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The Xenophile Historian

K. U. P.

(Kimball's Unauthorized Perversion)

My Views Regarding Alien Life

These days the prospect of extraterrestrial life is a popular conversation topic. Especially intelligent extraterrestrial life. However, because a convincing case for extraterrestrial intelligence has not yet been presented, all sorts of speculation abounds. This article will set the record straight on three things:

  1. The "evidence" presented (so far) for intelligent aliens visiting earth should not be taken seriously.
  2. Life on other planets, if it exists, is probably not anything like earth life.
  3. Our meeting with intelligent aliens is not likely to be pleasant.

Those Stupid Aliens!

We normally think of intelligent beings on other planets (assuming that they exist, of course), as being smarter than us, with a more advanced technology. But is that really the case? If all the currently cited evidence concerning UFOs and aliens is true, then extraterrestrials are stupid. We shouldn't look to them to solve our problems, because they probably have not solved their own problems; it looks like they don't even know what they're doing here.

First, why do they try to communicate with us by making circles in fields of wheat, or by drawing lines in the Peruvian desert? It would make a lot more sense to put up a billboard with an announcement like, "Don't use nuclear power. It's more dangerous than you think."

Earth Day 2013 crop circle.
The most intelligent crop circle I have seen. This was done to celebrate Earth Day in 2013.

Second, why are most UFO sightings in redneck communities? We never hear about aliens going to New York City, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, or any other important place. However, Oviedo, Florida, a small town ten miles from my former home, reports UFOs quite often. Nowadays I wouldn't be too surprised if I drove through the country somewhere and saw a flying saucer outside a mobile home, mounted on cinder blocks!

UFO crash scene

"If the UFO hotline limits you to one call per day, you might be a redneck."--Jeff Foxworthy

Third, what's with all the anal probing reported by those who claim to have been abducted by aliens? I doubt if it is just for research; there is only so much information you can gather from the alien equivalent of a rectal thermometer. And the probes inspire too many bad jokes (see also what I wrote about sex with aliens below).

Asking an alien.

But now that I think of it, we must also look dumb, judging from what we've done in space so far. Do you remember the experiment in the 1990s where the space shuttle released a ball on a long wire to see if it would generate electricity, and the wire broke when it built up a charge? Imagine what extraterrestrial observers would have said about that!

"Oh look, the Earthlings lost a giant yo-yo."
"That's not as good as what they did on their moon. They left behind some expensive equipment, including a car, and took home a bunch of rocks!"

And see my essay, "It Must Be The Mystery Factor," for my thoughts on the possibility that aliens visited us in the past.

It's Life, But Not As We Know It

Okay, if the aliens haven't come to us, we'll have to go to them. Where do we look?

For now, let's assume that alien life can be found on a planet in another star system. I've seen science fiction novels that speculated about creatures in deep space (e.g., Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud), but they're so exotic I don't even want to begin exploring them in this essay. Looking for extraterrestrial life on planets will keep us busy enough.

Warning of monsters in space.
A few hundred years ago, we thought the same thing about earth's oceans. Human nature hasn't changed much!

When I was young, astronomers believed other planets existed beyond our solar system, but the only evidence they had was a wobble in the movement of some nearby red dwarf stars, like Barnard's Star and 61 Cygni. We could not see those planets, but we knew they must be large, larger than Jupiter, because the wobble meant they were tugging on the stars they orbited. Nowadays our instruments are sensitive enough that we detect new extrasolar planets every year, at astonishing distances (more than a thousand light-years away).

So what kind of planets are these? Alas, none of the ones we have found are earthlike, with an oxygen atmosphere, moderate gravity, moderate temperatures, etc. Most are what we call "hot Jupiters," planets larger than Jupiter that are close enough to orbit their stars in just days, not years. Granted, with our current technology we probably won't detect an earth-sized planet in another star system, but still we've seen enough to know that real life won't be like those science fiction TV shows that visited a new earthlike planet each week. In fact, so many factors go into making earth an ideal environment for human life, that the chances of finding another earth are infinitesimal. This page, The Incredible Design of the Earth and Our Solar System, lists more than sixty-eight factors that go into making our world a home for life, such as temperature, axial tilt, a nearly circular orbit, the Van Allen radiation belts, a large moon, chemical composition of the atmosphere and rocks, the type of galaxy, and so on. Change any one of those factors, and life on that planet is in a heap of trouble. Rich Deem, the author of that page, concludes that the odds against all those factors being set by chance are 1:1099, almost a googol (not Google!) to 1. Therefore, if life needs an earthlike planet for a home, it is safe to say that we are alone in the universe.

