Friday, July 31, 2015

Israeli Physician Talks About Meeting Aliens: What's in it for us? What's in it for them?

(This is the English translation of Part II of the two-part series "Meeting Aliens," authored by Israeli physician, inventor and creative human, Dr. Yuval Rabinovich. The website that published the original Hebrew version is HaYadan, which may be accessed by clicking here. The English translation of Part I of the series, 'Why we have never met aliens" was published by .)

It could have been very nice if an intelligent species would have contacted us. We could cooperate in outer space research, with deeper understanding of the forces that mold our joint world. They might help us use nuclear power in a non-harmful way. We may contribute advanced metallurgy. Who knows?    

If an intelligent creature would ever want to contact us, it is likely to be wise enough to find out how we treat our surrounding beings. On this point we not only have a questionable past, but also a present. In his book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" (2014), Yuval Harari explains how Man has wiped out all large animals which could not be directly exploited. After this, he turns against his own kind.

The built-in racism in Man was used to justify cultural and physical genocide of groups of people. The attackers and the victims were not genetically far apart from each other. The Spanish conquistadors easily massacred native Central Americans and South Americans. The Europeans easily enslaved Africans. They did not feel close to each other. Nor did the Hutu and Tutsi people in Africa feel close to each other, a factor that may have been significant when violence erupted again in Africa. But the deadly hostility of Christians toward Jews cannot be a function of genetic distance; it is rather one of cultural diversity only. Even less understandable is the joy of violence between Catholic and Protestant Christians. Nowadays the world is astonished by the sight of Sunni Muslims massacring everybody, including Shiite Muslims, and at least one incident of Sunnis killing other Sunnis in the name of Sunni Islam.

For further reading about the history of racism in pseudo-scientific literature I highly recommend Stephen Jay Gould's 1981 book, "The Mismeasure of Man".

We like nothing more than grading: who is the wealthiest person on earth? Who is the fastest runner? Who jumps the highest? The record holders are highly appreciated, although I am not sure we can explain why. We also cooperate: we have sports teams who engage in ceremonial fighting in which no one is supposed to die, although on some rare occasions sports team fans do kill each other. Anyway, nothing is more important to us than competing, even if it does not achieve anything useful.

We know of only one case of two intelligent species co-existing on Earth. One of them did not survive the encounter although we do not know exactly why. We do not know why Neanderthals perished, and there is not even a consensus as to when exactly it happened. Estimates range from 40,000 to 24,000 years ago. One thing we do know: the Neanderthals – who were not our ancestors but rather a side branch of the human family tree – became completely extinct. We also know they preceded our ancestors, the Cro-Magnons in Europe. This is the only case we know of an encounter between two intelligent species. The weaker did not survive.

Bearing this in mind, we went out looking for aliens. In 1960 astrophysicist Frank Drake started the Ozma project. This is the same Frank Drake whose equation for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in outer space was discussed in my previous article. In this project, a radio telescope was used to try and detect intelligent radio signals from nearby stars for four months.

In 1972 and 1973, two small spacecrafts were launched, each carrying messages to aliens. These were Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 space ships and the messages carried were designed by Frank Drake and Carl Sagan (the late Carl Sagan was an American astronomer who had a great role in popularising astronomy, through means such as his TV series "Cosmos"). At the same time, project "Ozma 2" was launched; alien radio transmission were searched for four years. Nowadays a few projects to search for radio messages from space are ongoing; millions of radio channels are scanned non-stop and analyzed by universities and by people in a joint effort called SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) -- so far, to no avail.

Each Pioneer spacecraft carried with it a gold-plated aluminum plaque with messages carved on it. Let us examine a few of these messages. We will ignore the fact that the drawn images correspond to the ideal American beauty and not of average people. We will also ignore the question of whether aliens can understand that two dimensional carving represents three dimensional bodies and creatures. We will focus on the messages themselves.   

The man raises his hand in what seems to be a universal gesture of peace. We consider it as a message of peace because he does not carry any weapon. This message can only be understood by another violent creature. At the bottom of the plaque we see a schematic drawing of the sun and planets as was perceived by people in the seventies of the twentieth century. Pluto was still regarded a planet and only Saturn had rings. But we will ignore these inaccuracies for the following item: from the third planet, Earth, an arrow points to the Pioneer spacecraft that was launched from it. Excuse me. An arrow? What is an arrow? It is our intuitive way to mark a direction. For this we use a symbol of an aerodynamic weapon. We grew up. We no longer use arrows but rather missiles with the same structure.

To summarize, we are a very successful species. We wiped out almost all large animals, except those we found useful as a food source or as working beasts. The only intelligent creature we ever met did not survive. After that we started killing our own, justifying it in the ways in which they differ from us. We are also eager to meet aliens. We are still the masters in using aerodynamic weapons but our intentions are peaceful.

Why don't you come over?

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