I’m always intrigued when shows focus on simulations of events. I’m sure you’ve seen them too. Whether it’s simulating the post-nuclear war fallout or a stock market crash or the effects of the long-expected zombie outbreak, it’s intriguing to see how intelligent minds consider the possibility of events and how they ripple for a particular moment. It’s a good mental exercise and it can lead to observations and preparations for real-life tragedies and events. At the core, it speaks to the vastness of human imagination.
Just this Sunday past, Discovery Channel engaged in one such exercise in its show “Curiosity.” It asked the question “Are we ready for an alien invasion?” Posing that question to luminaries such as famed astrophysicist Dr. Michio Kaku, astrobiologist Dr. Lynn Rothschild, former Naval War College professor Chris Weuve, authors Seth Baum and Charles E. Gannon and a host of other intelligent people, the show presented a traditional scenario where a large, alien mothership shows up and, in the words of Will Smith, “start a fight.” The experts do a good job of walking you through the potential steps: the reasons for the attack (development), the manner (no spaceship dogfights, they’re using EMPs and dumping stuff on our oceans to cause massive tsunamis), how we fight back (guerilla tactics), their response (bio-engineering a super-virus) and our ultimate weapon (not nukes, but nukes used to power large quantities of material flung back into space at the alien mothership). They also consider what the aliens could be physiologically for a few moments.
Most of this is the stuff science-fiction movies are made of. Whether War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Mars Attacks! or Battle: Los Angeles, extraterrestrial invaders have been coming down to annihilate us, harvest us, get us out of the way for our resources or use us for experiments of some kind. How is it that H.G. Wells’ describes the Martians and their reasons for attack? “…intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” And I reference Wells’ masterpiece for a reason: though published over 110 years ago, it is still the defining blueprint that most major science-fiction alien invasion stories follow. Alien intelligences that are technologically superior form plans for invasion that take us unaware. Our technology is incapable of matching theirs and we lose most of the early engagements. Driven to the brink, something is found that stops the aliens in their tracks and either kills them all or forces them to leave Earth and its humans alone. We survive and rebuild, happy for our triumph, but aware of the threat that looms just beyond Earth’s orbit.
And this concern about a threat from beyond the stars isn’t just something that is relegated to the sections in the furthermost shelves of your local Barnes & Noble. Last year, famed astrophysicist Dr. Stephen Hawking made news when he warned that our attempts to make contact with intelligence outside of Earth could have the dire effect of alerting some space-faring race of nomads to our presence and relative weakness. (Read here for an article on Dr. Hawking’s comments.) Comparing this potential encounter with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 to America, he said that “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.” An understandable worry.
That said, I wonder if we are limiting our thinking a bit. We obviously consider life in the grandest terms that we are most comfortable with: ourselves. Humans are a tough, dangerous, brutal, intelligent and greedy species. We are capable of atrocities to ourselves and to any other life form for any number of reasons; from the necessary to the grotesque. Compare us to most of the millions of other species that populate the Earth and we are an exception. Our inquisitive nature and our capacity for imagination are unrivaled by anything else that walks, flies or swims. We naturally imagine that an alien invasion would be by a technologically-superior race that is similar in many respects to ours.
But is that the case? So far, the best “evidence” of life anywhere else in the universe is the controversial Alan Hills meteorite ALH840001 that was uncovered in Antarctica and is said to contain fossilized microbes not of Earth origin. There are more bacterial species on planet Earth than there are cells in your body – way over a billion. We think of life in grand terms, but at its most common, it’s single-celled and tiny. When you consider that with the theory of Panspermia, which postulates that alien microbes are carried aboard comets, meteorites and asteroids across the stars, is it not possible to see that as an alien invasion – an invasion by microscopic organisms to which we don’t have defenses for? An invasion that is unannounced by the presence of mega-spaceships? That would be fought not with tanks and planes but with chemistry sets and containment suits?
(And yes, I have kind of borrowed that idea from the horror movie Creepshow; where a country bumpkin played by Stephen King meets a fungus-like alien life form that inhabited a meteorite. So I guess that I shouldn’t complain about borrowing from movies).
I liked the exercise in “Curiosity” for what it was: a mental jog around the block of “what if?” And I will always have time for intelligent people discussing any potential topic. I just wish that we didn’t just box ourselves into thinking the same idea over and over and over again. Life is such a vast and complex and strange thing. It exists where it shouldn’t. It’s resilient to its end but more fragile than we wish to consider. It moves at its own will. Imagining the vast possibilities with us as the pinnacle – and some other one that’s just like us as our superior – limits our possibilities. We can’t just imagine that the universe plays by the same rules in every other Earth out there.
After all, Will Smith can’t always be our first, last and only line of defense against the worst scum of the universe.