Friday, January 21, 2011

People Get Ready

On Sunday October 30th of 1938, in honor of Halloween, Orson Welles famously narrated a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds. Not all listeners tuned in punctually enough to catch the disclaimer offered at the commencement of the show. Apparently, hearing tales of a Martian invasion on the radio told largely in the form of mock news bulletins left some of these people confused and frightened, believing that our planet was actually being attacked by space aliens.*

In our current century, it is even more challenging to tell the difference between reality and parody, and so when a friend at work presented me with a Guardian article entitled, “Earth must prepare for close encounters with aliens, say scientists” it took a few minutes of research to conclude that it was not a satire, or at least not a completely fabricated one. The British newspaper’s sensationalized headline was (rather loosely) based on a 2010 discussion meeting held by the Royal Society. The meeting provided the content for a recent themed issue of the society’s journal, The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, which bore the more demure title “The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society”. Basically, it’s a very special what-if edition that speculates on the kind of effect knowledge of life on other planets might have on the societies, religions, etc. of our own planet. You see, it’s not that we’ve discovered aliens or think we’re about to discover aliens, it’s just that, hmm, it’s good to be prepared?

Does the Royal Society have anything newsworthy to say on the subject? It depends on your definition of newsworthy. The Guardian’s headline starts to make a bit more sense after reading Martin Dominik and John C. Zarnecki's introductory paper. Here we learn that there is a protocol for how to respond to the possible detection of extra-terrestrial life – approved by several international associations with lackluster acronyms who are somehow involved in astronomy – but that the protocol holds no legal power. The authors therefore suggest that the UN get involved.

Much debate revolves around whether attempting to contact extra-terrestrials is really such a good idea, with various other articles pondering the repercussions of such contact. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has already been scouring the galaxy for half a century for electromagnetic signals, mostly radio waves. They haven’t found anything. However, if they did, earth would have to decide what to do about it. Furthermore, there is nothing stopping us from throwing out signals that might be detected by other faraway life-forms.

The paleontologist Simon Conway Morris devotes his article to speculating on what kind of life we might find on other worlds. Being rather fond of the idea of evolutionary convergence, Morris predicts that intelligent extra-terrestrials would be biologically similar to our own human species and that, given our propensity to violence, this is somewhat worrisome. The Guardian piece makes much of Morris’ suggestion that we, “prepare for the worst”, without noting how often he states that it’s more likely we are alone in the universe.

As would be expected in an issue devoted to what might happen if something else where to happen, Morris is not the only one buffering his argument with caveats. Nobody is making any grand claims about the inevitability of visiting or being visited by intelligent life-forms from other planets in the next decade. The authors of the introduction begin their conclusion with the sentence, “So far, there is no scientific evidence for or against the existence of life beyond Earth.” While the journal’s special issue may have some interesting philosophical arguments, there’s little scientific information to be gleaned from it, and certainly no news (recall that the actual meeting took place last year).

But does that really matter? 2011 has already seen a generous serving of questionable, news-that’s-not-actually-new stories fueled by online social networking sites. I hadn’t even finished sorting through my post-holiday emails at work when I heard the shocking tale of bird deaths in Arkansas. The feathery corpses were attributed to everything from chemical pollutants to the coming apocalypse. Gradually the story that emerged was something conservationists have know for ages; lots of birds die, every year, often by such banal and non-menacing methods as flying into windows. Similar events probably occurred last year as well, it’s just that your mom wasn’t on Twitter back then.

And then there was the zodiac fiasco. Earlier this month, astronomy instructor Parke Kunkle caused an unexpected stir when he revealed, during an interview for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that our view of the constellations during any given month has been gradually shifting throughout the several thousand years following the establishment of our current zodiac signs. Of course, this was only news to those with less knowledge of astronomy than a student taking an introductory community college course on the subject, which apparently is most of us. Much panic ensued. Suddenly everyone was having identity crises over their incorrectly-assigned, zodiac-based personality traits, and those unfortunate individuals born between November 30th and December 17th were coming to grips with the possibility of being born under a sign named after a thirteenth constellation; Ophiuchus. With astronomers everywhere shrugging and saying, “What? What’s the problem here?” astrologers had to step in and do some speedy damage control to calm the distressed and disheartened public. 

Frankly, I’m a little surprised the Guardian’s space alien article didn’t cause more mayhem, or at least a few ripples of hype. It took me several searches to coax Twitter into telling me anything at all about the would-be scandal, but then I was using big words like, “extra-terrestrial” and “Royal Society”. What finally did the job was “Guardian aliens”. The posts didn’t seem especially alarming. Most just provided a link to the article along with one of its more over-the-top quotes. Perhaps society is getting savvier in processing its non-news. Who knows, if we weather enough horoscope restructurings, maybe we’ll even be ready to handle extra-terrestrial life when/if the Royal Society has some actual news to deliver. Maybe. But probably we’ll freak out.

* The actual degree of panic caused by Welles’ show is now said to have been largely overstated by journalists of the time, but it’s an amusingly-exaggerated tale so I won’t bother to cast any further doubt on its veracity.

 Short for The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, established 1660. Isaac Newton was their president for over 20 years, so they’re pretty legit. The group’s journal is divided into two publications; A, for physical, mathematical and engineering sciences and B, for lowly biology.

 Fear not, your horoscope is even less tethered to actual science than you previously believed. Unless you’re into something called sidereal astrology, your zodiac sign is based on sets of dates named after constellations rather than the periods in which those constellations are visible. I’m still an Aries. You’re still whatever it is you are. It’s going to be okay.

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