TAEM- The topic of an alien civilization arriving on earth is the stuff that Sci-Fi movies have been made of for a long time. Films like The Day the Earth Stood Still to Mars Attacks shows the full spectrum of what would be considered should that event ever occur. The truth of the matter has even been debated in the upper reaches of the greatest minds on this planet.
Scientist Stephen Hawking predicted that if Aliens ever visited the earth it would prove disastrous to the human civilization. He further stated the end results would similar to what had happened to the native people when Columbus landed in our western hemisphere. To challenge that theory Professor Harold Geller, of George Mason University in Virginia, has retrieved the gauntlet that was thrown down by Hawking.
Professor Geller, Stephen Hawking had further recommended that we should not even try to contact other civilizations in the cosmos. What would be the mistake with this, and would this gesture be too late ?
HG- Allow me to answer the second part of your question first. Yes, it is simply too late for humans to avoid being detected by any advanced civilization in space to say about 100 light years distant in all directions. Nikola Tesla suggested in 1896 that we might communicate with intelligent extraterrestrial life. Guglielmo Marconi sent the first known wireless communication across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901. Marconi won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in 1909. While these radio transmissions were comparatively weak in strength, higher powered transmissions followed in short order. By 1931, commercial radio broadcasts were taking place from the Empire State Building in New York City. Finally, in 1960, the first known message was sent specifically into space by a team led by Frank Drake. So yes, it is way too late to think we can keep our species a secret from any technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization that may be out there. Now allow me to address your first question. Within the chapter I contributed to “Extraterrestrial Altruism,” I address each of the premises of Hawking’s hypothesis which led him to conclude we better not try to communicate with extraterrestrials. While many of his underlying premises I support as valid, there are a few that I believe were mistaken. This led me to a conclusion different from Hawking’s conclusion. To summarize, I find the motivation behind colonization of space can not be one of need for natural resources, because the need for natural resources must be met before any civilization could begin to travel interstellar distances, and colonize the galaxy. I also address the issues of biochemistry to a level that I believe Hawking overlooked. There is a uniqueness to all life on this planet that is not likely to be duplicated by life elsewhere in the same manner that would be required for our biochemistry to be of any benefit to an extraterrestrial life form. Thus, I really do not believe that an outcome as depicted in the Twilight Zone episode titled “To Serve Man” is feasible. I do not believe that the Kanamits would actually find humans to be a tasty meal, in fact, our biochemicals would probably be quite useless to the Kanamits.
HG- Sure. “Extraterrestrial Altruism” is an edited volume just released by Springer. The editor of the volume is Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute. He has the auspicious title of Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute. He is also Professor of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. This, right away should give you an idea that the numerous contributors to the book represent a wide variety of disciplines, from the physical sciences to the social sciences. My chapter represents the underpinnings of rational thought behind the entire premise of the volume. That is, if there are other extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations out there in our galaxy, then they are likely to be altruist in nature and not malevolent in nature. When Hawking announced in 2010 that we should not try to communicate with another civilization in space, he gave the example of Columbus and Native Americans. However, that is not a valid example, because while Columbus and the rest of Europe did not know of the existence of the American continents and their human inhabitants, the natives were as human as Columbus himself. Any extraterrestrial civilization will not be the same species as us humans.
TAEM- Stephen Hawking has a more pessimistic point of view of alien civilizations, what is your stance and why do you think that an encounter with them may not be as drastic as he stated ?
HG- As I was saying in my previous response, Hawking fails to give evidence of the encounter between two different species. In fact, in the chapter I contributed to “Extraterrestrial Altruism” I briefly give an example of an encounter of two different species. That is the encounter between humans and the dodo bird. While it is true that this encounter did not go well for the dodo bird, as it led to extinction of the dodo bird, I also point out that humans had a lot in common with the dodo bird. In fact, all life on this Earth has a common basis that cannot be ignored, and would not exist between humans and an extraterrestrial species. That is our biochemistry. I begin to develop in my contributed chapter, a formulation to calculate the probability that the biochemistry of an extraterrestrial would be compatible with our own. I believe the probability is akin to winning the Powerball lottery three consecutive times. Again, it is not just biochemistry which makes us worthless to the diets of the Kanamits, the name of the visitors from the Twilight Zone episode. There is the physical nature of interstellar travel which also makes it rather improbable to think that an extraterrestrial species will cross interstellar distances just for a tasty treat. The psychologists and sociologists who contributed to the volume address much better than I could ever, the issue of the extraterrestrials who would be on a journey that would last for years. Simply put, if they were so malevolent, they would never survive the journey. You know, there really is a lot of space to traverse. In my astronomy courses I like to use a scale model of the solar system where 1 inch is equivalent to a million miles. In such a model, the Earth would be almost 3 yards from the Sun, actually 93 inches. Jupiter on this scale would be about 15 yards away and Saturn almost 30 yards away. Pluto, although now a dwarf planet by definition, would be over 100 yards away, the size of a football field. Yet, on this scale, the nearest star to our Sun, Proxima Centauri of the triple star system called Alpha Centauri, would be at the distance of Boston from Washington, DC. There really isn’t a word for the enormity of space. And we can’t go faster than the cosmic speed limit of light, about 186,000 miles per second, which itself is an incredible velocity to consider.
