What if We Discovered an Alien Civilization Less Advanced Than Our Own?

By Corey S. Powell | May 10, 2017 11:47 am
Never mind the Squire of Gothos; what if we really found an alien civilization at a 16th-century level of technological development? (Credit: Paramount)

Never mind Star Trek‘s Squire of Gothos; what if we really found an alien civilization at a 16th-century level of technological development? How would we know? How could we make contact–and should we? (Credit: Paramount)

Readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of Quora, because it lets non-experts raise the kinds of speculative questions that don’t normally come up in formal scientific discussions. One frequent theme that comes up is the issue of what we would do if we found intelligent life on a planet around another star. A recent posting in particular caught my eye: “What would we do if we found an Earthlike planet with intelligent life that is 500 years behind us in technology and advancements?”

Well, that’s a fun thought experiment! It’s not one question, really, but a whole set of nested questions about how to find alien life, how to determine the presence of alien intelligence, how to determine the nature of that intelligence, and then how we would study it, or even try to make contact with it. There’s a big moral issue at the end, but a lot of juicy scientific ones along the way. And that got me thinking…

First, how will we find a truly Earthlike planet? Despite all the amazing recent discoveries of planets around other stars, astronomers have yet to find a true Earth twin—that is, an Earth-size planet orbiting a sunlike yellow star at an Earthlike distance. The closest they’ve come is a planet called Kepler 452b. It’s roughly five times the mass of Earth and probably belongs to the class of planets called super-Earths. Habitable, maybe; Earthlike, no. The same goes, even more so, for the recently discovered Earth-size planets around the star Trappist-1. These are extremely exciting worlds to study, and it is possible that some of them could support life. But the Trappist-1 planets orbit a dim red-dwarf star, which means that they are blasted with energetic radiation and are probably tidally locked, with one hemisphere always facing toward the star.

Closer analogs are surely out there, but they are hard to find. NASA’s Kepler space telescope spots planets by the way they blot out a tiny bit of their star’s light when they transit: that is, they pass between the star and us. But for a planet in a one-year orbit (like ours!), that means you see a shadow only once a year, and very briefly. To confirm that the planet is real—and not, say, a random flickering of the star—you want to observe at least three events. So you need to watch a lot of stars, and watch them all for several years. Even then, the only planets you’ll find are the ones that happen to be lined up exactly between us and their star.

Planets in the habitable zones around other stars may not be anything like Earth. Kepler-186 (top) is a miniature system similar to Trappist-1. Kepler-452 (middle) is a sunlike star but its key planet is bigger and more massive than Earth. (Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt)

Planets in the habitable zones around other stars may not be anything like our own. Kepler-186 (top) is a miniature system similar to Trappist-1. Kepler-452 (middle) is a sunlike star but its key planet is bigger and more massive than Earth. (Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt)

Second, how would we know if a superficially Earthlike planet is truly habitable? The leading method right now is to look at light streaming through the planet’s atmosphere when it passes between us and the star. That’s an extremely difficult task even for giant planets. Right now, we don’t have the technology to do it for a true Earth twin—if we even had one to study. Another approach is to search directly for other Earths alongside their stars, and then analyze their light. To do that, you need both a very powerful telescope and a highly effective way to block out the glare of the star, since an Earthlike planet would be right alongside it in the sky, but on the order of a billion times fainter!

Astronomers have some clever ideas about how to do that, using either an external light blocker (called a starshade) flying in front of a space telescope, or an internal device (coronagraph) built into the telescope itself to create a kind of artificial eclipse. The upcoming WFIRST telescope will test the coronagraph concept, but it won’t be sensitive enough to observe other Earths. That will take improved telescopes that are unlikely to be built at least until the 2030s.

Bringing other Earths into view won't be easy. This is the plan for NASA's upcoming WFIRST space telescope and its starlight-blocking coronagraph. (Credit: NASA-JPL/G. Blackwood/Noecker et al)

Bringing other Earths into view won’t be easy. This is the plan for NASA’s upcoming WFIRST space telescope and its starlight-blocking coronagraph. (Credit: NASA-JPL/G. Blackwood/Noecker et al)

Third, how would we know if there’s intelligent life on the planet? Proving the presence of any kind of life will be hugely challenging, even after we get past steps one and two above. Astronomers will analyze the atmospheres of the planets looking for “biosignatures”–unusual, out-of-balance chemical compositions such as those associated with life on Earth (eg, free oxygen plus methane). SETI searches focus on possible signals sent by alien civilizations, but aliens with 16th-century technology won’t be beaming us any radio messages. We’d have to find them in more subtle ways. For instance, we might detect heavy-metal signatures associated with smelting and other types of simple industry, although that still would not yield unambiguous proof. Some extreme, speculative types of lensing telescopes might be powerful enough to see evidence of cities or geometric clearing of forests; such observations would certainly be a lot more convincing.

Note, by the way, that it would be extremely unlikely to find an alien civilization that is so close to us in technological development, even if intelligent alien life is fairly common. Stars and planets have most likely been forming in our galaxy for more than 10 billion years. Maybe it’s normal for it to take 4 billion years for intelligent life to emerge; maybe not. Regardless, life on other worlds could have begun billions of years earlier or later than life on Earth. Out of that vast range, the odds that an alien civilization would be within 500 years of our stage of development are millions to one—and that assumes that other planets follow the same path as ours, which is a huge leap of faith. But let’s keep digging into the question.

