We have yet to discover any signs of an extraterrestrial civilization — a prospect that could quite literally change overnight. Should that happen, our sense of ourselves and our place in the cosmos would forever be shaken. It could even change the course of human history. Or would it?
Finding a World Much Like Our Own
As I thought about this, I assumed a scenario with three basic elements.
First, that humanity would make this historic discovery within the next several years or so. Second, that we wouldn’t actually make contact with the other civilization (just the receipt, say, of a radio transmission — something like a Lucy Signal that would cue us to their existence). And third, that the ETI in question would be at roughly the same level of technological development as our own (so they’re not too much more advanced than we are; that said, if the signal came from an extreme distance, like hundreds or thousands of light-years away, these aliens would probably have advanced appreciably by now. Or they could be gone altogether, the victims of a self-inflicted disaster).
A question tossed over to our friend Milan Cirkovic. He’s a Senior Research Associate at the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade and a leading expert.
“Well, that’s a very practical question, isn’t it?” he responded. “Because people have been expecting something like this since 1960 — they haven’t really been expecting to find billion-year old supercivilizations or just some stupid bacteria.”
Indeed, the underlying philosophy of over the course of its 50-year history has been that we’ll likely detect a civilization roughly equal to our own — for better or worse. And no doubt, in retrospect it started to look “for worse” when the hopes of an early success were dashed. Frank Drake and his colleagues thought they would find signs of ETIs fairly quickly, but that turned out not to be the case (though Drake’s echo can still be heard in the unwarranted contact optimism of Seth Shostak).
“Some people argued that a simple signal wouldn’t mean much for humanity,” added Cirkovic, “but I think Carl Sagan, as usual, had a good response to this.”
Specifically, Sagan said that the very understanding that we are not unique in the universe would have enormous implications for all those fields in which anthropocentrism reigns supreme.
“Which means, I guess, half of all the sciences and about 99% of the other, non-scientific discourse,” said Cirkovic.