In late March of 1997, the Heaven's Gate cult in California committed mass suicide due in part to their belief that an alien spaceship was in our solar system riding behind Comet Hale-Bopp. This alleged star vessel supposedly contained intelligent beings superior to humanity both technologically and spiritually. The cult believed these beings were going to "save" selected members of the human race -- such as themselves -- and bring them to a "higher level", wherever and whatever that might be. In the end, though, the spaceship never existed and the cult members only ended up decaying in a large suburban mansion. While the cult's behavior is a rather extreme example, it showcases what many in the general public think about intelligent life beyond Earth: That "they" are superior to us in every way and have fleets of crewed starships constantly coming here to prepare us for salvation from our primitive and ultimately destructive ways. Of course many others think that aliens are actually here for our chunk of the celestial real estate and to turn us into food and/or slaves. When one looks at the realities of the Universe and biological evolution, however, the truth is probably quite different.
Most folks know little about how vast our Cosmos is or even how it is set up. We live on a rather small rock circling a small yellow star that is one of 400 billion in a huge collection of such luminous gas balls called the Milky Way galaxy. Most of these stars average several light years apart, a distance which would take our Pioneer and Voyager space probes tens of thousands of years to reach even the nearest stars.
In other words, we live in a galaxy that is so large and so populated that it is ludicrous to imagine that beings of other star systems would know about us unless they were very nearby on a cosmic scale. And what would we have to offer these beings who can cross interstellar distances, assuming such advanced intelligences exist and would want to make the journey? This is not to say that there are not ETI who explore other star systems, but many scientists find it doubtful that they are here in the numbers that the public reports every day, if there are even any ETI here at all!
Star travel is an expensive way to explore other systems, and you had better be darn sure that there is something (or someone) of interest to find before you send out your mission on a journey that could take years to centuries, depending upon the target and disavowing any faster-than-light drives.
There is an easier way to explore and possibly communicate with beings on other worlds: The use of microwave and optical telescopes as supported by those who conduct the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). While a starship might take a lot to build and then risk much in the long journey from one world to the next, a radio or light beam can carry lots of information cheaply and almost certainly survive the voyage intact. That is what the SETI League and others who support and conduct such projects think is the way we will first meet our extraterrestrial neighbors. Granted this research may not have the glamour and drama of an alien craft hovering over a major city, but it seems more likely at this point. It also does not require us to do more than build some rather inexpensive devices to listen and look for "them". Scanning the whole sky also increases the chances of finding ETI, rather than searching a few star systems at a time, as would be necessary with artificial star probes.
The SETI League's task at hand in part is to help the public understand how the Universe is truly laid out and what would be required of any ETI to send starships rather than communicate through the ether. If the public keeps thinking "they" are here, they will not support and fund efforts such as the SETI League's to conduct the most likely way of ever knowing if we are not alone in the Universe.
We must show them that not only are we not the physical center of the Cosmos as once believed, but we are likely just one of many voices in the galactic chorus. ETI may indeed "save" us, but we will do it by our efforts to find and understand them. In this way, humanity will grow up on a celestial scale.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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