Don’t Write Off ET Quite Yet


Caleb Scharf in Nautilus (photo by Kim Steele/Getty):

Here’s a riddle. We’ve never seen any, and we don’t know if they exist, but we think about them, debate them, and shout at each other about them. What are they?

Aliens, of course.

A while ago I wrote a piece for Nautilus on what might happen to us after learning about the existence of extraterrestrial life—whether microbes on Mars or technological civilizations around other stars—and asked if there might be inherent, unexpected, dangers in acquiring this information. Could infectious alien memes run riot, disrupting societies? Might intelligent life decide to shield itself from such knowledge? It was a whimsical, quizzical thought experiment, exploring the real science of our hunt for life in the cosmos, and the possibility—even if remote—that there could be unexpected perils for intelligently curious life anywhere.

Simple enough. But as comments to the piece began to pile up—many in my inbox—I found myself on the receiving end of a barrage of opinion. There was outrage at the suggestion that there might ever be circumstances to drive us (or any intelligent species) to close our astronomical and scientific eyes to avoid picking up dangerous alien data. At the other extreme, and I do mean extreme, there was outrage that we were already being kept in the dark about aliens by our governments. And across the board was a world-weary sense of our seemingly boundless capacity to screw things up, big universe or not.


The possibility of life somewhere else in the cosmos isn’t just scientifically fascinating, it’s a unique mental playground for our hopes, fears, and fantasies. It can also be, as I’ve learned, an inkblot test; a reflection of our inner thoughts, emotions, and—to be honest—hang-ups.

More here.