On May 21, Congress learned there is a strong possibility that extraterrestrial life will be discovered in the next 20 years. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hosted the hearing. During the day, Seth Shostak and Dan Werthimer, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and Director of the SETI Berkley Research Center explained the likelihood of discovery was based on the high number of other planets in our solar system and beyond that may hold liquid water. There were no guarantees that any extraterrestrial life would be intelligent and therefore there were no discussions of future threats arising from the discovery.
In 2010, Stephen Hawking made a statement in his television show Into the Universe regarding the nature of likely first human interaction with alien life. If extraterrestrials come to us, a fact which was not implied in the congressional hearing, Hawking theorized the inaugural arrival of aliens could be compared to the arrival of Columbus in the New World. Human beings would be the Native Americans and the aliens the Europeans. Experts pointed out that even if the aliens had no negative intentions, patterns of colonial interaction on earth show that the native peoples usually suffer under the pressures of the more technologically advanced force.
Of course similar versions of this theory have been shown to the public in the form of alien invasion science fiction movies. In the next 20 years, human society may end up living through another moment where science fiction becomes science fact. This has happened before, most notably with technologies discussed in science fiction novels. Jules Verne wrote about lunar modules launching from Florida in his book From Earth to the Moon in 1865. The first module launched on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. H.G. Wells wrote about automatic doors in 1899 in When the Sleeper Wakes, which became a reality in 1960. John Brunner’s 1969 novel Stand on Zanzibar covered a variety of things that have since become reality, from the decriminalization of marijuana to electric cars.
Movies that made the eventuality of alien contact into entertainment date back to the 1950’s. Famous titles include War of the Worlds, Independence Day and Oblivion. In each film, intelligent extraterrestrials arrive with the intention of colonizing the earth and humans are forced to defeat the alien threat with little to no understanding of the creatures or their technology.
In 2010, Doug Aamouth of Time wrote a piece discussing Hawking’s theory. He points out one major flaw with all of these scenarios: the superiority of alien technology should render anything on this planet unnecessary. He claims it would be illogical for a society that is so advanced to base their society on limited resources and necessitate travel from one far flung star system to another as the required resources are depleted.
Shostak and Werthimer indicated two possibilities. First, if the extraterrestrial life is microbial it may be discovered within the solar system via atmospheric analysis. The second possibility is that the SETI continued scan for radio waves will find a foreign source indicating intelligent extraterrestrial life that may or may not be threatening. According to the hearing, the human race has about 20 years before Hawking or Aamouth is proven right.
By Aliya Tyus-Barnwell