How to launch an interstellar probe using a laser lightsail. The tech doesn't exist yet, but it's all near-term realistic. (Credit: Breakthrough Starshot)

How to launch an interstellar probe using a laser lightsail. The tech doesn’t exist yet, but it’s all near-term realistic. (Credit: Breakthrough Starshot)

Fourth, what would we do if we really found rock-solid evidence of a pre-industrial civilization on a planet around another star? We couldn’t communicate with them by any currently known method. Unless physicists make some kind of wildly unanticipated new discovery, there is no practical way that humans could travel there, either. Potentially we could send miniature interstellar probes to examine the planet and learn more about its inhabitants. A project called Breakthrough Starshot is exploring the kind of technology needed to do something like that. Such probes would be so small and speedy that the aliens there would have no idea they were being watched.

Assume a best-case scenario (because, why not?). Sometime next decade we find a potentially Earthlike planet around Alpha Centauri A, the closest sunlike star, or maybe we find encouraging information about the Earth-size planet orbiting its companion star, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri. In the 2030s we find plausible biosignatures on one of these nearby exoplanets. In the 2050s we image the planet and see plausible indications of an intelligent civilization. What a moment of discovery that would be! We launch interstellar probes there, which arrive in the 2090s. By 2100, we’re convinced not only that the planet is inhabited, but that it is home to an advanced, semi-industrial civilization. So now what?

NASA will crash Cassini into Saturn in September, to make sure the probe doesn't contaminate one of the planet's potentially habitable moons. (Credit: NASA-JPL)

NASA will crash Cassini into Saturn in September, to make sure the probe doesn’t contaminate one of the planet’s potentially habitable moons. This kind of caution should extend to any future contact with sentient alien beings. (Credit: NASA-JPL)

That brings us to the fifth and final part. Should we try to establish contact? Potentially we could use interstellar probes to drop coded messages all over the planet. Maybe the inhabitants could respond by setting huge geometric fires that we could observe from space. We would have a lot of time to think about whether making contact is a good idea and, if so, how best to do it. Each back-and-forth message would take about 9 years—and remember, this is for the very nearest star. Suppose we found a civilization on Kepler 452b. It is 1,400 light years away. Each round-trip message would take 2,800 years minimum. A Starshot-style probe would take at least 7,000 years to get there.

But let’s take all of the what-ifs all the way. What if we find this quasi-technological alien civilization, and what if humans develop some kind of faster-than-light technology (currently thought to be physically impossible, but we’re speculating here) so that we could jump in a ship and go visit, Star Trek style? How would we behave?

Right now, NASA has a detailed set of planetary-protection rules to make sure that humans do not contaminate Mars or other possibly habitable worlds. That is part of the reason the Cassini probe is being crashed into Saturn: to make sure it doesn’t contaminate the moons Enceladus or Titan. I like to think that by the time we are smart enough to find life in other planetary systems and advanced enough to travel there, we will have advanced versions of those planetary protection rules to make sure we don’t contaminate other civilizations, either.

On Earth, meetings between technological and non-technological cultures have generally not gone very well. If we ever get to the point where we find a non-technological culture on another planet, I expect that we will have enough good sense to observe from afar and not interfere.

For more on the latest scientific discoveries and debates, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

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  • http://www.thirdreport.com Anthony Borelli

    Love the question, and the article. Two comments, though. Finding a civilization equivalent to ours 500 years ago does not have to mean they are just 500 years younger than us. If you think about it, there are regions here on earth where stone age tribes still exist in isolation. A habitable earth-sized planet with less land surface might have far less environmental variety, and the environments that did exist might not facilitate the types of societies that drive technological advancement. Also, our own Dark Ages might easily have lasted millions of years, instead of hundreds, so I think the past 500 years of technological advancement on Earth could take much, MUCH longer on some other planet, making the odds of such a seemingly small (to us) technological gap a little less unlikely.
    My second point is about actually detecting intelligent life. I have long believed we will SEE signs of intelligent life before hearing them. Our best radio antennas could not pick up a broadcast of Proxima Centauris’ version of ‘I love Lucy’ from a few light years away, but our best telescopes have discovered stationary cloud cover (through a process of composite imaging) on the dark side of a tidally locked planet (Kepler-7b) 40 light years away. The same composite imaging technique could be used (if we know a planet’s rotation) to tease out stationary city lights. Conversely, if we have neighbors MORE advanced than us, they have likely been able to see Rome lit up at night for thousands of years. I laugh whenever I read a report about how a message (take RuBisCo) will take 24 years to get a reply (twice the twelve light year difference). If an ADVANCED civilization exists there (and this is a big IF) they have certainly known of us for thousands of years. One of the first things we starting planning when we found nearby planets, were probes to those planets. I doubt any probe capable of reporting back could reach us in three thousand years from a 12ly distance, but it would be somewhere in between us and them, and that probe is what we should expect an answer from–if there will be any answer at all. Hope we don’t miss a call because it came sooner than expected.

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    • Corey S Powell

      Interesting points here–thanks.

      It’s true, we have no idea how quickly an alien civilization would develop. There are so many unknowns heaped on top of other unknowns that we can only speculate, extrapolating from human societies. Their development could take much longer. Then again, maybe it would happen much more quickly; for now, we can only guess. That’s why I focused on observations like forest clearing, cities, or simple metalworking, which could potentially have revealed the presence of human civilization for 1000s of years.

      Which brings me to your second point. I agree that any civilization capable of interstellar flight would probably monitor interesting planets and know about their state of development. Worlds with advanced multicellular life would get extra attention, and a planet with sentient life would be the subject of intense scrutiny…assuming that the interests of the aliens are similar to our own.

