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David Bouchier: Help Is On The Way

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We don’t get to see much of the mighty universe here in the suburbs.

But in the deep countryside, or far out to sea, away from the glow of street lights or any lights at all, the stars shine very bright. We get the view that people have had for thousands of years, before our illuminations blotted out the night sky — billions of stars spread out from horizon to horizon. Looking up at nature’s fantastic planetarium it is impossible not to imagine other worlds and other lives out there. The earliest civilizations found prophetic messages in the stars. Now we look for something different: a kind of salvation, or at the very least some useful advice.

The collapse of the giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico that scanned the galaxy for alien radio signals, was a blow to many scientists and amateurs interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But the idea of intelligent aliens remains immensely appealing: over fifty per cent of Americans claim to believe in them. Consider the recent flurry of news stories about a strange glow out in the remotest part of the universe where no light should be, about strange radio signals from our nearest star, and the discovery of a mysterious monolith in the desert. It’s all pure Hollywood, which of course is where our images of aliens come from — small and cute like ET, or nasty-looking and dangerous like Darth Vader. We hope that the small cute ones will arrive on earth first.

There are half a trillion stars in our galaxy, and nobody knows how many other galaxies. How likely is it that so much valuable real estate remains uninhabited, and that we on our speck of dust are the only living things in it? On an infinite number of stars with planets there must be an infinite variety of creatures, some of them (we hope) even smarter than Luke Skywalker, and able to travel between the stars. If an infinity of worlds have produced nothing more intelligent than us the universe has been a complete waste of time.

When and if the space aliens contact us they may bring advanced technologies that will allow us to turn back climate change, or find new sources of clean energy, or get decent reception on our cell phones. They may bring advanced wisdom that will release is from some of our crazy, self-destructive beliefs, and solve some of our most pressing problems like campaign finance reform and term limits on Congress, although that may be too much to hope for. If Hollywood is any guide our space visitors will certainly bring advanced forms of violence. An external threat helps to unify a group, a nation, or a planet, and that might really be our salvation.

But the aliens have not visited us yet. Or perhaps they have found us and checked us out, and continued on to look for something more interesting. The latest Hollywood space opera starring George Clooney doesn’t feature any aliens at all, helpful or otherwise. It is about finding a new home and a fresh start for humanity on one of the moons of Jupiter. Clearly this is the right idea at the right time. Our galactic visitors, if and when they arrive, may be looking for a new home for themselves, having ruined their own planet. In the worst case scenario, they could be aliens in such desperate trouble that they will be asking us to save them.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.