How Would You React If We Discovered Alien Life?

Experts weigh in on what the detection of other life forms might mean to the human race

artist's concept
This artist's concept depicts select planetary discoveries made to date by NASA's Kepler space telescope. NASA/W. Stenzel

For more than a century, from George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon to Stephen Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters to this summer’s blockbuster sequel to Independence Day, mass media, and the general public, have pondered what will happen if we ever came into contact with extraterrestrial life forms. Carl Sagan’s book Contact, and Jodie Foster’s movie of the same name, explores one possible scenario in which a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) scientist (played by Foster) discovers a signal repeating a sequence of prime numbers originating from star system Vega, the 5th brightest star visible from Earth. Even if Contact’s version of an alien encounter is more likely than that presented in Spielberg’s E.T., the possibilities are worth pondering.

And yet experts believe that the odds of receiving a radio transmission composed of prime numbers or encountering intelligent extraterrestrial life in the near future are "astronomical." even with Hillary Clinton's promise that if elected President, she would open up the “X-files” (Area 51).

But the odds may be increasing due to continuing advances in technology and money. At a press conference held in April in New York City, Russian billionaire and Breakthrough Prize co-founder Yuri Milner, along with famed physicist Stephen Hawking, announced Breakthrough Starshot, a 20-year voyage to the Alpha Centauri star system. Should the existence of planets in the Alpha Centauri system be confirmed, Starshot could provide us with the best measurements of an exoplanet atmosphere we could ever hope to get this century. Milner will spend $100 million dollars to fund the project. Facebook's founder and CEO, Mark Zuckenberg, is on the project’s board of directors.

The goal of NASA's Kepler Mission was to find terrestrial planets in the habitable zone of stars both near and far where liquid water and possibly life might exist. To date, Kepler has confirmed the existence of 2,337 exoplanets, including 1,284 new planets announced as of this writing. In a press release issued by NASA, chief scientist Ellen Stofan, said, "This announcement more than doubles the number of confirmed planets from Kepler. This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth."

Transit graph

But what would happen if we discovered life beyond Earth?

Christof Koch, president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, believes most people will be excited to learn that there is intelligent life out there. "For some 'contact" would be a wish come true and fill us with awe. But for others it would raise concerns. One can't assume that alien cultures are by definition benevolent," Koch says. "If we look at the history of our world, lesser civilizations were often destroyed by more advanced ones. Would the same happen to us if we encountered an advanced alien civilization?" Hawking has warned against sending messages out into space for this very reason.

Koch has devoted his life to defining what consciousness is whether it be the internet, robots, animals, etc. Since it is doubtful that our first contact will be with humans from another planet it is important for us to understand what consciousness is so we can better understand what we do discover as we explore space. "The first discovery would probably be bacteria which might excite some scientists but not the general public. Another scenario might be a radio signal whose origin would be questioned. Was it a deliberate signal sent to us or is it random noise that can be explained scientifically? I am not holding my breath for a signal that includes prime numbers," Koch says.

Mary A. Voytek is the senior scientist and head of NASA's Astrobiology Program who started Nexus for Exoplanet System Science to search for life on exoplanets. She notes that NASA scientists are currently looking at the most extreme conditions on Earth to better understand what conditions can support life throughout the universe.  "If we can determine what makes a habitable planet on Earth it will help guide us to look for conditions in the universe” she says.

Voytek notes that NASA acknowledges that the discovery of life has significance beyond science: "In order to fully understand the societal implications, we must talk to the experts-scholars in sociology and the humanities as well as theologians."

"When I give lectures about my work ,most people are excited about the possibility of the discovery of extraterrestrial life," Voytek says. "This is nothing new… The ancient Greek atomists in the fourth century B.C. wrote about it. There is a quote by Democritus that I like to cite. ‘To consider the Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field sown with millet only one grain will grow.’"

Douglas Vakoch, president of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) has devoted much of his career with SETI to exploring what would happen on first contact and how we could even initiate it through interstellar messages. He says the majority of people believe that intelligent life is widespread in the cosmos.

