Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dr. John Boardman
from the September, 2013 issue of Dagon, used by permission
Some cable channels have lately produced several programs about alien life forms - that is to say, life forms which evolved on other planets and have allegedly made contact with residents of Earth. Sometimes these programs from science or history channels have claimed that many `of the accomplishments of ancient human cultures might have been provided by, or inspired. by, visitors from other planets.. And some speculate on what would happen if such aliens were to land on Earth in. the near future. And sometimes such programs report on contacts allegedly made in recent years between Earthlings and space :aliens. Such. aliens are supposed to have arrived on "Unidentified Flying Objects" (UFOs), although this term is something of a misnomer. People claiming to have made such contacts have identified these craft and their occupants in great detail, sometimes including accounts of sexual intercourse. I` prefer the original term "flying saucer", since this term conveys precisely the lunacy of such alleged contacts.
In one such case, an Australian women claimed that a space alien was the father of her baby. It should be pointed of that a human being is more closely related to a turnip, than to anything that evolved on another planet. The life of Edgar Rice Burroughs's character John Carter may make interesting reading as adventurer fiction set on Mars, but it is impossible that Carter and an egg-laying Martian female could have had children, even if we concede the existence of humanoid life on Mars.
In a letter to the New York Times of 31 August 2013, John Walker insisted that the scientific evidence on. the evolution of living things makes it highly likely that living things and even intelligent living things, could have evolved on other planets with the right conditions. But that same scientific evidence makes it highly unlikely that such alien life forms could have traveled to Earth. There are no other planets in the solar system that have conditions anything like Earth's, so the evolution of intelligent life is virtually impossible on those planets. And the notion of intelligent beings coming from the planets of other solar systems, let alone other galaxies, runs up against the findings of the special theory of relativity, that travel faster than light is impossible. These findings are solidly supported by a century of observation and experiment, and we have nothing in the way of solid evidence to suggest that anything can travel faster than light. In fact, travel speeds approaching that of light are unlikely at present, even though the mutual annihilation of matter and anti-matter might accomplish speeds on this order. But even with a velocity 99% that of light, it would take about nine years for a round trip to Alpha Centauri, the star nearest to the Sun.
It should be emphasized that science fiction, including science-fiction films, are works of fiction. And reports of contacts with intelligent beings from outer space may be as popular as sightings of sea serpents once were, but they are also works of fiction.
These considerations were also taken up in the obituary of Dr. John Billingham (William Yardley, New York Times, 11 August 2013). Dr. Billingham felt that extra-terrestrials might be sending out radio messages that could be heard on Earth, and in 1992, as chief of the Life Sciences Division of a NASA research center in California, he began running a Search for Extra-Terrestrials Intelligence (SETI). But after only a year, Congress eliminated NASA SETI funding, calling it a "great Martian hunt" and a waste of money. Dr. Billingham. later got involved in other, privately funded SETI projects. SETI workers quite reasonably accepted the idea of contacting extra-terrestrials by radio, but face-to-face contact with interstellar visitors seems unlikely in the highest degree.
Even conversations by radio with other intelligent species would take a great deal of time. Radio, being an electromagnetic radiation, travels at the same speed as light, and after a mutually intelligible code were worked out, it could take decades for the simplest question to be answered.
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this page last updated 2 November 2013
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