In a recent Q&A forum on my book Extraterrestrial, I confessed that I was looking for signs of intelligent civilizations in the sky because I can’t seem to find any on Earth. A member of the audience laughed and asked, “How do you define an intelligent civilization?
In my book, a smart culture is characterized by hallmarks of science, namely: promoting a prosperous future through cooperation and sharing of evidence-based knowledge. Daily reports indicate that humans do not follow these principles very often. We tend to fight against each other, prioritize bias over evidence, and look for ways to feel superior over others. The latter trend is the source of all evil throughout human history, as it results in phenomena such as elitism, supremacism, nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, genocide, and wars.
And speaking of the damage caused by wars: in 1939, Winston Churchill wrote an essay on the exciting prospects of the search for extraterrestrial life – but has not had time to publish it because he has been asked to serve as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in his fight against the Nazi diet. Driven by Hitler’s racism and anti-semitism, the World War II Cost four trillion dollars for the United States only and 75 million human lives, or about 3% of the world’s population at that time. The loss of life included a genocide of six million Jews — approximately two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe. My grandfather’s family lived in Germany for seven centuries before the war, and only one street remains that bears his name: the Albert-Loeb-Weg in his hometown.
If the resources and lives lost had been spent on Churchill’s original vision instead of being wasted wrongly, we might have known by now whether there is smarter kids on our cosmic block. This alternate story would have signaled intelligence on our side and could have cemented Churchill’s legacy as a thought leader rather than a political leader. But instead, an alien species watching us during WWII would have concluded that we have a long way to go before we gain galactic-scale respect as an intelligent species.
The opposite of war is cooperation, best illustrated by scientific culture. When I embark on a journey anywhere in the world as a practicing scientist, I have the privilege of meeting many other scientists with common interests. Knowledge sharing makes science an infinite sum game, which everyone benefits through cooperation. Had medical records in China been shared more openly during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines could have been developed earlier, saving more lives. Science offers a comprehensive solution to our global problems through cooperation on a planet we all share.
The remarkable success of science and technology in developing COVID-19 vaccines is not celebrated enough. Currently, more than 99% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States are in patients who have not been fully immunized. This fact alone underscores the triumph of medical science and technology to protect us from the pandemic. The efficient messenger RNA vaccine did not follow the traditional approach of using a weakened virus, but instead employed a synthetic chemical to elicit the necessary immune response.
The application of scientific knowledge to practical use, as in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, often stems from many years of blue sky search, which simply aims to better understand the fundamentals. Another important essay written in 1939 was by Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, which helped bring to the United States many Jewish scientists from Europe who would have suffered persecution from the rising Nazi government, including the institute’s very first professor, Albert Einstein. As a result of its turn towards fascism, Germany lost its world leadership in science.
The Flexner essay, “The usefulness of unnecessary knowledge, “describes how curiosity-driven research without concern for application leads to some of the most revolutionary breakthroughs in technology. The delay between scientific discoveries and their practical use can be long. When Einstein developed the general theory of relativity in 1915, he reflected above all on its application to the solar system (precession of Mercury and deviation of starlight by the sun) and the cosmos, but never imagined its crucial role in allowing the precision required for global positioning systems a century later. Likewise, the creators of Quantum mechanics could not imagine its many applications in electronic devices and computers.
Science is the torch that will continue to light our way as we walk through the darkness. We can get a glimpse of our future by finding technological signatures of extraterrestrial civilizations who have had more time to develop their science simply because their host stars formed before the sun. This research of both the biological signatures of microbial life and the technological signatures of intelligent life is examined in depth in a new textbook I wrote in collaboration with my former post-doctoral fellow Manasvi Lingam, Life in the cosmos, to be published by Harvard University Press on June 29. If Churchill were alive, I would have sent him a gift copy of this manual with a dedicated inscription, as a thank you for his foresight in 1939.
Here is the hope for a better future for humanity, guided by science and not by conflict. Scientific knowledge of the existence of distant extraterrestrial intelligences may seem unnecessary at first glance, but it could have the main practical benefit of motivating our civilization to come together and avoid wars, as President Ronald Reagan envisioned in 1987. . address to the United Nations. If we follow the scientific principles of cooperation in the pursuit of evidence-based knowledge, we will demonstrate to extraterrestrial civilizations that there is an intelligent species on Earth worthy of their attention. Maybe then it will become clear why they ignored us for so long. The Fermi Paradox will be resolved by a recognition from their side that our actions are finally intelligent. Wiser behavior on our side could earn us an honorable place in the club of intelligent galactic civilizations for the first time in human history.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.