ships and had no use for the human race and all its cities, roads, factories and other accoutrement of civilization. These invaders had superior military technology including death-rays, and put it all to use in order to push the homo sapiens species aside and adopt our planet for their own uses.

There were sometimes variations on these themes; some invaders couldn’t just blow us away all at once, so they used various tricks to enfeeble, enslave or infect us. Sometimes they played power games with our leadership, more interested in domination than extinction. But always, they were up to no good; they were never stopping by just to take a few pictures, buy some souvenirs and maybe swap recipes, like any good human tourists would.

Some of the classics from the 50’s and early 60’s included War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Killers From Space, The Day Mars Invaded the Earth, Zontar the Thing From Venus . . . the list is quite long. It was hard not to come across another fight to save the planet from an evil extraterrestrial force on TV most every Saturday or Sunday afternoon. A lot of kids in my school really got into these films. I never liked them. There were enough other things to worry about that might really happen, such as a nuclear war with Russia — every month the local school or civil defense agency held a drill, with clanging bells and mournful sirens blowing, so as to remind us just how close we were to being fried.

By 1970 or so, the nuclear war drills were becoming less frequent and the threat of H-bomb vaporization was being taken less and less seriously. Alien movies kept on coming out, but were no longer blockbuster hits. Soon, the popular alien movies took a twist, whereby the aliens might not really be all bad; e.g., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Enemy Mine, and for a laugh, Barbarella (who can forget Duran Duran?). There was even “The Brother From Another Planet”, to tap into the growing black-film market. The Star Trek TV series and then the Star Wars flicks implied that space was more-or-less like any city on Earth, with some friendly groups and some bad-ass gangs to look out for.

However, as the 80’s and 90’s passed, the big-screen evil alien seemed to make a come-back; Signorney Weaver made her name as an actress in the Alien series. There were also Critters, Men in Black, Starship Troopers, Transformers, X Files, and what might be the modern-day classic, Independence Day. Going into the 21st Century, the alien invasions kept on coming. Two years ago, Los Angeles had its screen tiff with malevolent spacemen (Battle: Los Angeles), and around the same time there were Predators and a Battleship spreading menace from the dark skies.

The nightmare just doesn’t seem to be going away. So . . . the big question is . . . is this really just a nightmare? Is there any chance that this stuff might really happen someday? Maybe without a Will Smith to beat up on those slimy things trying to push us out of our rocky little abode in the heavens?

If the results of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project (which scans the skies for signals of intelligent communication from a distant solar system) are any indication, then it’s not likely to happen any time soon. The SETI effort has been underway for more than 25 years now, but hasn’t much to show for it. Over the past few years, advances in astronomy have allowed cosmologists to identify a growing list of specific stars with planets that might approximate the conditions that we experience here on Earth. But the antennas don’t seem to be picking any signals up from them either. The scientists are still pretty sure that there is intelligent life out there somewhere . . . but it may not be very common. A civilization that has been around long enough to have the technology to skim the light years at warp speed akin to the Starship Enterprise could be especially rare (and far off).

So, even though you should never say never, an invasion by a hostile alien force from a far-off planet is probably not a good bet at this time. It is probably well below the chances of being struck on the head by a falling meteor. (According to National Geo, only one person is known to have had this happen, a woman from Alabama; it happened in 1954).

Some people, such as former SETI director Jill Tarter,
say that if a civilization had the technology to travel across the vast expanses within and between galaxies, it really would not need anything that we could provide. It would be like worrying about Bill Gates or Warren Buffet mugging you and taking your wallet. There are plenty of people who might want your wallet, but these guys don’t.

However, Stephen Hawking and some other scientists think that intelligent space aliens could be bad news. Cosmologist Sean Carroll similarly makes a troubling point — i.e.

I could imagine that the Earth would be useful if habitable planets were hard to come by, and their biochemistry was close enough to ours that they could terraform (exoform?) our planet to make it livable for them . . . I would be willing to contemplate the idea that there might be a species that is very hungry for habitable planets, and yet not sufficiently impressed by other forms of life that they would mind wiping out the natives.

