Who are we? How did life emerge? And are we alone? These questions are bandied about so often that they almost cause one’s eyes to glaze over. But in his latest book “Astrobiology, Discovery and Societal Impact,” astronomer and historian of science Steven Dick asks a few that are rarely addressed in the mainstream science media.
— Does extraterrestrial intelligence (E.T.I.) have to be confined to planets?
A 90 million mile-wide sentient, interstellar cloud of hydrogen that astronomer Fred Hoyle dreamed up in his 1957 science fiction novel “The Black Cloud,” may be anathema to serious astrobiologists. But it’s useful in opening ourselves up to new ways of thinking about extraterrestrial intelligence, Dick, a former NASA chief historian and the 2014 Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress chair in astrobiology, told me.
In the novel, Hoyle notes that such a hypothetical diffuse intelligence might be able to build basic chemical compounds at a very high rate while traveling among the stars directly reaping energy from the stars it passes.
In fact, in Hoyle’s novel, the cloud describes planets as extreme outposts for life because gravity limits any given being’s size, as well as the scope of their neurological activity.
— Will E.T.I. also share our same concept of time?
“For our species, a general sense of time seems to be ingrained in our biology,” said Dick. “Earthlings are really quite obsessed with it, but that doesn’t mean aliens would be.”
Biologists know that various Earth species seem to experience time’s passing in radically different ways. Thus, perhaps E.T. would also experience time differently than Homo sapiens. Dick says that while it would be interesting to know if aliens also regulate their lives by their planets’ rotation rates and revolutions around their parent stars, they may not be attuned to time in the same way we are.
— Will E.T. pursue the sciences with the same vigor humans do?
When beginning this study, I would have argued that science is so objective that it would have to be the same everywhere, even among alien societies, says Dick. But from the point of view of orientation, conceptualization, and content and mathematics, he says philosophers such as Nicholas Rescher have convinced him it could be otherwise.
What about the orientation of alien sciences? The assumption among many researchers is that extraterrestrials would use binary code as a basis of communications.
“This could well be a failure of imagination,” said Dick. “But if science and math are not universal, even the basis for communication in binary code might be compromised.”
— Will an E.T. civilization’s technology evolve and converge as ours has here on Earth?
In his book “The Evolution of Technology,” historian George Basalla shows how technological decisions are often arbitrary, says Dick.
“They may be based on biological or economic necessity, but often factors like ideology, militarism, [trends] and other things dominate,” said Dick. “We tend to think we are always on an onward and upward path, but there is no guarantee.”
Is technology goal-driven or the product of creative happenstance?
“Technology at most government science agencies is certainly goal-driven,” said Dick. But even the government has agencies that look at advanced technologies not inspired by immediate goals. Instead, he says the real question is whether technology converges . That is, in a manner not unlike the way telecommunications technology, here on Earth, has allowed for the integration of wholly disparate media platforms.
*Astronomer Martin Harwit, notes Dick, argues that had World War II not given rise to infrared technology which then made the transfer to astronomy, observational priorities might have gone in a different direction.
The same can be argued about radio astronomy; World War II pushed radio technology to the fore, enabling astronomers to capitalize on its developments in postwar observations.
However, technology has also proven to be culture-driven on Earth, so it may also be culture dependent among extraterrestrials.
— Will E.T. necessarily be friendly, or altruistic?
“Even if a civilization is a million years old, we cannot make the naive mistake of assuming evolution eventually ends with altruism, wisdom, and peace,” said Dick. “It’s entirely possible they would be malevolent or have some malevolent aspects to their society, just as we do.”
That said, Dick doesn’t think it’s a good idea for us to cower in fear of what may be out there. He says E.T.s are likely to already know we’re here anyway.
“We should feel at home in the universe, and deal with the problems and the promise as they come,” said Dick.
But unless we’re invaded by interstellar marauders, it’s not likely that anyone living today will live to learn the answers to these conundrums.
And most people don’t wage internal debates with themselves over the purported impact of finding life beyond Earth. Even so, Dick is adamant that this subject is not merely esoteric.
“Along with climate change, the World Economic Forum considers it one of five ‘X Factor’ emerging concerns of potential future importance with unknown consequences,” he said.
* Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed George Basalla as noting that infrared technology influenced the long-term direction of observational astronomy.