An April 2 recent NPR article (“Is Humanity Unusual in the Cosmos?”) ponders not just the possibility of alien life out there in the cosmos but also of alien civilizations. Sure, this possibility has been raised many a time by countless science-fiction movies and television shows, but what if there were actually another civilization out there?
The author of the NPR article, Adam Frank, makes the distinction that when looking for potential alien civilizations, it is more important to look for “techno-signatures,” instead of biological signs of life, because a civilization like ours would be likely to leave these unintentional markers of their existence. Examples of techno-signatures that we emit into space include TV signals and radio waves; alien civilizations may leave other kinds of these markers, such as light reflected from massive solar panels.
The question that always comes up in the search for alien life and civilizations is, “Why haven’t we found any by now?” This question is known as Fermi’s Paradox, which describes the discrepancy between the overwhelming probability of there being other life in the universe and how little evidence that suggests there actually is. There is a potential answer for this question raised by Frank in his article; civilizations simply, on average, may not last long enough to find other similar civilizations. This doomsday view certainly does seem likely when one considers how close our species currently is to nuclear annihilation; however, there has to be some civilization out there that did not fall into such a trap of self-destruction. The universe is simply too vast to assume that we are the only intelligent civilization left. There may be a simple answer to why we have not discovered any other intelligent species; we simply don’t have technology yet that can detect any signals that they may be emitting. After all, our technology definitely has a long way to evolve still. So as our species advances, we may discover the answer was there all along; we just couldn’t see it.
The search for alien life always spurs reflection on humanity’s place in the universe. Let’s consider one possibility; there is (or was) alien life out there that we haven’t found. If this is true, this reduces our perceived uniqueness but also gives us plenty to learn. Discovering a civilization equal to ours would definitely mature us as a species; we would have to learn not only how to get along with ourselves but with others even more different than us. Perhaps it is for the best that we do not have this added challenge quite yet. However, the scenario I find much more interesting would be if we find evidence of a civilization that destroyed itself. This ominous discovery would be just the warning sign that humanity would need in times like these, and perhaps it would be motivation to avoid the same fate so that we can keep looking for more alien life.
The far more lonely possibility, of course, is that we are alone in the universe, and the reason that we have not been able to contact or discover any civilizations is that there are none. If this is true, then humanity has a responsibility to take care of itself, and overcome the temptation of self-destruction and the challenges that will arise as our resources deplete. After all, intelligent civilization has a grand purpose; it is a way for the universe to be aware and look upon itself. If humanity is truly alone, then we owe it to the universe that gave birth to us to survive peacefully and wait to see if any other intelligent life eventually joins us. Either way, if we are alone or simply one of many, we cannot allow self-destruction to stop our search for companionship in the face of a vast cosmos.
Ben Crnic is a contributor for the The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.