TAEM- If an alien civilization is capable of traveling across the cosmos they would most likely be more advanced than we are. What is your take on a scenario that they would be hostile, and if not, what would be your reason that they would not ?
HG- I have to disagree with you. I believe that it is a fallacy to believe that any species capable of traveling across interstellar distances would necessarily be more advanced than we are today. We have had the technology to travel vast distances for some 50 years now. Sure, not in any elegant way as in science fiction features with faster than light vehicles, but in the traditional sense of rocketry, first fostered by Robert Goddard. After all, while our technology is supposedly advanced, we are the same as the humans who really did cross the Atlantic with Columbus and meet similar humans in this hemisphere. There is no difference between the humans of today, and those of yesteryear, except for the technology. As I have alluded to in my previous answers to your questions, my co-contributors to “Extraterrestrial Altruism” and I, believe that any creatures capable of making an interstellar journey would of necessity be altruistic in their nature. They could not have any reason to look to conquer us, as a different species would not be useful for consumption. In fact, a species that has managed to conquer interstellar space would necessarily be altruistic or they could never succeed in getting across interstellar distances, which physically requires a great deal of time.
TAEM- Aside from the famous ‘WOW’ message received by radio astronomers some years ago, no further evidence suggests that other civilizations even exist. What is your theory on this and what possibilities of intelligent life has the scientific community been able to probe for this theory to be such a concern ?
HG- The “WOW” signal you refer to was received in 1977 by Jerry Ehman at a radio telescope operated by Ohio State University. Since that signal was never reproduced at any other time, it is not considered any evidence in support of extraterrestrials. In fact, there are explanations for that transient signal, including what is called, interstellar scintillation, similar to the twinkling of star light by our atmosphere. You know, in 2012, on the 35th anniversary of the so-called “WOW” signal, humans sent out a radio wave from our largest radio transmitter in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Thus, we already have ignored the Hawkins hypothesis regarding extraterrestrials. Anyhow, you are correct in your statement that there is yet no evidence of any other intelligent life in our galaxy. The Drake Equation is used by astrobiologists to estimate the number of possible intelligent civilizations that may exist in our galaxy. By the way, Frank Drake, for whom the equation is named, wrote the foreword to “Extraterrestrial Altruism.” Scientists do not have values for all of the parameters in the Drake Equation, but we are able to perform sensitivity analyses on the parameters and determine that the one parameter that has the greatest effect on the ultimate solution, is the longevity of a civilization. Some astrobiologists use 10,000 years as a value for that parameter. With this value, you come to the conclusion that there may be as many as 10,000 civilizations in our galaxy today. Now I consider this value to be very optimistic as there has yet to be a civilization on Earth that has lasted this many years. Think about it, neither the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan, Aztec, Babylonian, nor Incan civilizations have lasted this long. Anyway, if there really are 10,000 civilizations out there in our galaxy today, the distance between them is so vast that light would take at least 1000 years to get to us from any other civilization. As I said earlier, we only have been sending out radio waves for about 100 years. You just can’t forget that our galaxy itself is like an island universe, with a diameter over 100,000 light years across.
TAEM- We understand that George Mason University is pro-active in its search for planets outside of our own solar system. Please inform our readers what has been uncovered by the college’s efforts so far.
HG- As of now, George Mason University has yet to search for extrasolar planets using our telescope. We have had to face many technical challenges in setting up our instruments within our campus observatory. In fact we have had to endure challenges from hurricanes, lawsuits and even an earthquake. We hope to begin some attempts to re-discover known extrasolar planets with our telescope sometime this fall or coming spring.
TAEM- Aside from intelligent life forms, what is the university working on to uncover other life forms on other planets and moons in our own solar system ?
HG- George Mason University has a number of graduate students interested in working on discovering planets around other stars, and they hope that they will be able to use our own telescope in their research. However, most of our students utilize data and information from other large telescopes both in orbit and on remote sites on Earth, in their research. George Mason University is also a part of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) which is an 8-meter diameter telescope to be built in Chile atop Cerro Pachon beginning in 2014, if all goes well. In fact, there is a lot of data already available for study by future astronomers, so much so, that the public has been involved in the analysis of data. This is known as citizen science projects and they are a growing field. In fact, the study of such large amounts of data, called data mining is one of the projects led by GMU Professor Kirk Borne. Finally, the director of the School of Physics, Astronomy and Computational Sciences, Dr. Michael Summers is an investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. If all goes well, he and his students will be studying Pluto up close in 2016. Now, Pluto is so distant from the Sun, that no one expects to find any evidence of any life, but what we do learn about Pluto will help us understand not just Pluto, but the formation of the solar system itself, including Earth. And Earth is still the only planet known for sure to harbor life.
TAEM- Professor Geller, you and your college are at the cutting edge in the study of the universe, and with Washington, DC so close by, the Federal Government, and NASA, should be paying close attention to your achievements. I want to thank you for spending time with our publication as I am sure that students in the many universities that follow it will be following your work as well. Please keep us updated with all of your future endeavors.