December 03, 2014
Fantasies Of The Ultra-Smart
Kip Thorne is a pretty smart guy.
Until his retirement in 2009 he was Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). According to Wikipedia he is one of "the world's leading experts on the astrophysical implications of Einstein's general theory of relativity."
I guess that's what people do who can't get a job in social media.
I was reading an article about Thorne recently. He was saying that we should continue the search for signals from extraterrestrial life. He said that if we were to find such a signal it would have a "profound effect on us."
I have heard this same idea expressed dozens of times by other scientists and philosophers. And I have never quite understood what it means.
I wonder what profound changes they think would arise from discovering that there is life thousands of light years from earth?
Would we suddenly stop killing each other? Would the greed and envy and hatred that fills the world suddenly evaporate? Would murderous religious maniacs suddenly stop believing their idiotic fairy tales? Would the opulently rich suddenly start sharing their largesse with the needy? Would criminals and predators abruptly abandon their malevolence and adopt virtue?
Because -- here's the thing -- we don't need little green men to do that. All those options are open to us right now.
I am officially skeptical that discovering signals from space would have anything approaching a "profound" effect on us. It would be worthy of its own logo on CNN for a few days and then we'd all go back to work. Soon it would be written off as a trick by the same morons who think dinosaurs lived 6,000 years ago.
Scanning the skies for signals is a worthwhile endeavor simply because as intelligent beings we should want to know.
But the idea that finding such a signal would save us from ourselves is, I'm afraid, another chapter in our long, sad history of magical thinking.