VOICE OVER: Noah Baum
WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Most scientific predictions and theories say that alien life should exist somewhere in the universe. But we've yet to discover evidence of extraterrestrial beings anywhere. So, what would happen if we finally did? If we finally proved that aliens exist? In this video, Unveiled explains how the world would change and what an alien-centric future would look like...
What if We Prove Aliens Exist?
In the 20th century, the search for extraterrestrial life began in earnest. As scientists gazed ever further into the cosmos, and the first humans ventured into space, it came to seem almost inevitable that we’d eventually discover lifeforms not of this world. So far, these hopes have been frustrated by a lack of evidence, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t life out there to discover. If we ever did achieve this monumental feat, how would it play out?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if we prove aliens exist?
In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake proposed the Drake Equation, which attempts to estimate the number of alien civilizations in the galaxy able to communicate with us. It includes factors such as the number of stars and planets, and the likelihood of intelligent life developing. Drake’s original solutions for the equation put the number at 10. Other, more optimistic solutions, put that at hundreds, or even thousands. Drake’s equation became the basis for various searches for extraterrestrial intelligence, aka SETI. It’s also strongly linked to the Fermi paradox, named after physicist Enrico Fermi and formalized in 1975. The Fermi paradox asks the question: if estimates are so high, where are all the aliens? Possible explanations include that the estimates are just wrong; that intelligent life tends to destroy itself; and that they’re simply too far away. Then again, maybe advanced civilizations just aren’t interested in making contact with us.
There’s also the possibility that they face the same obstacles we do when it comes to the search for intelligent alien life. The slow speed of interstellar communication, and the obstacles to interstellar travel, might just be insurmountable, at least for all practical purposes. Radio waves travel at the speed of light, but given the extreme distances involved, it could take decades, centuries, or longer to actually receive a message. By that point, it would no longer be accurate. Mind you, that hasn’t stopped us from trying; humans, at least, have sent out messages to the stars with information about our species, including the Arecibo message broadcast in 1974.
Another method is to look for signs of aliens on exoplanets with telescopes. For now, our telescopes aren’t yet advanced enough to see an awful lot of details on distant planets. In 2018, researchers at Columbia University published a study estimating that astronomers will soon be able to detect mountains on exoplanets using transit surveys. In order for this to help us detect far flung civilizations, however, the structures on these planets would have to be truly massive; skyscrapers wouldn’t cut it. Even then, it might be difficult to differentiate such megastructures from ordinary terrain. And if the exoplanet in question is a waterworld, well you could probably forget it. We might only get lucky if we stumbled across something like a Dyson sphere - a hypothetical megastructure that encompasses a star in order to capture its energy. Of course, the study of exoplanets is a relatively new field. The first confirmed detection of an exoplanet only occurred in 1992. It may be that technological advances will allow us to study planets outside our solar system in more detail.
On top of this obstacle, however, there’s also the worry that we might not be able to recognise alien life if we came across it. It might be so strange and far-removed from the lifeforms we’re used to seeing on Earth that we don’t even initially realise what it is. Hopefully, we would eventually realize our mistake, and brand new avenues of science would open up, enhancing our understanding of the universe. The closer these new lifeforms are located, the better. Finding life on distant exoplanets would be exciting but practically impossible to study, while discovering life on Mars would enable us to directly examine our Martian neighbors. We could bring them back to Earth with us or build laboratories and research outposts on the red planet itself.
Supposing that we DID discover intelligent lifeforms, thanks to either existing SETI programs or new, groundbreaking technology, communication would presumably be our first step. Even in the most cynical stories about alien invasions, there are usually attempts to communicate. What happened next, though, would determine what our future in a much busier galaxy than first assumed would look like.
In the best case scenario, communication would result in a peaceful exchange of information about ourselves and what we know about the universe. It might be generations between messages, but with time, we could learn from our new pen pals, especially if they were more technologically advanced. Then again, our overtures could also be met with suspicion, especially if our interstellar neighbors got to know our habits and history too well. Either way, somewhere down the track, we’d probably want to visit them, or vice versa.
Once this occurred, there’d also be the possibility of direct conflict. Extraterrestrials might well have completely different mindsets and values to us, which could easily lead to confrontation. Then there are our own tendencies to initiate aggression. We might decide to colonize their planet, or we might panic if they travelled to ours, regardless of their intentions. Either way, it’s difficult to imagine war not being on the table. The United States has already sanctioned a Space Force to protect American interests, and while treaties forbid the militarization of space, a new space race could change that. Even if we did have weapons in space by then though, it might not help us. If a race capable of travelling lightyears through space came just to wage war anytime in the near future, we’d quickly be eradicated; our best weapons are nuclear, and it’s difficult to imagine aliens mastering warp drives but not nukes.
But what about when the dust settles, or if we were able to avoid any dust being kicked up at all? Perhaps the optimists among us are the ones we should listen to, and aliens really do “come in peace”. By prioritising communication and not mobilising Earth’s militaries in expensive space-armies, we could have a peaceful alliance with any aliens we encounter. This partnership would be incredibly fruitful if done correctly; they could teach us about space travel and science and we might get to visit their planet as guests. There’s also the possibility that there are many intelligent civilisations, perhaps an entire galactic community who work together to explore and understand the universe. Earth could join a vast network of intelligent aliens, travelling from planet to planet and working together rather than in opposition. Of course, that’s if we’re even advanced enough to join them; perhaps we would have to cross a certain threshold on our own without alien intervention in order to be accepted. The discovery of aliens out there waiting for us would certainly be a good motivator to pump more money and resources into scientific progress and peaceful endeavours.
These possibilities depend on the extraterrestrial life that we discover being intelligent. It’s a different issue entirely if we prove aliens exist, but they’re not intelligent. There are an estimated 8.7 million species on planet Earth, but just one is intelligent enough to build large and complex structures and venture into space: humans. We could find planets rich in wildlife that nonetheless aren’t comparable in intelligence. Still, this wouldn’t make astrobiology any less exciting. Travelling to other planets just to study alien creatures would be an honor. A discovery like this is best likened to the discovery of the first fossils on Earth, which happened in the 1800s. Before this point, we had no idea that giant reptiles once roamed the Earth, and whole new fields of study were invented in order to understand what dinosaurs were and what happened to them. An alien planet might have dinosaurs of its own and we’d be able to study them first-hand rather than through fossils, which could turn our understanding of biology upside-down in exciting ways. One day we might look back at and think about how strange it was we didn’t know aliens were out there, just like now it seems strange that there was a time we didn’t know what dinosaurs were.
If the aliens are intelligent, we’d have to completely change our belief system and do our best NOT to kill or be killed – but it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And that’s what would happen if we prove aliens exist.