Despite what textbooks may lead one to believe, our current understanding of the universe is a small island in a vast ocean of ignorance. The scientific enterprise is all about extending the island’s landmass. And it’s enjoyable to engage in the process of gaining information; knowing everything ahead of time would have been far more tedious.
Still, learning all at once about the discoveries of an alien society that has been doing scientific and technological investigation for billions of years, as opposed to our few decades, would be stunning.
This principle was articulated by the prominent science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in the third of his three laws: “Any sufficiently sophisticated technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In other words, individuals of such a civilization would look to us to be a close approximation to God.
Meeting a piece of advanced technological equipment made by an extraterrestrial intelligence could be likened to an imagined encounter between prehistoric cave inhabitants and a modern cell phone. They would initially misinterpret it as a gleaming rock, unable to recognize it as a communication device.
The same thing could have happened in response to the first identification of an interstellar visitor to the solar system, ‘Oumuamua, which displayed six unusual features but was nonetheless classified as a rock by orthodox scientists.
Because most modern technology is likely to be small, it will only be noticed in the blackness of space when it gets close enough to our nearest lamppost, the sun. We can look for technological “keys” under this lamppost, but the majority of them will go undiscovered if they pass by too quickly.
More fundamentally, one can query whether we are capable of recognizing technologies that we did not create. After all, these technologies may serve subtle functions, such as mobile phone communication signals that a cave dweller would miss.
Is there something we might be missing right now? When we look around, the most mysterious occurrence we experience on a regular basis is the sophistication of complex life. Some scientists wondered if an alien culture seeded life on Earth through a procedure known as “directed panspermia.” Imagine a probe bringing the seeds of life in the form of microorganisms, or a 3-D printer producing these seeds from raw elements on Earth based on a predefined pattern.
The universal left-handedness (chirality) of all life forms on Earth can be understood as the result of a single panspermia event, whether natural (through a rock arriving from space) or manmade in nature. Even in this environment, once we are able to create synthetic life in the laboratory, our imagination of what aliens might accomplish will improve.
The number of targeted probes required to artificially seed life in a planetary system’s habitable zone is significantly less than the number of natural pebbles that serve the same purpose on random trajectories. The benefit of 3-D printing life from raw materials on a target planet is that natural DNA samples have a finite lifespan and may dissolve in a few million years, whereas artificial machinery can be built to last much longer.
At the moment, our society is extremely vulnerable to annihilation due to self-inflicted wounds such as nuclear warfare or climate change, as well as external dangers such as asteroid collisions of solar evolution. Even while the Earth appears to be a nice home for us at the moment, it would be good not to put all of our eggs in one basket. We should go into space and seed objects beyond the Earth with life as we know it, lowering the risk of total devastation and ensuring the survival of things we care about.
If we ever find evidence of life on other objects that looks the same, or if extraterrestrial life appears to be unusually crowded in space, we may conclude that it all has a common ancestor and panspermia is at work. Noting that too many kids in the community resemble the milkman would be analogous to recognizing that too many kids in the neighborhood resemble the milkman.
If life was purposefully planted on Earth, one would question if the seeders are monitoring the outcome. And, if that’s the case, the fact that we haven’t heard from them may imply that they are dissatisfied. The experiment may have failed, or we are simply maturing too slowly. Given our sometimes careless behavior, this may not come as a surprise.
Perhaps if we knew someone was watching over our shoulders, we might behave better. It is not too late for us to find out if we use the best telescopes available.