But what if life can exist under other conditions? There is no shortage of sci-fi literature about that possibility. In some cases, there is speculation about life based on other chemical compounds, which don't use the carbon atom, like the silicon horta on Star Trek. So far everyone agrees that non-carbon life won't resemble any plant or animal we are familiar with. Indeed, if such life exists, will we even recognize it as life? In the Star Trek episode, for instance, the trouble starts when human miners destroy a collection of silicon nodules, not realizing they are the horta's eggs.

In 2010 I read a news article which proposed that most life-bearing planets in the universe will be larger and hotter than the earth, with heavier gravity and denser atmospheres. If that is the case, earth will look cold and barren by comparison. Aliens from big, hot worlds might look at the earth the way we look at the Tibetan plateau, the South American Altiplano, or Antarctica.

A modern re-creation of Eden
Travel guide (speaking to tourists from Sirius): "As you know, most of earth's land surface is a cold desert, but in a few spots you will find an oasis like this."

So if hot and heavy planets are the norm, I guess we can rule out the situation we see in science fiction, where most intelligent life forms are humanoid in appearance; when they meet us, they talk like Shakespearean actors, and neither side needs to wear a space suit. To resist the gravity and weather of their homeworld, aliens from hot and heavy planets will probably be short, think-skinned, and very strong. So anything you have seen or heard about aliens like us, you can forget about. Good luck at trying to communicate with them; instead of talking, they might wave tentacles, flash lights, or rapidly change their skin color.

Finally, sex with aliens is out! I know, Captain Kirk always seemed to get some, but if aliens are nothing like us, that's unrealistic, too. Remember the old pulp science fiction magazines with covers showing tentacled aliens preying on earth's fairest ladies (see below)? I think even when those magazines were on the newsstands, most people thought the idea was silly. First, the stories in the magazines usually had nothing to do with the covers. Second, you have to wonder why something resembling an octopus or lobster would be attracted to the same blondes and brunettes who appeal to the typical fifteen-year-old human male. Third, because the aliens obviously have different protein molecules, DNA and sex organs from us, it isn't clear what they intend to do with the women. Fourth, artists like Earle K. Bergey usually had the women wearing an impractical fashion--the infamous "brass brassiere" (Were the women supposed to heat up their bras before putting them on?). So forget about any "close encounter of the fourth kind."

We Come In Peace -- NOT!!

If and when we do meet alien life forms, it is not likely to be on equal terms. Either they will be technologically and socially more advanced than us, or we will be more advanced than them. You'd better hope that humanity is the more advanced race, because first contact is likely to mean disaster for the more primitive one. If first contact leads to war, the more advanced side will have such an overpowering advantage that the war will be short.

Do aliens come in peace or for dinner?

In science fiction we have many stories of both friendly and unfriendly contacts between man and alien. Most are of one type or the other, with a few variations in-between. Examples of those variations include Nor Crystal Tears by Alan Dean Foster, a friendly contact story which is told from the aliens' point of view, and Red Alert by James White, which starts out sounding like another alien invasion story, but at the end it turns out that the aliens came to rescue humanity.

The classic unfriendly contact story is H. G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds." On the remote chance that you have not read the book, heard the 1938 radio broadcast, or seen any of the movies by that name, the story tells how Martians come to earth, build three-legged fighting machines armed with lasers and poison gas, and proceed to destroy every human army that gets in their way. They conquer big cities like London and New York, and it looks like all hope for humanity is lost, when suddenly they are killed by earth bacteria, against which Martian immune systems have no defense. That idea was enough to make us quarantine the Apollo astronauts when they returned from the moon, thinking that alien microbes could win the war if we did not follow careful decontamination procedures. A modern variant of the H. G. Wells story, "Independence Day," again gives the aliens an overwhelming military advantage, but their weakness is a computer virus.

ID4 Alien fail

For the archetypal friendly contact story, we have Stephen Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." In the last part of the movie, the arrival of the aliens becomes a religious experience--the coming of gods to earth. No wonder you briefly see a priest praying for those human volunteers who go into the gigantic spaceship.

Alien spaceship at Devil's Tower.
Remember how Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to get the Ten Commandments from God? In this story a mountain is the meeting place, too!

It's a similar case with Star Trek, where in the eighth movie and various TV episodes, you can piece together how humans and Vulcans met. My understanding of the Trek timeline is that the Vulcans secretly monitored the earth from a distance; as early as the 1950s, they were listening to our radio and TV transmissions. Then in 2063 Zefram Cochrane invented the warp drive, becoming the first man to travel faster than light. When the Vulcans detected his spaceship, they realized they could no longer hide, so they followed the spaceship to earth and introduced themselves. Though the Vulcans are pacifists, contact with them shocked humanity into changing its culture dramatically. Over the next eighty-eight years, in order to catch up with the Vulcans, humans renounced war, eliminated poverty, and established a single world government. Finally in 2151 the first Starship Enterprise is built, and humans go out to explore the stars on an equal basis with the alien races they have met by that time.

