November 8, 2013
This includes my story, “The Best We Can,” and it gives me an excuse to talk about my thoughts on possible first contact scenarios, and why I wrote the story at all.
First off, I do think we’ll find evidence of extraterrestrial life within my lifetime. Fossil microbes on Mars or something swimming under the ice on Titan. Something. But we may even find extraterrestrial intelligence. It’s not going to happen at all like it does in the movies, or like it has on any number of Discovery Channel mockumentary scenarios. In fact, it’s probably not going to be very cinematic at all. It’ll come from the examination of tiny pixels, and the analysis of mountains of data. It’ll take years to confirm.
The search for exoplanets — planets outside our solar system — has been more successful than anyone dreamed. According to Exoplanet.org, 755 planets have been confirmed, along with 3455 unconfirmed planet candidates. That’s over four thousand planets, and the number is constantly growing. (This is one of the reasons I get cranky when people insist that not having a space shuttle means the U.S. doesn’t have a space program. You want a space program? Here, have FOUR THOUSAND EXOPLANETS, BITCHES.) You use this data to extrapolate the numbers in the Drake Equation for determining the likelihood of finding alien civilizations, and the results start to look ridiculously probable. Which leads to the attendant question of course — why haven’t we been able to talk to them yet? And the answer is, to quote Douglas Adams: space is big. Really big. Hugely mindbogglingly big.
Astronomers use a few different methods to find planets: with the transit method, they can track changes in light that occur when a planet passes in front of its star. Tiny little eclipses. They can measure the gravitational pull that planets and stars exert on each other. Direct imaging has also become possible.
I think at some point we’re going to find a star system that obviously has planets, but the data is going to be wonky. Astronomers will find light where it shouldn’t be, on the shadowed side of a planet. They’ll find something orbiting something else that predictions say shouldn’t be there — because it’s artificial. It will be evidence not just of life, but of civilization. And it’ll be dozens and dozens of light years away, and it’ll take a lifetime for our message saying we know about them to get there. Maybe we’ll finally get that radio signal SETI’s been looking for — but it’s not going to be a message meant for us. It’s going to be a random alien thing, noise sent to the stars, like what we’ve been sending out for the last 80+ years. Plus — it will likely have been traveling for many, many years. Whatever evidence we find, whether light or radio or something else on the EM spectrum, will be old by the time we get it. Maybe ancient. It will be a message in a bottle, and likely an accidental one to boot. Discovering extraterrestrial life is going to be like archeology.
And it will be so bloody frustrating, won’t it?! We’ll turn to the heavens, shouting, because what we really want is to talk to them.
This is what was driving my story: the idea that we’re going to find the holy grail, incontrovertible proof of alien civilizations. And we’re not going to be able to do a damn thing about it. We’re not going to be able to talk to them. We’ll just have to gather and catalog the data and try to figure out what it means. I know the story depressed a lot of people because of its depiction of bureaucracy overwhelming the wonder of discovery. But really, I meant there to be a thread of hope as well: because hey, we found life. We found civilization. We aren’t alone. And that’s very likely going to have to be enough, at least at the start.