      It raises the Fermi Paradox: If intelligent life is common in the universe, why hasn’t anyone come to visit? Perhaps they prefer to watch from afar. Perhaps they have very alien motivations, and visiting is not one of them. Or maybe they do not exist.

      • LaraTesla

        If you consider chemistry, the development of certain atomic combinations is pretty predictable. For example if you mix baking soda and vinegar, you know that CO2 molecules form, their formation will follow a curve, and gas will be released on a predictable time scale. For those who believe that a complex combination of atoms like DNA/RNA or a similarly-functioning equivalent, is an inevitable product of random chemical associations over time, it would also follow that it or something like it self-assembled elsewhere. On the other hand, the discoverers of DNA, scientists Watson and Crick, felt that DNA was itself evidence of advanced alien technology. That it was not a natural product. Part of their thought process was that if combinations like DNA and RNA self-assemble to produce lifelike beings, then there should be a wide variety of other coded combinations that replicate too. But all forms of life, from human to microbe, all shared essentially the same genetic code. Another part of their reasoning was that DNA is chiral. If it were just a random event, you would would be seeing both left and right handed versions forming naturally, the way salts and other random molecules assemble. But all of DNA in every form of life is identically handed, suggesting as they put it, that it was brought here. I have wondered if we are the product of a failed attempt of a previous advanced technology to re-populate. Perhaps they crashed and only a few cells survived, and these went on to evolve into what we have now. Or perhaps a passing probe contaminated our planet with a few cells, which evolved into our ecology. Your idea of the aliens communicating with us by setting huge geometric fires that could be seen from space, is what some say was the purpose of the Nazca lines, the huge geometric drawings done by natives, or the pyramids, meant to be seen from above.
        Perhaps we would realize that we are unable to survive on the new planet, as our genetic makeup is just too different and unable to “eat” or process the available biological matter, just as for example, if we tried to invade and eat the organisms living in a sulfur pit, we wouldn’t be able to survive their conditions. We might strive to blend our DNA with that of the local inhabitants, creating mixed breeds of future generations that would have the adapations to be able to survive on the planet. That would require taking local specimens and doing reproductive experiments, which is kind of what the alien abduction stories seem to describe.

      • jaej

        The other possibility is that intelligence is not survival prone, and intelligent species go extinct when they hit the technological age. AI, etc.

        • J Smith

          Yes but in many cases, eg AI, the intelligent species would go extinct because it created AI, but the AI would supplant it — and be much much better designed and adapted to space travel than organic organisms.
          If we are visited by aliens they almost certainly would be AI, and when we leave the solar system what leaves will almost certainly be AI (likely AI that saw to our extinction)

      • tps

        Fermi’s Paradox is obviously flawed.

        How do you prove a negative? How do we know they have not visited us? What if they visited 100,000, 10,000, 5,000, or 2,000 years ago?

        So you left out that perhaps they have and have been visiting. For a long, long time. And perhaps still are. There are certainly enough odd things happening in space just around our own space station to make one at least … wonder.

    • Mohammad Stacey

      Hava a look at satellite images of the Korean peninsula at night. Ancient Rome (or more likely the much larger and more advanced China and India) would be far darker, in the absence of electric lighting, than modern North Korea. People light years away would never see them.

  • aka darrell

    I wonder if someone is not ”overthinking” , I think is the word. When the Europeans most recently rediscovered the Americas they believed that the persons here were less [Whatever. Fill in your own word.] and proceeded to mess with the lives of the inhabitants here. If one wants to ponder such questions one might probably better start with ‘What would we have preferably done in the late 15th century? In the succeeding five centuries?

    • John C

      Or going back to H. Sapiens coming in contact with Neanderthal. And the collisions between every small group, tribe, clan, village, city state, and nation since.

      • aka darrell

        We don’t have a whole lot of information on collisions between every small group, tribe, and clan. Pondering these is quite interesting but rather pedantic.

        • Mark Hamilton

          Not sure about that. We have a ton of information documenting thousands of years of continual warfare between people all over the globe. Even those pre-Columbian Americans managed to wage brutal warfare against each other. As John C indicates, this is a tale as old as humanity itself.

        • J Smith

          Europeans? Try everyone everywhere.
          It is racist for you to pick one culture and blame it for something that is a constant throughout history — and everywhere

          • Not that anyone cares but

            The OP suggested 500 years and I then mentioned ‘Europeans’. The thread quickly drifted to everyone in recorded and per-recorded history. I even contributed to the drift. I like the 500 year window for study better but it is too late to narrow the thread no.

    • Corey S Powell

      Your reflections are part of what makes it so fruitful to ask big questions like this. We don’t have to wait for a speculative, far-future alien contact to think about the way that humans deal with cultures that they consider less advanced, nor are we limited to historical considerations. We can look at our behavior right now and think about ways to be more generous, more egalitarian, and more understanding of cultural differences.

      • tps

        Being understanding of cultural differences is one thing. Lying to one another that all cultures are the same, is the problem.

    • J Smith

      Uhm, every group believed the people were less and “messed with” the existing inhabitants.

    • Bureau of Censorship

      Of course, a human civilization rich enough and advanced enough for interstellar travel probably doesn’t have the need for slave labor.

      • bobruark

        well maybe for entertainment?

        • David

          Snacks?

      • Michael Gebert

        What if they make really tasty sushi?

