And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.
- Monty Python, Galaxy Song
Russian scientists expect humanity to encounter alien civilisations within the next two decades, a top Russian astronomer said on Monday.
“The genesis of life is as inevitable as the formation of atoms … Life exists on other planets and we will find it within 20 years,” said Andrei Finkelstein, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Applied Astronomy Institute, according to the Interfax news agency.
Riight… Isn’t interfax the scion of TASS?
Speaking at an international forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life, Finkelstein said 10% of the known planets circling suns in the galaxy resemble Earth.
When astronomers talk of “Earth-like planets” they don’t mean quite what you might think they mean. That description covers a multitude of sins. It doesn’t necessarily mean somewhere Captain Kirk can go and snog green-skinned princesses. This is probably as close to “Earth-like” that has been found and it’s very different.
If water can be found there, then so can life, he said, adding that aliens would most likely resemble humans with two arms, two legs and a head.
“They may have different colour skin, but even we have that,” he said.
Or pointed ears or interesting cranial ridges… The short version is the good Professor is just wildly speculating on the basis of way too much Star Trek. There are two big unknowns about alien life. The first is its existence and the second is what it’s like. The second is the really interesting one. I could be very wrong here but I suspect that the discovery of alien life* may well fundamentally challenge our assumptions of what life is. It really could be anything and we don’t know. Certainly the good Prof’s assumption of bilateral symmetry can be little more than guesswork.
Underlying all of this is though is a deeper assumption which is that first contact (the Trek again!) is a big deal. It is utterly predicated upon the idea that an alien “civilization” (a totally anthropocentric term anyway) is commensurable with ours. Carl Sagan said of his gold record to the stars something like, “To send Bach would be boasting” but what if they just didn’t “get it”? In Next Generation you have Worf (a Klingon) who is fond of Shakespeare. In the context of the show the civilizations encountered are probably culturally no different from say the Roman and Chinese Empires two thousand years ago. Physiology is similar (despite Dr McCoy’s grumblings about green blood). They invariably have two sexes and inter-species breeding is possible. Even the (constructed) Klingon language uses concepts such as verbs and nouns ( which might not be in the intellectual armoury of aliens) so whether we get on or fight essentially we have commensurable paradigms. On Earth different cultures may disagree vehemently on many matters but the terms of debate are generally the same and we just take different sides of the fence (the point here is whatever side of the fence you’re on the fence itself intellectually exists). Although I don’t know! Some cultural differences challenge the idea that we are culturally operating within the same paradigm. Things like “honour” killings almost aren’t just deeply wrong but verging on the inexplicable within our terms of reference. So if the mores and tastes (there are tribes in Africa where long, flat, pendulous breasts – to the extent she can fling them over her shoulder when pounding maize are prized – try getting that on Page 3 of The Sun) of our fellow humans can sometimes seem inexplicable yet we are the same species, shaped by the same planet, how much different might the aliens be? On other planets with other species and other twists and turns evolution could have taken** how much more incommensurable could such paradigms be?
But what if pysiologically and therefore metaculturally (all this shaped by the interaction with a very different environment***) we are totally incommensurable. This you might term the “Heaven’s Gate” scenario. After we have got over sending each other binary expansions of pi (or tau) to umpteen places then what? If they have no ears then Bach is not even boasting, if their social structure is so different as not to be understandable in our terms then what sense is there to them in Hamlet? What if they don’t even have the concept of individuality and their (singular, obviously) physiology bears this out. And of course obviously this is a two way street.
What indeed if we had nothing to say to each other because we just couldn’t anymore than I could explain a strongly typed computer language to Timmy, my cat? Our intuitive knowledge of physics comes from chucking spears at things. Their’s might come from something totally different. Oh, I’m not saying it wouldn’t converge on similar results in the higher echelons of science but all of that is purely of extremely abtuse academic interest. What if they have no aesthetics? Every culture on this planet has some. They can be wildly different but at least the concept applies. But what if they don’t? Just think how often you talk about everything from Kylie’s buttocks to Rouen Cathedral in aesthetic terms? Moreover, in the context, note the number of comments here about what is fundamentally an aesthetic issue in mathematics.
I can’t help but feel that first contact might be utterly underwhelming after the initial hype. Lord David of Beckham presents the ambassador from Tau Ceti with an FA-Cup ball and utters the universal greeting, “On me ‘ead son!” and it’s like “whatever?”. The two general scenarios we tend to have are of benign beings who turn-up with the cure for cancer and usher in a Golden Age (StarTrek: First Encounters) or all out war. Both seem to me a bit silly. Assuming they are physiologically very different why would they know anything about cancer any more than we’d know about their dread malady Grlkjk’khy. Even naming that is assuming vocalisation on their part. As to war… Well, if it’s about the usual, “Our planet is dying!” resource quest then I consider that highly unlikely because there is just so much stuff out there.
We could even be so different we could pass like ships in the night. We could be their masters, their allies, their rivals, their slaves (and vice versa for all of the above) or we could just both be, “Yeah, like whatever”. Neither of us might even recognize each other for what we purport to be (a “civilization”). At which point I must mention another SF cliché. The benign aliens who are put off saving us because we’re not worthy. Think of the movie The Fifth Element where Leeloo reviews the stock footage of war and chaos on Earth and has a crisis as to whether we are worth saving on moral grounds. It’s unbelievably commonplace in SF (and the stock footage of the Third Reich, Pol Pot’s mounds of skulls, naked, napalmed, Vietnamese girls running down roads… must be cheap in every sense) but my point is that that cliché of the higher technological and moral power judging us is a very human cliché. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious it is elevating them to the status of gods which are one of the earliest creations of human culture. The assumption is that essentially their morality is commensurable with ours, just better (more superego, less ego and they passed on the id a while back****). It is one of the standard visions of the other-worldly – the angel (in the case of Leeloo- in the form of a Czech supermodel which I suppose is as good as anything else). There is of course the all conquering and demonic baddies as well. Odd that SF, perhaps more than any other genre, despite warp-drives and ray-guns so often tells much the same tales Ugg told Ogg round the camp fire as the glaciers retreated. The demon and the angel. The worst of us and the best of us cast out as grand opera amidst the stars that Ugg and Ogg stare at whilst digesting the fruits of the hunt.
To put it mathematically the aliens might not be better or worse than us (however that is measured) but rather just orthogonal .
Finkelstein’s institute runs a programme launched in the 1960s at the height of the cold war space race to watch for and beam out radio signals to outer space.
Or could they have just been using their big dishes to watch the Enterprise boldly split infinitives? Funny thing about SETI projects – nobody expects you to actually find anything. The capacity that gives (whilst the funding holds) to – to use a technical term – “bugger about” is staggering.
The article continues with a Richard Hoover of NASA writing in the Journal of Cosmology about alien fossils in meteorites.
Astrophysicists have a saying about cosmologists, “Frequently in error but never in doubt.”
*How very anthropocentric of me! They might discover us!
**Assuming evolution as we know it applies there.
***That is non-linear. We have an atmosphere that supports life as we know it partly because of the life as it was then in the old primordial soup.
****Star Trek Vulcans immediately spring to mind here.