What gives me the creeps is that I am now reading a book by an avowed Christian scientist, Frank Tipler, and in this book (The Physics of Immortality) he outlines why humankind must plan to replicate itself throughout the Universe (along with a detailed plan of how this should be done over the next hundred or so centuries). Tipler envisions our species sending out fleets of starships using technology not much beyond what we have now, which would slowly cross the voids and eventually come across stars with habitable planets. Some of these starships might actually have cities of several thousand real live humans aboard. The first few generations of inhabitants will be long dead by the time they reach their destinations, but their great-grandchildren might be among those who land on a small planet as to start a human colony in a distant star system. Other ships will be automated, with few or no living people on board; they will be completely computerized, carrying our DNA and enough chemicals or whatever needed to start growing new humans from scratch once a habitable world is encountered.

In effect, this Christ-fearing scientist is saying that we need to go out and invade other habitable worlds, in the name of our “redemption”. What I haven’t seen so far in Tipler’s book is a discussion on just what to do if the habitable world that our ship is aiming for already has its own life forms. What would be the ethical guidelines if something gets in the way of our plans? We will have sent a space-city of thousands of people across many miles for many years at great expense, so what if they find their intended parking spot is occupied? If it is just bacteria, is it OK to “cleanse” the new world before we set foot? Or maybe just some grass and shrubs with a few insects. That’s OK, right? No sentient beings are involved.

But what if there are little critters with more advanced brains? Or something like dinosaurs? Or great apes, with developing levels of intelligence and social structure? Do we treat them like the European invaders treated the Native American populations — don’t entirely wipe them out, but subjugate and confine then to small “reservations” while we humans do as we wish with the rest of their world? Or would we be nice and say “OK, we won’t bother you, even though we are low on fuel and are going to die if we don’t find a resource-filled planet to invade in the near future?”

So maybe a hostile alien invasion could happen to us – – just as we currently ponder doing it to someone else’s planet.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:58 pm      

  1. Jim, Interesting how science fiction has changed over the years. I tend to think that this change is more a reflection of our culture, how in our specific case, the people in the U.S. think of themselves and their own lives, more than what “aliens” might actually be.

    I have always wondered how it is that even science considers that creatures from outer space would be just like we are; or more specifically just like white people are in the U.S. Even the SETI project is looking for people just like humans are on earth and hoping to “communicate” with them. I think it was back in the 60s when Star Trek had an episode about beings on another planet that were composed of “silicon”, I think it was. Yet here again, shades of what was to come, silicon valley and all. We just can’t seem to get away from making all creatures that might exist elsewhere just like we are.

    Some, and here the word “some” is operative, scientists have finally come to the realization that right here on earth may actually be other creatures, radically different from “us”, yet nonetheless perhaps in some ways have characteristics somewhat similar to that which we look for in other intelligence. We seem to have difficulty in considering that not all intelligence has to express itself in technological advancements. So I find myself wondering about what scientists are finding out about elephants, whales, dolphins, and other creatures that have been on this earth for much longer periods than humans. Might those searching for other forms of “life” be overlooking intelligent, but different from human life, that is right under our noses?

    Then I find myself wondering if all the various ways of entering altered states of consciousness might lead humans themselves into other worlds. And here I am definitely *not* talking about drugs, alcohol, etc. There are all the various ways meditation that can lead one to an altered state of consciousness; to say nothing of lucid dreaming, various kinds of Yoga, such things as Chinese and Eastern practices like Chi Gong (there are so many different spellings of that name that I simply choose that one here), and other such practices.

    Carlos Casteneda, back in the 1960s and 70s was one who maintained that the ancient Indians in the area which is now Mexico were experts in the ways of entering altered states of consciousness and that their knowledge was lost when conquered by the Spaniards.

    Sometimes I think that all the horror, gore, and various other kinds of shock that accompany science fiction is just an excuse for more violence, yet another way to add to the addiction to violence that seems to be taking place in our country. MCS
    P.S. Oddly enough, there is even a religion that is founded by a writer of science fiction, Scientology. Now what all does that have to say about that religion and maybe even religion in general?

    Comment by Mary — May 13, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

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