Well, if I wanted the future of humanity to be happy, I couldn't do better myself. Unfortunately, past history shows that most first contacts are bad news for the more primitive side. Like it or not, a meeting with aliens is more likely to resemble "The War of the Worlds" than "Close Encounters" or Star Trek. Here's why:

1. Culture shock is not much fun. It's going to happen to the side contacted by the other. From our own history, the best example is what happened when the Old World made contact with the New World. The Americas were less advanced technologically, and its inhabitants less genetically diverse. This meant that even the vast armies of the Aztec and Inca empires could be slapped down by a few hundred European soldiers; those natives who did not fall victim to Old World weapons were decimated by Old World diseases, which had been unintentionally brought across the oceans. And the natives who survived both the invasions and epidemics found themselves in a game where they did not know the rules, dealing with economic, political and social concepts that were totally foreign to them. Often they got the short end of the stick, even when the white man tried to help them (see this example). With the natives of Australia and the islands of the Pacific, it was the same story; some tribes (i.e., the Tasmanians) were completely wiped out, while those communities that survived are mere shadows of what they used to be. It could have happened in Africa, too, but fortunately for the Africans, they had a larger population to start with, enough to weather the losses inflicted by European soldiers and slavers; what's more, Africa struck back with worse diseases and parasites than those the Europeans brought.

The only case I can think of where the primitive society came out ahead is nineteenth-century Japan. In the forty years after the United States opened up Japan for trade, the Japanese heroically modernized their country, to the point that at the end of the Meiji period, they took on and defeated two much larger neighbors, China and Russia. Well, keep in mind that the Japanese had the advantage of foreknowledge. Before Commodore Perry arrived, the Japanese knew that more advanced nations existed; they had started trading with the Chinese in the third century A.D., and Europeans in the sixteenth century. Then they kicked all foreigners out of their country when they decided it was no longer safe to have them around. But even during the two hundred years when Japan was officially closed, some Dutch books still managed to get in, allowing a few Japanese to follow what was happening overseas. If space aliens exist, earth is more closed to them than Japan was ever closed to the West. With extra-terrestrial beings we do not have the luxury of knowing who they are, why they are here, or what strengths and weaknesses they have--unless you believe the "Men In Black" movies are true stories. In short, if aliens show up on earth at a future date, we won't have a clue what to do.

2. The aliens we meet will probably be ruthless warriors. More like the Klingons than the Vulcans, if you don't mind me using Star Trek analogies again. Here on earth, some nations and cultures have been described as gentle, like modern-day Brazil or Madagascar, but you never hear about any time in history when they ruled the world. Likewise, any civilization that can travel between the stars must have gotten the resources to do that by defeating (read: slaughtering) all competitors on their homeworld. Science fiction stories with a military flavor, like Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and the movie "Battle: Los Angeles," often had the theme that that man is the toughest, most ornery species in the entire universe, and even if we are behind technologically, we are going to kick alien butt until we win. In real life, however, that will only be true if we go to alien homeworlds before they visit ours. While we like to talk about the meek inheriting the earth, and the lion lying down with the lamb, those are events scheduled for a future age, after the coming of the Messiah.

London in ruins.
(A voice in the ruins of London): "See, guys? Aliens aren't so tough, we won! Guys? Guys?!?"

3. If aliens show up here, it will be because they want something, and they will stop at nothing to get it. Forget about any story with space merchants in it. Commerce between the stars just isn't feasible, and because it currently costs thousands, even millions of dollars, to move any cargo through space, our spacecraft will need more powerful engines before a profit can be made by shipping goods between two points in our own solar system. Don't get me wrong, the stories of Nicholas Van Rijn and his Solar Spice and Liquors Company are among my science-fiction favorites. So why aren't they realistic? Because faster-than-light travel is a pipe dream. It has been a hundred years since Albert Einstein introduced the theory of relativity, and nobody has found a way to get past its absolute speed limit--that nothing can go faster than light. If we cannot break that limit, it will take years, decades, or even longer to travel from one star system to another. Science fiction writers try to get around that by predicting future scientists will disprove the theory of relativity (E. E. "Doc" Smith's approach), or they have starships do it by taking a short cut through "hyperspace," perhaps with the help of a conveniently placed cross-dimensional tunnel called a "wormhole." Alas, just saying Einstein was wrong is wishful thinking, and I have yet to see evidence that wormholes really exist. Therefore we will have to accept the speed-of-light limit when seriously considering space travel. Can you think of any commodity that is worth waiting decades for somebody to deliver to the customer? I certainly can't. This also means that if a civilization masters interstellar travel, it won't go to another star to get anything it can get at home, even if the homemade product is inferior.