Since Kepler launched in 2009, 21 planets less than twice the size of Earth have been discovered in the habitable zones of their stars. The orange spheres represent the nine newly validated planets announcement on May 10, 2016. The blue disks represent the 12 previous known planets. These planets are plotted relative to the temperature of their star and with respect to the amount of energy received from their star in their orbit in Earth units. The sizes of the exoplanets indicate the sizes relative to one another. The images of Earth, Venus and Mars are placed on this diagram for reference. The light and dark green shaded regions indicate the conservative and optimistic habitable zone. NASA Ames / N. Batalha and W. Stenzel
The Arc of Discovery artistic concept features NASA's astrophysics missions searching for signs of life beyond Earth. NASA
The Kepler mission completed observations in May 2013, and will closeout its remaining analyses in September 2017. The Kepler Spacecraft continues to make astronomical observations as the re-purposed K2 mission. NASA Ames / W. Stenzel
Kepler was pointed at the patch of sky near the Lyra and Cygnus constellations. The yellow portion represents Kepler’s field-of-view. NASA Ames / N. Batalha and W. Stenzel
A new statistical validation technique enables researchers to quantify the probability that any given candidate signal is in fact caused by a planet, without requiring any follow-up observations. This technique uses two different kinds of simulations-- both simulations of the detailed shapes of transit signals caused by both planets and objects, such as a star, masquerading as planets (left diagram), and also simulations of how common imposters are expected to be in the Milky Way galaxy (right diagram). Combining these two different kinds of information gives scientists a reliability score between zero and one for each candidate. Candidates with reliability greater than 99 percent are call “validated planets.” NASA Ames / W. Stenzel; Princeton University/T. Morton
The pie chart illustrates the results of a statistical analysis performed on 4,302 potential planets from the Kepler mission’s July 2015 planet candidate catalog. For 1,284 of the candidates (orange), the probability of being a planet is greater than 99 percent – the minimum required to earn the status of “planet.” An additional 1,327 candidates (dark grey) are more likely than not to be actual planets, but they do not meet the 99 percent threshold and will require additional study. The remaining 707 candidates (light grey) are more likely to be some other astrophysical phenomena. This analysis also revalidated 984 candidates (blue) that have previously been verified by other techniques. NASA Ames / W. Stenzel; Princeton University/T. Morton
Kepler candidate planets (orange) are smaller and orbit fainter stars than transiting planets detected by ground-based observatories (blue). NASA Ames / W. Stenzel; Princeton University / T. Morton
The histogram shows the number of planets by size for all known exoplanets. The blue bars on the histogram represent all previously verified exoplanets by size. The orange bars on the histogram represent Kepler's 1,284 newly validated planets announcement on May 10, 2016. NASA Ames / W. Stenzel
Kepler's candidates require verification to determine if they are actual planets and not another object, such as a small star, mimicking a planet. NASA Ames / W. Stenzel
The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for more than the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous non-Kepler planet discoveries, the light blue bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the orange bar displays the 1,284 new validated planets. NASA Ames / W. Stenzel; Princeton University / T. Morton
Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system more than two decades ago, researchers have resorted to a laborious, one-by-one process of verifying suspected planets. These follow-up observations are often time and resource intensive. NASA

He agrees that a discovery of something like a radio signal would result in arguments, as well as a fading lack of interest due to time. "It could take decades or even hundreds of years for us to get a response from a signal we send out. For people who are used to instant communication, this will be frustrating,” Vakoch says.

Others think we’ll have a more dramatic experience. Susan Schneider, a professor of philosophy and cognitive science at the University of Connecticut and a fellow of the Center for Theological Inquiry, believes that if we do find intelligent life, it will be most likely be in the form of super-intelligent artificial intelligence. "For some people this would be hard to accept. Discovering a civilization that is no longer biological would be scary for us," But Schneider is optimistic that most people will find the discovery of benevolent intelligent life exciting. "People are excited by the unknown. And the discovery of a new civilization might have many potential benefits. Perhaps an advanced civilization will share their knowledge with us," Schneider says.

artistic concept of Kepler
The artistic concept of Kepler-186f is the result of scientists and artists collaborating to imagine the appearance of these distant worlds. NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

The Catholic Church has come a long way since the days of Galileo. Pope Francis made headlines when he said he would baptize Martians. Many were surprised at the Pope's remarks, but the Vatican has been positive about aliens for many years. Father Jose Gabriel Funes, a priest and an astronomer, views aliens as brothers and said the Church has no problem with the idea of intelligent life in the cosmos. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno is the first clergyman to win the Carl Sagan Medal and the current president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. In a 2014 article in the Christian Post, Consolmagno said "the general public will not be too surprised when life on other planets is eventually discovered, and will react in much the same way it did when news broke in the '90s that there are other planets orbiting far off stars."

A similar view is held by Orthodox Jews. In an e-mail to me, Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, director of Chabad of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, wrote, "Jews believe in other life forms. The universe is populated with infinite amount of them. They are not physical, however, rather they are angels who are spiritual conscious beings that are beyond anything we could imagine. The Talmud says one angel's mind is the equivalent of a third of the world's population's intelligence combined. For us it's no surprise that we are not alone in the larger universe."

Vakoch said people must keep in mind that we are only at the beginning of exploration. "We have just started looking. It has only been a few hundred years that we’ve been a technologically advanced society. That's a very small amount of time in our universe." 

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