Would contact with aliens be dangerous?

Humans have yet to encounter any extraterrestrial beings, and, although speculations abound in Hollywood and in science fiction, we really have no idea what contact with aliens would be like. In one scenario, a population of aggressive and malevolent extraterrestrials invade Earth in order to enslave us or eat us as part of their conquest of the galaxy. Still another hypothetical extraterrestrial civilization might welcome us with open arms into peaceful communication and help us solve many of our global problems. With such a wide range of possibilities for an as yet unknown encounter, can we say anything at all regarding the risk of contact with extraterrestrials?

We explore this question in a recently published article titled “Would contact with extraterrestrials benefit or harm humanity? A scenario analysis“. This article was written by Seth Baum, Shawn-Domagal Goldman, and myself and appears in the current issue of Acta Astronautica. Rather than focusing on one particular outcome of alien contact, we take a broad approach of categorizing a wide range of contact scenarios as either beneficial, neutral, or harmful to humanity. In doing so, we draw on scientific as well as ethical analysis to demonstrate that there are a wide range of responses to contact with extraterrestrials, which may depend at least in part on human actions in the near and distant future.

Our television and radio signals have been leaking away from our planet for decades now, detectable by any nearby extraterrestrials willing to listen. The light from our planet, too, shows not only signs of biological life but also signs of rapid warming and climate change. Although we cannot be certain that any of our behaviors will necessarily invoke the wrath–or solicit the aid–of advanced extraterrestrials, perhaps it would behoove us to give thought and care to our future trajectory, just in case someone is watching.

Scientific Blogging Writing Contest: I need your votes!

I recently entered a scientific writing contest and am one of eight finalists! The final round of judging is based on online voting, so it would help me out a lot if you vote for my article.

Voting is open until April 20, and each person is allowed one vote per day, so you can vote often. First place gets a cash award and an internship with Scientific Blogging, so I’m crossing my fingers!

Sky & Telescope article: Where have all the aliens gone?

If intelligent life is common in the galaxy, then the fact that we have not yet observed any extraterrestrials raises the question: where are they? The upcoming March issue of Sky & Telescope magazine features an article written by myself and Seth Baum where we discuss how the conspicuous absence of extraterrestrials may relate to the problem of sustainable development on Earth.

Funny story, we were initially slated for the January issue (we even made the table of contents), but a printing error lost the last 10 pages which sadly included our article. Nevertheless, the Sky & Telescope staff are excellent people to work with and made a fast turnaround. Be sure to check out the March issue!

Where have all the aliens gone?

The Milky Way is old enough that a slightly more advanced civilization than us could conceivably have colonized the galaxy several times over by now. Known as the Fermi Paradox, the absence of extraterrestrial observations is often taken to imply either the rarity of life or the impossibility of interstellar travel.

In a paper published in the February issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society titled “The Sustainability Solution to the Fermi Paradox“, we challenge this conclusion with the possibility that exponential growth is an unsustainable development. That is, even if an extraterrestrial civilization has colonized the galaxy, it would have done so through rapid unsustainable growth and collapsed upon reaching a physical resource limit. Not enough time has yet passed for a sustainable growth civilization to colonize the galaxy, so there is still promise in the search for extraterrestrial life. Furthermore, though the absence of extraterrestrial civilization does not imply the unsustainability of exponential growth, it does increase the probability that humanity should transition to sustainable development in order to prevent its collapse. A more detailed writeup is available on the Lifeboat Foundation blog.

In other news, NASA’s Kepler Mission successfully launched yesterday evening! Over the next three years, Kepler will observe 100,000 stars in a patch of the Milky Way in search of Earth sized planets. This is the first mission with the capability of detecting Earth at a distance, so with any luck we’ll soon have a better idea of just how common small rocky planets are in the galaxy.