Whether you believe in them or not does not matter. Aliens could be all around us even now.
Alone at night, if you were woken by some presence to see weird fluorescent creatures jostling around, peering at you, what would you do? Scream? Petrify? Faint? Throw out some handy objects? Or… communicate?
A very small fraction of humanity would perhaps go for the last option. Watch the latest Hollywood sci-fi offering ‘Arrival’ and you may just get convinced that trust and communication are your best bets if you meet co-travellers from our cosmos.
But wait, would they understand English or Malayalam or Kannada? If they are advanced as they must be to reach our planet after travelling light years from home, you bet they should be able to decipher the sounds we make. There may not be need to run around looking for whiteboards and pens. For a first, body language should be good enough.
Teaching the aliens English takes Louise, the linguistics professor in the movie, quite some time. As she points to her colleagues, lessons learnt can also depend on the medium. If you use chess to teach, the lessons essentially will be on how to win or lose, how to defeat. Eventually it leads to wrong interpretation of a word used by the aliens. Many other nations simultaneously communicating with the visiting ‘heptapods’ cut off links and plan a course of aggression.
The movie concludes that patient communication and empathy is the solution when aliens drop in. Not artillery and prime number decoding. Well, perhaps with benign aliens. What if they are malignant? Do we need to have this conversation at all? Do they exist at all?
According to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) group which has been on the hunt now since decades, scanning skies bit by bit, listening and decoding signals, it is a matter of time before we detect them. This they expect to do indirectly from detecting electromagnetic signals given off by technology used by the aliens, as also looking for signs of molecules that are precursors and products of life. Seth Shostak at Seti believes that in 20 years we will have computers that can record signals from aliens.
Going a step ahead, the group also plans to message aliens by beaming out signals and this is what has invited concern from many scientists, including the prestigious University of California, Berkeley. They warn that there is no way of knowing if these creatures have noble intentions. By bellowing out, we could simply be asking for trouble.
That is also what Stephen Hawking, one of the advocates of space journeys and colonisation, fears. The average Earth-like planet out there is at least two billion years older than ours, hence that much more advanced than us. Even listening to them could be dangerous, he believes. Forget inviting them by sending out signal cards.
His argument for why we haven’t heard from umpteen such advanced aliens is that they are too advanced and we so insignificant in their view — like bacteria seem to us! Just not worth bothering about. Are we really? Insignificant? Can everything be measured in terms of technology? Would a space faring civilisation with knowhow of travel at speed of light be decidedly more worthy than planet-bound earthlings, still tackling hunger and poverty?.
Can the other explanation be that advanced civilisations simply end up terminating themselves unwittingly using their own technology? Carl Sagan often voiced despair over how humankind would use nuclear energy knowledge. Will we wipe ourselves out in one moment of anger? Is that what many advanced civilisations out there have done, in different ways?
Or do they simply choose not to visit?
Whether it be specific signal modulations in 234 stars out of 2.5 million surveyed, or the particularly strong signal from a sun-like star HD 164595 indicating artificial source, or the abnormal dip in brightness of star Tabby in Cygnus constellation believed to be caused by an alien megastructure, extraordinary claims keep being cited in journals. The evidence continues to be weak.
But as Sagan believed, with the rich abundance of molecules of life in space, and given the endless stretch of space with its billion stars, it would seem an incredible waste of space. Unless, you would like to believe that we humans, and fellow creatures, are unique!
Where are they hiding? Are we using the right tools? Are we open in our search, or limited by our perceptions of what life should look like? Sagan for one did not think we should look for humanoids with heads and arms and eyes.
Remember that matter as we know hardly makes up 5 percent of the universe. Rest is made of dark energy and dark matter that remains invisible to our tools. The aliens could be all around us and remain invisible.