Late last month, the discovery of seven earth-sized planets that could potentially have life rocked the scientific community. The planets are relatively close on the cosmic scale: only 40 light-years from Earth. The dwarf star these planets orbit is called Trappist-1, and is much smaller than our sun. Out of the seven planets, scientists say that the fourth, fifth and sixth from the star are at the right distance at which there could be flowing water on the surface. In the coming months and years, scientists will be able to monitor the atmospheres of these planets for molecules associated with life, and some are hoping that they might discover radio signals from an extraterrestrial civilization.
Finding life of any form would be possibly the greatest scientific achievement in all of human history. It would redefine our place in the universe, answer some of our biggest questions and probably raise many more. Plus it would be mind-blowingly cool. There are, however, many uncertainties regarding the discovery of extraterrestrial life.
The discovery of alien life would be reality-altering for many, but these changes could be for the better. Knowledge that there is extraterrestrial life could help teach some people that the differences among the human race are pretty meaningless. We would be less willing to view different countries and nationalities as competitors or even enemies if we were one intelligent race among many. Hopefully such a discovery would change our perspective in such a way that humanity could unite together and see each other as one human race.
The most concerning issue is how we would interact with alien life that we discover, whether intelligent or not. Directly interacting with life from a star 40 light-years away would be impossible for thousands of years at a minimum, but it is still a question we should reflect on. If we discovered a planet with primordial life, would it be right to help facilitate evolution and artificially speed up the development of advanced lifeforms? Or is it wrong for humanity to meddle with nature in this way? Serious moral questions could be raised, especially in cases where it seems that only our “divine” intervention could stave off some sort of disaster.
We must also determine what course of action to take if we encounter life that is advanced in a similar fashion to humanity. There are many among us who would see an advanced alien civilization as a potential threat and some might even advocate a preemptive attack. Such a course of action, if taken before trying to establish contact with a civilization, would be barbaric. We must not let science fiction movies such as “Independence Day” dictate how we approach extraterrestrials.
We should certainly be cautious when approaching advanced aliens. However, like we are with spiders, we must understand that they are likely to be just as scared of us as we are of them. A successful interaction will depend on both sides utilizing all of their resources to achieve effective communication. The scary part, of course, is that neither side can initially know what the other is planning. It only takes one side that does not trust the other to lead to disaster.
This is a very arbitrary issue and many of the decisions humanity makes will be based on the parameters of the situation. The key thing we should strive for is communication and eventual cooperation with extraterrestrial life. It will be extraordinarily difficult for us to reach the point where we can do this, as we still have trouble accepting people of the same species who look slightly different than we do or have slightly different belief systems. Hopefully, we are still millennia from coming face-to-face with aliens, because I do not believe we as a race are mature enough to successfully interact with them. It would be a shame if we became the alien monsters for another civilization.
Jacob Kowalski is a weekly columnist to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.