Why is an agency of the United States government seriously worrying about armed extraterrestrial intervention in human affairs?
NASA’s extraterrestrial worries
The paper that causes the excitement is “Would contact with extraterrestrials benefit or harm humanity? A scenario analysis,” Acta Astronautica (2011) 68:2114-2129 (doi: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2010.10.012) (download here). The authors include a geographer and a weatherman at Penn State, and a NASA planetary scientist. The Guardian (UK) and International Business Times both summarize it.
This paper reads like a television writers’ guide pretending to be a scientific treatise. The mainstream media picked up on the most sensational warning, or what they think is the warning. Did the authors really say that if humanity does not stop wrecking the earth, an extraterrestrial armed force would stop us if they had to kill us? Well, yes—and no. No, the purpose would not be “to protect our planet from us.” (L. Ron Hubbard used that as the plot of his ten-novel story arc, Mission Earth, his last work before he died.) But what the paper said was worse: an extraterrestrial nation-state might decide that humanity would pose a threat to them. They would read the “changing spectral signature” of the earth (from “greenhouse gases”) as just one example to make us a military target. The authors went so far as to say that we ought to be careful what we send out into space. The worry: an extraterrestrial “bug marshal” might design a nasty germ to wipe us out, using our own messages as a guide. (See pages 20-21 and following.)
Does extraterrestrial civilization exist?
Before the sensational parts, the authors do note the obvious: nobody has reliably seen extraterrestrial scouts, ambassadors, or armies. Enrico Fermi first said that extraterrestrial civilization should be all over the galaxy. So where is it? The US Air Force looked for hard evidence for years, and found none.
The paper lists three solutions to this “Fermi paradox”:
- Life is rare, and intelligent life is rarer still. So humanity might be the only intelligent kind alive today. (See, for example, Forbidden Planet, with Walter Pidgeon, Anne Frances, and Leslie Nielsen; Metro-Goldwyn and Mayer, 1956.) Or maybe aliens do exist, but we can’t reach them, and they can’t reach us.
- Expansion on a galactic scale has a speed limit. An expanding civilization stretches its supply lines, or maybe gets too big to grow further. Or it chokes on its own wastes.
- Extraterrestrial civilizations do exist, and are all over the galaxy, but we can’t see them. Either they are of a kind that we could never see, or they are hiding from us. (See, for example, Lewis, CS, Out of the Silent Planet.)
The paper calls this last prospect by a dark name: the Zoo Hypothesis. In other words, we are animals to these “people.” So what are they waiting for? For us to “grow up.” See Roddenberry G, Star Trek, and especially the “Prime Directive,” which reads in effect:
No officer or enlistee in Starfleet Command shall do anything that materially affects the biological, social or other development of or on an alien planet.
That’s fine—but, ask the authors, what if they really are deciding whether to weed us out? (See Adams D, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) Or maybe to annihilate us and take what they want? (See Wells HG, The War of the Worlds; Johnston K, V; Emmerich R, Independence Day; etc.)
A finicky place
The very authorship, let alone publication, of this paper is a national disgrace. First, Enrico Fermi’s math is simply wrong. Before doing their “scenario analysis,” the paper authors might have checked his numbers. Fermi assumed, without warrant, that any star brighter than a K-type could spawn life, or at least had a planet where the seeds of life might grow. (See Crick FHC and Orgel LE, “Directed Panspermia,” Icarus, 19, 341 (1973). Crick and Orgel discussed one scenario that the latest authors did not consider. Did a “progenitor” race seed billions of planets everywhere, using guided missiles? That actually made an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
In 2001, three scientists at the University of Arizona published their theory of a Galactic Habitable Zone. Life could never spawn, much less flourish, at any star outside this zone. Inside it, the radiation would “fry” all living things. Outside it, even the vaunted “protoplanetary disks” could not form. (The material for these disks would be too sparse even by conventional assumptions.) And by no accident, the rough boundaries of this zone are the closest approach to, and farthest distance from, the center of the galaxy that the sun makes in its own orbit.
After that, only a Type G2 star can harbor life. Anything cooler would be too dim; anything hotter (especially the O, B, A, and F stars) would be too bright.
Then, too, the earth itself has its own conditions for life, conditions that no other planet, in or out of our solar system, has.
In summary: life is finicky. The earth is a finicky planet. And our sun is a finicky star in a finicky place in our galaxy. Thus the Fermi paradox is not valid because the math behind it is not valid.
Aristotle could have told those people: contradictions do not exist. If they find it inconceivable that humanity is alone in the galaxy, or even the universe, let them check their premises. Their basic premise is disastrously wrong.
Worse than that: these are only the conditions to sustain life. The conditions to spawn life do not exist anywhere. Repeated experiments to achieve abiogenesis (life from non-life) have failed. No one has yet figured out what the “first replicator” looked like.
Extraterrestrial civilization, especially when “advanced,” is a God-substitute. When men forget God, they always look for a substitute. The uber-modernists of the Sixties substituted “modern science” or “future science.” Postmodernists doubt that now, and look for other things. Like extraterrestrial civilizations.
One other thing that the mainstream media did not mention: the paper looked at beneficial interventions. Among them: advice to humanity for solutions to its ecological and/or political problems. This is the L. Ron Hubbard Mission Earth scenario. (It is also the premise, or close to the premise, of the Church of Scientology.)
Hubbard was late to the party. See Siegel J and Shuster J, “Action Comics 1,” Detective Comics, 1932 for the obvious God-substitute: Superman. In fact, Superman seems more like Moses than God, considering how Siegel and Shuster described his arrival on earth.
An agency of the United States government is actually worrying about an event that can never happen. And they are doing it with taxpayers’ money (one author’s salary, plus the research grant). This would be funny were it not so sad. NASA began with a mission to show a potential enemy that the United States could, at need, build a low-earth-orbital strategic bomber. It continued with an exploration program to rival that of Christopher Columbus. Now we see it speculating vainly about a visit from afar. It cannot even make up its mind whether these “Visitors” would intend good or evil.
Ayn Rand was right: the government should play no role in scientific investigation. At best, we get results that really make us the laughingstock of the world. Anyone who laughs at creation science should now eat his words.
Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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