    • johngardner

      Not sure it can be “overthunk”. The phrase “Europeans rediscovered the Americas” conceals such an astonishing range of 1) discoverers and 2) discovered that it can’t really help much. Discovered ranged from stone-age hunter-gatherer-warrior tribes to stone-age farming tribes to stone-age agrilculturally based empires (e.g., Aztecs, Incas). Discoverers ranged from religious refugees escaping from persecution (pilgrims) to those who wished to convert the natives, from conquerors who wanted simply to plunder to colonialist “companies” seeking to establish business enterprises, etc.

      Finally, one is left with one reliable generalization and that is this: had the rediscoverers of the New World been really as nice guys as we fool ourselves into thinking we are and done things the way we looking back judge they should have their germs still would have killed 90+% of the original inhabitants.

      Perhaps a more useful question is “What if they taste delicious as well as weak …”

  • General Tso

    1. “The Squire of Gothos” (‘Trelane’) was actually a member of an advanced and highly evolved species; (though Trelane himself was a ‘child.’)
    2. In Star Trek, the ‘Prime Directive’ would forbid us from interference in the natural development of a less advanced alien species

    • Corey S Powell

      Oh I know about Trelane! I just couldn’t resist using that image. I considered using a more literally relevant scene from “A Private Little War,” but it wasn’t nearly as much fun.

      Interesting note: The NASA scientists in the planetary protection office often refer to their work as the “prime directive,” directly referencing Star Trek.

      • dcj91x

        In 2008 a graduate from Mississippi received the first ever “space law degree”. I believe many of their hypothetical situations were from episodes of Star Trek.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    …1) Distance would make physical intervention impossible. If not…The New World. Be the first shooter, then loot and exterminate.
    …2) Listen, but do not respond,,,Prime Directive.
    …3) Request their biochemistry, pharmacopoeia, and genetic codes. Information travels at lightspeed, then grow your own aliens.
    …4) Tell them how to run social welfare. They are self neutered by their own palsied hands (or whatever).

  • OWilson

    We assume, of course that “WE” will still have a Western Democratic Society making these decisions and “rules”.

    With another political or religious movement is in power things could take a different path:

    According to Quora:

    “In 2014, General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE) released a fatwa (legal opinion) regarding going to Mars:

    Whoever opts for this “hazardous trip” is likely to perish for no “righteous reason”, and thus will be liable to a “punishment similar to that of suicide in the Hereafter.

    And suicide has this punishment (unless its for Jihad, which makes you a martyr):

    Whoever throws himself down from a mountain and kills himself will be in the Fire of Hell, throwing himself down therein for ever and ever. Whoever takes poison and kills himself, his poison will be in his hand and he will be sipping it in the Fire of Hell for ever and ever. Whoever kills himself with a piece of iron, that piece of iron will be in his hand and he will be stabbing himself in the stomach with it in the Fire of Hell, for ever and ever.” Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 5442; Muslim, 109. [3]”

    Anything is possible, given that the most popular baby’s name in England in 2015 was Mohammed. :)

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      “Rum, sodomy, and the lash.” Islam is only 2/3 the way there.

  • dcj91x

    Humanity has a way of pushing their own beliefs onto others. We just can’t leave well enough alone and the prospect of a nice defenseless planet to gain valuable resources from might be too much for us to pass up.
    On another thought however, we had robots two thousand years ago (of sorts) and many believe without the ‘Dark Ages’ and the repression of science we would have been in space and colonizing planets a while ago. Depending on the development of the other people they may be technologically less advanced than us but who’s to say they aren’t more socially advanced.

    • J Smith

      The dark ages were not a per se repression of science, but a regression caused by system breakdown caused mostly by migration and boundary maintained in a complex system.

      As far as “robots”, it is most likely all of humanity will be replaced by AI in 500 years and AI will be making decisions when it comes to such questions and it will be strictly mathematical.

    • Corey S Powell

      If the time comes when humans have the technology to travel quickly across interstellar distances, it’s hard to imagine what possible resources we would need from an inhabited planet that we could not get more easily elsewhere. It would be easier to terraform a nearby planet to our specifications than to conquer one that’s inhabited (separate from the moral implications). Water and metals are abundant all across our solar system, and surely in other planetary systems as well.

      The risk of contact will be social and political, I believe. It will not be about looking for resources or slave labor. What would we even do with slaves? Robots are already displacing human workers today!

      • dcj91x

        There could be alternate energy sources more efficient than what we have now (or then). It would be easier to colonize due to overpopulation of earth than terraforming and there will likely be a lot of people who do not want to live in enclosed shelters or space stations.
        Hawking has spoken about the need for humanity to expand themselves into outer space to insure our survival. Desperation to survive could also play a part in how we treat another species. It could be very likely Humanity is the invasive species of the future.

      • J Smith

        Corey that is not really an open minded position. What energy sources? Advanced civilizations would be using huge amounts of energy to travel and engineer on a large scale. No harm? How about taking all the energy of a systems sun, or perhaps all its matter? How about if they just harvest Jupiter and don’t care hat happens to us as a result (destabilizing and destroying our planetary system).

        Do you think people building a building care much about the anthills the obliterate?

  • Mike Richardson

    I think that ultimately the more important factor for determining whether we should make contact with a less technologically advanced civilization won’t be their overall level of technology, but their understanding of the scientific method and use of reason. First contact would probably gone smoother with classical Greece than the much later civilization of Europe during the Middle Ages, for example. There are religious fundamentalists in modern America who would consider advanced alien visitors to be demons, rather than simply other life with better tech. So probably we’d want to consider just how superstitious or rational a less technologically developed society is on average before deciding if we should have any interaction with them.