I digressed about space merchants and interstellar travel because it has one more implication for us, an ominous one. Any intelligent beings that visit us cannot go home again. If they try to go back, the world they return to won't be the same as the world they left. Consider the example of a spaceship that can travel ten percent of the speed of light, going from here to Alpha Centauri, a distance of 4.3 light-years. That trip would take forty-three years each way, and allowing for one year to explore the Alpha Centauri system, that makes for a round trip of at least eighty-seven years. If you were on that mission, you probably wouldn't live long enough to see both the beginning and the end of it--the ship would have to travel at more than 80 percent of the speed of light before relativity's famous time dilation effect makes much of a difference. And just think of all the things that have happened here on earth in the past eighty-seven years. When Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world, the voyage took him five years, and upon returning to England, the first thing he did was ask if Queen Elizabeth I was alive and well. How much more will earth change while the Alpha Centauri spaceship is away!

If a spaceship cannot go back to its homeworld, it cannot receive supplies or assistance from its homeworld, either. Therefore we can assume that visiting aliens will try to take whatever they need from us. Their attitude will be a lot like Hernando Cortez when he had his ships burned, to keep his men from trying to leave Mexico; they will have a grim determination to succeed in whatever they are doing, or die trying. They might live like rapacious nomads, traveling to a world, stripping it of whatever resources they want or need, and then moving on to the next world. Dr. Stephen Hawking, the famous astrophysicist, suggested as much in a 2010 interview: "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach."

Nomadic alien spaceships on the move.
Here comes the alien horde. They will stay here until they have strip-mined the entire solar system. And you thought hunting the buffalo and the whales to near-extinction was bad!

4. Even if everything else I said in this essay is wrong, and the aliens turn out to be friendly, we could still mess up. It has been said that you only get one chance to make a good first impression. When meeting another person for a first time, at least you have an idea about what motivates that person, and how he might respond to your actions. How will we know what motivates an alien? It will be dreadfully easy to make a mistake, just because of misunderstandings.

For an example of such a misunderstanding, I will remind readers of a sci-fi classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still. There a humanoid alien named Klaatu came to warn earth that his people will not allow humans to have nuclear weapons. However, this does not remain a diplomatic mission for long; trigger-happy humans shoot Klaatu when they think he is armed. Then he becomes a fugitive after escaping from the hospital where he recuperated, and later he is shot again, this time fatally. Fortunately Klaatu is brought back to life by the medical equipment on his ship, but the whole experience confirmed the worst suspicions of his civilization, that humans can't be trusted when armed.

If the reader would prefer an example from history over an example from science fiction, history has plenty of them, too. I will point to just one, the first meeting between the Romans and Parthians, in 92 B.C. The Parthians had an empire nearly as powerful as the Roman state, but all the other kingdoms the Romans had encountered in Asia were minor states populated by Greek-speaking Asians, so they treated the Parthian ambassador with contempt, thinking he was there to become another Roman vassal. What a mistake that was! Because of it, the Parthians and their Persian successors became archenemies of the Romans, starting an east-west conflict that lasted for seven hundred years, until the Arabs came along and overran both sides.

5. Conclusion: If there is life out there, if will take an awfully long time to find it, or for it to find us, simply because the universe is so big. I also hope we don't encounter it anytime soon, at least until the human race has matured some more. Of course they could be avoiding us for the same reason. Remember what I said at the beginning of this section about Star Trek Vulcans listening to our radio and TV programs for decades before we met them in person. It has been more than a century since the invention of radio, and more than sixty years since the first television broadcasts. And all that time we have been firing those signals out in space at no one in particular. Thus, our TV signals have reached every star within sixty light-years; it is theoretically possible for aliens near any of those stars to watch "I Love Lucy," if their receiving equipment is sensitive enough. Our radio signals have gone even farther by this time, potentially reaching anyone in a 100-light-year range.

Of course, it will be one thing to pick up those signals, and another thing to understand what they mean. The first task in translating would be to prove they are not random noise, like the radio signals generated by the planet Jupiter. If aliens can make that step and decipher the entertainment and information we send to ourselves, can anybody blame them for not wanting to show themselves to us? Think about it, the next time you get a good look at the night sky. Pleasant dreams.

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