Communion Of Dreams

Are you afraid?

In a few days I’ll turn 49. Statistically, I’ve got a couple more decades to go. Realistically, I could drop dead tomorrow from an undiagnosed heart condition, develop cancer or some other terminal disease, or just get hit by a truck. You tend to take this sort of philosophical attitude when your own parents both died before they hit 40.

But that does not define my life – I do not constantly worry or live in fear. I don’t panic when I hear that they’ve found a couple of car bombs in the heart of London, any more than I lose my head over reports of a new strain of bird flu discovered in Indonesia, or that there are weather conditions that favor the development of tornadoes in my area.

I take reasonable precautions, try and keep track of my health, wear my seat belt, indulge in particularly dangerous sports rarely, and try and keep aware of my surroundings. I do carry a concealed weapon (legally – all licensed and everything), but no more expect that I will have to use it than I expect I’ll have to use any of the several fire extinguishers around the house and in the car. I don’t go poking around bad neighborhoods or bars late at night, don’t seek to draw attention to myself when I don’t know what the tactical situation is.

And I guess that’s where I come down on the question of whether or not we should be broadcasting “contact” signals out into the cosmos, in the hope of connecting with some other intelligent life.

Just about every major science fiction author has dealt with the question of alien contact at some point or another. Sometimes it is handled with an assumption of happy-happy E.T. helping us out, being part of the big brotherhood of intelligent species. Sometimes it is having us be lunch. Sometimes we’re the bad guys, enslaving other races or having them for lunch.

I tend to agree with Carl Sagan’s position that we’re unlikely to be at anything resembling technological parity with another race (and this is the premise of Communion of Dreams). And I tend to agree with those who advocate a certain caution in making our presence known in the universe. Via MeFi, there’s a very good article on this very topic in The Independent by Dr. David Whitehouse, formerly the BBC Science Editor and a respected astronomer, that I heartily recommend. An excerpt:

The fact is, and this should have been obvious to all, that we do not know what any extraterrestrials might be like – and hoping that they might be friendly, evolved enough to be wise and beyond violence, is an assumption upon which we could be betting our entire existence. When I was a young scientist 20 years ago at Jodrell Bank, the observatory in Cheshire, I asked Sir Bernard Lovell, founder of Jodrell Bank and pioneering radio astronomer, about it. He had thought about it often, he said, and replied: “It’s an assumption that they will be friendly – a dangerous assumption.”

And Lovell’s opinion is still echoed today by the leading scientists in the field. Physicist Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has been for decades one of the deepest thinkers on such issues. He insists that we should not assume anything about aliens. “It is unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity, just as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses,” he says. ” We must be prepared for either possibility.”

The Nobel Prize-winning American biologist George Wald takes the same view: he could think of no nightmare so terrifying as establishing communication with a superior technology in outer space. The late Carl Sagan, the American astronomer who died a decade ago, also worried about so-called “First Contact”. He recommended that we, the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos, should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes. He said there is no chance that two galactic civilisations will interact at the same level. In any confrontation, one will always dominate the other.

Do I want to see us in some community of space-faring nations, such as the reality envisioned by J. Michael Straczynski in Babylon 5, or Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek? Yeah, that’d be cool. Do I expect it to happen that way? Um, not at this point. The only thing we know is based on our experience here on Earth, where whenever a technologically superior culture encountered a less sophisticated culture, the latter always came out the loser to a greater or lesser degree. Until we have some solid information to the contrary, I don’t think that it would be wise at all to draw attention to ourselves. After all, we have no idea what the neighborhood is like.

Jim Downey

Cross posted to UTI.

7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thanks for the kind comments but one correction. I am no longer the BBC’s science editor. Regards, David.

Comment by David Whitehouse

Dr. Whitehouse,

Thank you for the correction – will amend the post.

I thought your piece was excellent, btw.


Jim Downey

Comment by Communion of Dreams

Here are some random thoughts on your question.

If aliens are able to travel to Earth from the stars it is likely that they are technologically advanced.

Somewhat advanced
If they explained their technology to us, we could understand and duplicate most of it.

Very advanced
Most of their tech is based on principals we have no concept of.

We are like dogs or ants to them.
Communication limited or non existent.
Destroyed if in the way, ignored otherwise
They could treat animals or pets well

The laws of nature as we understand them don’t apply to these people.
Hard to even guess how this would work out.

If they are limited to the speed of light:

Mining doesn’t seem practical. Send out a ship and get stuff back in 50 years.
They could probably obtain what they want closer to home.
Unless Earth is close to their planet
Maybe they need stuff as they are traveling through space
We have something they want (Water for example)
We have something unique
Human Beings
Zoo specimens
Biological specimens
Ambassador / Visitor (Columbus taking a few Indians back)
Some element or mineral they find valuable
When we mine stuff we tend to ignore the consequences to animals living there.
Humans are not usually harmed (some exceptions in 3rd world companies)
Of course there is no reason to believe they would behave the same.

They may want a planet to colonize.

They might be afraid of us or of what we might become.

They might have high ethical standards and treat us well.

Comment by Frank

Lots of room for speculation – which is fine for an author, but I would think that a little more caution is advised in practice. I’m not saying that it is a bad idea to take our place among the stars…but that we should gather some knowledge of the situation first. And for now that means listening, rather than sending out signals *meant* to be heard.

Jim Downey

Comment by Communion of Dreams

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