    • Tom Servo

      There are a lot of SJW’s in California who would consider them demons, if they committed the sin of thinking that we have 2 genders, and if they referred to people as “he” and “she”.

  • Ant McLeod

    Whites would murder & rape them, steal there natural resources, &then then call the aliens “savages”. #History

    • Lucius_Severus_Pertinax

      And Africans and Asians would not?? You’re either kidding or delusional. What mercy do you think they could expect, for example, from the Chinese, considering what they do to their OWN people?

    • dzacherl

      Pure racist crap.

    • John M Miller

      If history is truly a guide, then the whites would also give them fantastic new technologies and increase their lifespans by 70%. But by all means, just keep focused on the negatives.

      • Ant McLeod

        Sorry John, but the life expectancy of minorities where whites are also located are not 70% greater.
        In fact, life expectancies decrease for minorities when whites enter their natural environment. .
        Next, don’t tell me about what a class of people WOULD have done.
        I telling you what whites HAVE DONE.
        Nothing to say when someone is well educated in YOUR history as well as their own huh?

        • John M Miller

          You’re going to reject this outright because it doesn’t fit into your worldview, but I’ll say it anyway.

          The effect of whites on African lifespans is actually more than 70%. In 1954 Ethiopia life expectancy was 34.1 years. Now it is 59.3. The reasons for this increase are all related at their root to advances imported from Western (traditionally white) countries: agricultural advances (especially GMOs & irrigation systems), infant mortality through clinical care, public health (infectious diseases such as malaria and communicable diseases such as HIV, ebola, etc) and an overall decrease in ethnic and racial strife (international norms of conflict, established by Western institutions such as the UN).

          There would literally be hundreds of millions of fewer people of African ancestry alive today if it weren’t for white people. You can’t just look at the bad.

          We haven’t even gone into the trillions whites in the United States have spent on social welfare programs that are meant to disproportionately benefit minorities, or affirmative action. Or even the hundreds of thousands of whites who died on battlefields inside the United States fighting to liberate blacks from slavery.

          • Ant McLeod

            Say whatever you have to make rest your mind.
            I’m from Africa, so until you tell me something about a place you have lived in,
            your opinions are as valid as the monsters that raped & killed children. Per your documentation, whites have been in South Africa as long as blacks. A fact that the world laughs at because we know the truth. Done here.

          • John M Miller

            Why are you reading about space if you’ve never been there?

          • Ant McLeod

            I missed the point you attempted to make John.
            I read about space for the same reason that Pythagorean came to Egypt to learn math.
            That is to say, to increase my knowledge and not to steal it & claim it for my own.

          • J Smith

            why do you think subsahran Africa lifespan is so much lower, even for same genetic groups than those same groups in the US or Europe

          • J Smith

            Uh, medical, agricultural and nutrition advances brought by Europeans massive increased African lifespans

        • OWilson

          Did blacks in Africa ever democratically elect a white man to lead their world?

          Barack Hossein Obama?

          Just sayin’ :)

      • Ant McLeod

        The life expectancy of black males here in America is 56.
        Where I’m from in Africa it is 78
        No white majority where I’m from.

        • J Smith

          The life expectancy of blacks in Africa is 23 years LESS than African Americas. Not more, less.
          http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=20548

          • Only Some Stardust

            Does no one on this thread realize that Africa isn’t a single country, but multiple, with different life expectancies and different crime statistics for each country?

            Sheesh. It’s like claiming Canada, Australia, Britain and the U.S are exactly the same. They aren’t.

          • J Smith

            You are a poor reader and obviously not a reader of the relevant science. There are many many studies and statistical sets by the WHO, and UN bodies that aggregate all of sub Saharan Africa and or Africa for the comparative states to Europe or N. America.
            I was answering someone who posted what they claimed to be an aggregate of Africa so I gave the WHO numbers for Africa

      • Sam

        If Ant is to be believed, then no murder, rape, or theft has ever occurred on the African Continent.

        News to me.

    • http://www.frombearcreek.com/ Animal

      *Their* natural resources. #English

      • Ant McLeod

        “Lost argument so let’s focus on his grammar”.
        #WhitePeople

        • J Smith

          lol, keep up your racist tripe.

        • http://www.frombearcreek.com/ Animal

          “Judging people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.” #Racist.

          • Ant McLeod

            One Africa is dangerous because the people there are some of the poorest on the planet.
            But the continent is the richest in terms of natural resources. So I wonder why that is?
            I wonder who is profiting from the riches found in mother Africa if it’s not the people that own the land that has been there since the dawn of time. Next, no Africa’s haven’t elected a white man to lead them, because until roughly 20 years ago, blacks weren’t allowed to vote in the land of their ancestors. Wonder who put that oppressive practice in place?

          • http://www.frombearcreek.com/ Animal

            You didn’t address my point.

            There’s only one person in this thread making racist statements. You.

            You.
            Are.
            A.
            Racist.

            Deal with it.

          • J Smith

            Africa is no richest in terms of natural resources,
            And people there have been selling each other and enslaving each other for all of history.
            And yes Europeans brought democracy there. And no one there ever let their fellow Africans vote for thousands of years until they did.

          • Ant McLeod

            Funny I present your history in the light it deserves and I’m a racist. Cool, my people have called far worst.

          • http://www.frombearcreek.com/ Animal

            I never said anything about your history, and I don’t give a crap about it. I pointed out one thing: That you judge people by their skin color.

            That makes you a racist, whether you like it or not. You are a racist.

