26 November 2016


John W Traphagan. Science, Culture and the Search for Life on Other Worlds. Springer, 2016.

Apparently there is a strange star out there given the decidedly unromantic name of KIC8462852, the light of which unexpectedly dims every few weeks or months, which has led some people to suggest that its light is being intercepted by huge megastructures orbiting it, built by aliens.
This provided the springboards for John Traphagan of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Austin, Texas to ask some deep philosophical questions about how we conceive of extraterrestrial life.

Not surprisingly he discovers that such beliefs tell us much more about ourselves than any aliens. In particular, he argues, the hopes and dreams behind the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are predicated on a predominantly western concept of scientific and moral progress, a theme which perhaps dates back to Christian assumptions of its superiority over paganism and greatly influenced by elements of social Darwinism. 

Traphagan sees little evidence of a continuous curve of progress and notes that skills that the Romans possessed such as the manufacture of concrete were lost for centuries. The first Australians lost the technology of boat building, the Tasmanians lost the technology of fire production that their ancestors had possessed. Today more and more skills are being lost and if we faced an electricity disrupting solar storm much of modern civilisation would collapse in weeks if not days. The terrors of the 20th century suggest little reason to believe in universal human progress and does anyone really think that Donald Trump is a significantly nobler or wiser person than, say, Alfred the Great?

We might think that had they possessed a notion of linear progress, the 'Dreamtime Mariners', who first came to Australia 60,000 years ago, would have marvelled at the unimaginable wonders that 60,000 years of sea travel would bring. A sobering thought then that with very little extra training they could have crewed a Polynesian boat to New Zealand, almost 60,000 years later, a few more weeks and they could have crewed a Viking longboat and a couple of months more and they could have sailed HMS Victory, only with the coming of the steam engine would they have been completely baffled. Might not 60,000 years or 6,000,000 years of space travel be the same.

It is also an axiom of the CETI lobby that an extraterrestrial message would somehow transform the world. Given the unlikelihood of actually translating such a message, it would be just an enigma, a nine days wonder. The things that seemed so important at the time are now forgotten, who, he asks, remembers Eugene Cernan now?

Today’s children are likely to have parents who were born after the moon landings, so these to them are just the stories of olden days told by their grandparents, along with tales of smog and steam locomotives. The great signal, Traphagan argues, would go the same way. I think it might be worse, like the moon landings, but even more so, the signal will be dismissed as a hoax. Even if it is not, it will soon be swept out of the papers by some ZX-class celebrity’s latest affair.

A far deep philosophical conundrum is the question of just what “intelligent” means in this context and Traphagan gives a fascinating comment on the problems of ranking the relative intelligence of cats and dogs or of what bats make of the world. He argues that even our most basic presuppositions such as that “they” would share our mathematics may well be false. “They” may be, indeed probably will be, more different from us both physically and mentally than we could possibly imagine.

Of course we don’t need to send a signal, already the electromagnetic ghosts of long dead analogue TV and radio programmes are fleeing onwards. If there is something at this strange star 1,400 light years away, perhaps one day, creatures such as no human eye has ever seen will scan them and return a message to the unheeding squirrels and raccoons and perhaps to a lonely thing that had once been a machine, in which it will evoke semi-memories of warm, wet upright walking things that lived, loved, laughed and lost. Eons after that things that had once been raccoons will send their message to the same strange star and something of age old memory will return the message to the things that had once been raccoons and they will see pictures of the upright walking things and wonder from what a strange and fantastical world they have received a greeting. -- Peter Rogerson

[Eugene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon]

1 comment:

  1. Donald Trump is not a fair comparison to Alfred the Great. To Caligula, perhaps? And I would find it hard to judge between Alfred and Barack Obama.

    Maybe we have not advanced far in statesmanship. However it's surely undeniable that we have advanced far in science, technology and medicine.