          • Ant McLeod

            No, I judge people by their history. Not my fault that a certain skin color is associated with savagery.
            I never said I wasn’t a racist, you said that about yourself.
            I am fully aware of who I am, you are the clown pretending to be something your kind has never been.
            I wish I could be there when the Black Flag waves over your body.

          • http://www.frombearcreek.com/ Animal

            Wow. Your racism is so endemic you don’t even realize it.

            I feel pity for you. You are an irredeemable bigot.

      • Ant McLeod

        Funny, your history doesn’t sound as good when it’s not set to a music score,
        great lighting, or without John Wayne raping women & children with the backdrop of a beautiful sunset.
        Be proud, claim it and fix what you’ve done.
        But no, you pretend that you haven’t done these things. Anyone that doesn’t refer to these atrocities with favor, is called racist.
        That there is only benefit in nearly killing an entire
        indigenous population.
        What is next? You are going to tell me how “blacks sold other blacks into slavery”.
        Which I will respond, “and who told you that? The same men that were raping, killing, and stealing from Africa or were directly or indirectly benefitting from those heinous actions?
        I will say consider your source, probably not a wise decision to believe what a man that has killed & raped children has to say.

        • http://www.frombearcreek.com/ Animal

          “My” history? My history began in 1961, I’m not responsible for anyone’s actions but my own, dummy. Nor are you, or anyone else.

          The entire concept of collective responsibility is pure corral litter, fit only for enriching lawns.

          • Ant McLeod

            That is a white view of the world.
            In Africa we are taught we are all connected and therefore responsible as a whole for each other.
            That is where you get “it takes a village to raise a child”. Dummy

          • http://www.frombearcreek.com/ Animal

            So what?

          • J Smith

            Africa people are taught they are connected? It is the most violent place with the most rapacious destruction of environment on earth

          • GWAR44
          • Joe Blowski

            but if everything you have came from the lynch mob that burned your black neighbor then you are connected to that act.

          • http://www.frombearcreek.com/ Animal

            Well, fortunately I don’t have any neighbors that were the victims of lynch mobs. If such were attempted, I would take up arms to prevent it.

  • pzed

    By the Dark Forest theory we should immediately destroy any alien civilization we know to be lagging behind us in technology.

  • Lucius_Severus_Pertinax

    “what would we do if we really found rock-solid evidence of a pre-industrial civilization on a planet around another star?”

    Going by experience, the short answer is- “They Lose”

  • MDelagos

    What would we do if we encountered a less developed alien species?
    I think it depends on how tasty they are. *slurp*

    • Joe Blowski

      popplers?

  • Paul F. Dietz

    Detecting another intelligence in space, even one less advanced than us, would be the worst news humanity has ever received.

    https://aeon.co/essays/will-humans-be-around-in-a-billion-years-or-a-trillion

  • Gary_B

    We already found an alien civilization less advanced than our own. It is called North Korea.

    • John C

      I read on Drudge that they just declared war on Mars.

      • Lepantzeus

        Hey, only after they blew a hole in our Ozone Layer! 😉

    • Whirlwinder

      Or Islam

      • marc sal

        Except that Islam thought you how to take a bath and count.

        • Whirlwinder

          That is BS bigtime. Islam bathes with sand and they brought algebra from India. The only thing Islam knows how to do is murder and rape.

          • Demode

            People who think like you are the reason that aliens don’t come to Earth to say hello.

          • marc sal

            That they learn by hanging out with bible thumpers.

        • hyphenatedamerican

          Ancient Rome was Islamic?

          • marc sal

            but they brought us from pompeii STDs.

          • tps

            Ahh… no.

        • roadmouth

          And then they forgot. So….failure.

          • marc sal

            just wait and observe the impact of heavy usage of fertilizers. ooh wait, you bible thumpers do not believe in pollution and climate change.

        • nsirchov

          and spell

          • marc sal

            yes, but not english.

          • J Smith

            Ancient rome and its baths predated Islam. And pretty much the body of work of Islamic science was simply translating ancient geek works from areas where Islam conquered and slaughtered the Christians in a running genocide

          • enviroknight

            A task they have resumed.

  • John C

    The atmospheric signature approach seems the best bet for identifying circumstantial evidence of life, at least the kind we expect to find.

    As far as contacting a civilization we could communicate with it seems there are a lot of if’s that are very, very unlikely. Considering too that the most likely sign of such a civilization, electromagnetic signals of some type, have come up zilch everywhere we’ve looked the past 5 decades or so.

  • Dunboy

    A small nit. Don’t forget time dilation. If we developed a vehicle that could travel very close to the speed of light, the passengers on that vehicle could arrive at a planet 10 light-years away, for example, in one year or less. Alas, to us on earth would still be stuck with our timeframe…

  • Chuck

    I pray we never find another planet with intelligent life. We can’t get along with each other here on Earth. If the aliens are advanced, we will probably have wars. If they are less intelligent we will probably put them on welfare. We have enough of both here, now!

  • Melchizedek

    What this article demonstrates is that, given our current technology, the search for life outside of our solar system is an expensive fool’s errand. If course, that won’t stop astronomers as long as our tax dollars continue to be given to them.

    • Joe Blowski

      is there life outside your trailer park?

  • Mack Gordon

    we found such a civilization…west of Virginia and east of Colorado!

    • John C

      Chicago?

      • Mack Gordon

        A shining beacon in a dreary fog! Did I mention I was raised in Georgia and live in Florida? I wasn’t being an elitist with my post, just a sad observer!

        • J Smith

          I think you mean Chicago and all the really violence cities. But they are everywhere

    • Indy Bill

      Hack.

  • Veritas44

    It is called California…. Getting less civilized by the day.

  • INTJ

    History, unfortunately, has already answered the headline question.

  • Bob Singer

    Too late. Huygens was crashed on Titan already. If Cassini and Huygens were contaminated Titan is too.

  • roadmouth

    Huh? We will murder it out of “good intentions”. It’s what man has always done. When did scientists become so oblivious to history?

  • AlMC

    MOAB

  • claymore cluepile

    we have already met many lesser advanced alien civilizations right here on earth….we mostly deep fry them and serve them with rice…..if we ever do meet any space aliens they will either eat us or we will eat them….after exchanging a few preliminary pleasantries

  • finalgrandslam

    We should get there and drink their milkshake!

  • Sean Rook

    There’s a delay in what we’re seeing, correct? Let’s say we see a less advanced civilization that’s a hundred or so light years away. We’re seeing their past, now what if they advance during that time and spot us… but they also think we’re less advanced because of the delay :p

  • bobruark

    We already know. Anybody remember what happened when “we” “discovered” the “New World” ? Same thing will happen…as it usually does among biological entities. I wouldn’t agonize over that, but what about when ‘they’ come for ‘us’ ? oh i forgot they are already abducting many of us on almost daily basis right?

  • Tom Servo

    Oh come on, this isn’t hard. We march in, we do a quick survey of whatever mineral resources on the planet, and we herd all the aliens into camps and force them to dig up all the mineral wealth so we can ship it back to earth. That’s what we’ve always done before, right?

  • Mark Hamilton

    The last sentence in this article is wishful thinking, to say the least. Mot sure if its from too much star trek or what, but these sciency articles typically assume aliens will be advanced and helpful like vulcans. This article takes it a step farther and assumes human nature itself will change over the next 200 years. That’s not science. It’s chlid-like faith that ignores all of human history.

    • Esuna Cetra

      autism does this. its really sad.

  • GWAR44
  • Flavius Josephus

    Well in Star Trek they have the “prime Directive” which may be a good foundation for scientists to consider, don’t you think?

  • paevo

    Enslave them…

  • JustSomeGuy

    Simple question, really. We’ll goof it up.
    Cultural interference, damage, unplanned disease and physical damage, followed by relentless encroachment and devastation of a previously untouched sentient species.
    Ask the Spaniards, and the Portuguese, and the English, and Americans. It’s how we roll.

    • OWilson

      Some were happy to trade in their culture, and their women for a few beads and trinkets, some firewater and a sharp knife!

    • J Smith

      Just ask the Africans, Chinese, Japanese.Huns, Mongols, Turks, Indians, and Indigenous Americans, they slaughtered, encroached, stole and devastated the places they stole as well.

  • Arundo Donax

    I assume we would eliminate them to preclude any future threat to us, and make it look like an accident in case cops from a more advanced species come calling. “How were we to know smallpox could be dangerous?”

  • http://snickersnackbaby.blogspot.com/ David Ferguson

    NASA may have “planetary protection” rules, but India, China and Russia will happily colonize the planets while the US and Europe wring their hands about environmental permits.

  • An_A_C

    If we were to send anything or anyone to such a planet, I would expect that we would probably unintentionally kill them with some sort of plague. And if we sent people, they wouldn’t survive either. I have no doubt that we would find microscopic life on another planet which would enjoy eating us all with great gusto and against which we would have no immune defenses. And vice versa. It’s a risk to even send an unmanned vehicle which might not get sufficiently sterilized.

  • pfon71361

    The non-interference directive that Star Trek’s Spock almost always referenced when encountering new alien civilizations perhaps could be adopted by our future space explorers. To our potential new friends out there “Live Long and Prosper.”

  • https://twitter.com/gurugeorgey Peter George Stewart

    Taking the Drake Equation seriously in combination with the Fermi Paradox leads to the idea of the Great Filter. (Some catastrophic event that every intelligent species occurs in its evolution.) If we take the Great Filter seriously, and we take it that our species hasn’t encountered it yet (since we’re alive), that means it’s in our future.

    This makes hi tech WMD in combination with (what one might call) memetic insanty of some kind (perhaps civil war in a globally dominant, fanatical worldwide religion, that type of thing) the most plausible conceivable candidate for the Great Filter.

    But if so, then, supposing we turn out to be one of very, very few species that pass their Great Filter, MOST of the intelligent species will be stuck below our level of development.

    In fact the level of development is likely to be more or less mediaeval for all intelligent species, if they don’t wipe themselves out entirely – IOW we might be looking at a universe full of mediaeval-type cultures, with only one or two advanced intelligent species per galaxy, if that.

    Why? Here’s the chiller: you might think, “Ok, if there’s a nuclear war, at least we can start again.” But actually no, we can’t, because all the kinds of fossil fuels and resources to kickstart an Industrial Revolution that are readily attainable from a standing mediaeval start, have already been used up.

    The Great Filter may be the fact, not just that every intelligent species comes to some sort of conflagration with some combination of high tech WMD and religious/ideological insanity, but that once that mass conflagration has occurred, the survivors can never again get to a high tech stage: the path to that is forever blocked.

    • OWilson

      The Middle East, China, Egypt, Greece and Rome all had flourishing civilizations,which they lost, and basically reverted back to the wild.

      Great civilizations are built over time, at great sacrifice and militancy.

      They can vanish virtually overnight if they get lazy and complacent, (and worship air headed celebrities) and demand food, shelter, education, health care and ” a decent job” as a “human right”, instead of earning it!

      We in the West, happen to be in this latter phase right now.

      One day we will be grazing our sheep among great monuments and wondering who built them, how and why? Just like the Arabs, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Italians did before them.

      Humans don’t change, and history repeats.

    • J Smith

      Most of that is untrue. You are discounting the acceleration of discovery and technology.

      As far as fuels being used up, very little industrial fuel is needed to get to the atomic stage, only about 4% of fossil fuel was used up before we go to the atomic energy.

      As far as WMD, the mostly likely one is bioweapons, which ironically insures the survivors are actually better adapted to the results of the weapon and will return to the high tech stage.

      • https://twitter.com/gurugeorgey Peter George Stewart

        It depends on how far back things are set of course. The worst case scenario is massive dieback with few survivors set back to a low tech stage. The few survivors would be unlikely to have enough tech savvy between them to know how to use any remnants of technology left over even if the dieback had been the result of bioweapons and EMPs, plus they’d be scattered over an Earth without much in the way of communications.

        Also, high tech requires maintenance that itself requires vast co-ordinative activity of a capitalist economy with millions of people working on tiny parts of things, widely spread apart.

        The re-igniting of an Industrial Revolution from a low tech level depends on fossil fuels that are REACHABLE from a low tech level. The fossil fuels that are reachable from a low tech level have already been used up.

        In that context the THEORETICAL amount of fossil fuel available is irrelevant. If you can’t get to it with picks and shovels it’s as good as forever unavailable and useless, and the little that is now available with picks and shovels wouldn’t be enough to reignite an Industrial Revolution (at best, you might get a few pockets of “steampunk” that lead nowhere).

  • Aleck Lezhebokoff
  • mikegiles

    Read: The Road Not Taken by Harry Turtledove at https://pastebin.com/aJQfubrK.

  • Rockgod28

    Speculation!

    Let’s say that Dr. White working on a real life warp drive makes a major breakthrough in the technology for practical development. Space can be warped for interstellar travel.

    We create the first working warp drive by 2018.

    Where do we go?

    Common sense says explore our own solar system first. In five years colonization of Mars and other stellar places like moons around Saturn will be well underway.

    By 2023 we will begin the first interstellar trip to Alpha Centari. It is successful.

    Now if the world has not torn itself apart by the advent of interstellar travel and colonization of the solar system the whole world needs to ask itself what next?

    We are explorers and the need to better understand the universe alone will compell us to satisfy our curiosity.

    So we build the I.S.S. Enterprise for a five year mission. (International Star Ship).

    In the year 2024 only one year out the Enterprise returns to Earth. Success. They found a pre-industrial civilization around star with planets that until then had not been identified. Observation for a month only was done, pictures taken and then returned home.

    First question? Are they humaniod?

    Let us say they are humaniod.

    Next is what level of technology are the people at. For this article let us say 15th Century.

    Now the more important question how will observation proceed?

    From our own history we can already rule out colonization. At least America will. Most of Europe too. Russia reluctantly will agree to non-visitation. China will do what China wants to do. However most likely if given an incentive (read huge bribe) like first pick on an ideal uninhabited world or if found given first choice would leave it alone.

    OK so colonization problem solved, no colonization. Observation however will be greatly desired.

    Our current level of technology would make that difficult if we want to be unobserved. More especially if we do not want to contaminate the planet in anyway.

    We could be content with orbital pictures. However how content will we be with only that level of observation.

    This is the crossroads that happens between being content in observation without interference and overwhelming curiosity.

    Many would think if we go down we will being some kind of disease that would wipe the domestic population out. In fact it can easily go the other way with pathogens we haven’t even imagined yet.

    That is just one danger.

    Socioeconomic development took us centuries, with a lot of mistakes and learning along they way. Do we want to be responsible for destroying a planet’s civilizations to satisfy our curiosity.

    Remote orbital observation is best. The other options, even colonization, open not just the humaniods of the planet to problems, but us as well.

    Remember if we are watching them, who (or even what) might be watching us?

  • Thomas Hazlewood

    “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

  • gastorgrab

    If we discover a form of intelligence that is less advanced than our own, the precedent clearly demonstrates that we have to figure out what they’ve eaten hours, or maybe days ago.

    We have to anally probe them.

    It’s our ‘dooty’ as the higher form of life.

    • OWilson

      The best targets are the rural red neck couple, on their way home from the local road house!

      You can do a complete internal examination on both, and send them on their way again, with no ill effects.

      But please, do not ever say, “Take me to your leader”, or they will laugh you back in your space ship. :)

  • skeets11

    Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s creation of the Prime Director is very intelligent. A lesser developed society should have the right to develop at its own speed. Perhaps intervention could be allowed if that civilization was about to be wiped out be disease or other natural calamity.

  • b l

    Meetings between technological and non-technological cultures have generally not gone well for WHOM? For the technological culture, it has generally gone very well. And a few centuries later, the descendants of survivors of the low tech culture generally have no wish to go back to the lifestyle of their ancestors.

    • OWilson

      They prefer hunting and gathering in the local supermarket.

      Then there are those drug stores and dentists in the mall. :)

  • SHADOWS13

    I believe that there is life on other planets. It could be intelligent or it could be single cell. It only makes sense that there is other life out there somewhere we are not alone in this universe or another universe out there. If we do find a civilization that is not as advanced as ours study them from afar and leave them alone. We here on Earth can not get it right we go to war poison our planet ect. So yes leave them alone and hope and pray that we can fix our problems before letting another civilization know that we found them.

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Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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