With Ridley Scott’s latest instalment in his classic Alien franchise, now’s the perfect time to wildly speculate about extraterrestrials. In Alien: Covenant and so many other movies like it, our cosmic neighbours turn out to be real arseholes. They’re always trying to conquer Earth, or eat humans, or do other weird shit, like hunt Arnold Schwarzenegger in the jungle. If you’re not Arnold Schwarzenegger, this usually ends pretty badly.
Alien: Covenant ostensibly picks up where Prometheus left off, except it focuses on a different crew looking to colonise a planet. Unsurprisingly, once the crew encounters xenomorphs on that strange world, things go awry. According to our own Germain Lussier, there’s nothing terribly original or scary about it, which is a bummer for fans of the space horror the original Alien movies were so good at evoking. It also begs a question: Is it time we finally move past this trope of humans getting slaughtered at the hands of an intelligent-yet-merciless extraterrestrial? On a scale from E.T. to War of the Worlds, how diabolical would intelligent aliens really be?
For answers, we caught up with Doug Vakoch, president of the METI Institute—a group of scientists that attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life by sending radio signals out into the void. As a literal alien hunter, Vakoch is very familiar with the subject matter—and the sci-fi movies that have so profoundly coloured our perception of alien contact.
Gizmodo: Obviously, we haven’t found aliens. But if we did, do you think they’d be hostile? Indifferent? Maybe even a little nice?
Doug Vakoch: It’s tough to second-guess alien motivations. Often SETI scientists have assumed that extraterrestrials who have survived long enough to make contact will have overcome any warlike traits they had earlier in their evolution. If they haven’t learned to play nice with others, the reasoning goes, they won’t have survived the thousands or millions of years needed to be a stable interstellar civilisation.
Perhaps rather than trying to anticipate with certainty what extraterrestrials will be like, we can accomplish more by playing out the various scenarios. For example, Steven Hawking has warned that we should not transmit messages to aliens, because they might come to our planet to strip mine it. But is that really realistic? I don’t think so. First of all, it makes no economic sense to travel across the galaxy to look for something you can find in your own cosmic backyard. Second, any civilisation that has the ability to traverse the distances between the stars could already know were here, so we don’t expose ourselves to any additional dangers in transmitting intentional signals. But there is an upside to transmitting: we may just intrigue the extraterrestrials enough to get them to reply.
Gizmodo: Would aliens even be hypothetically interested in Earthlings?
DV: My favourite answer to the Fermi Paradox—if the aliens are out there, why haven’t we heard from them?—is that we haven’t been very interesting so far. Perhaps they are monitoring our TV and radio signals, and they’re just not very impressed. In the Zoo Hypothesis, we postulate that extraterrestrials may be like galactic zookeepers, watching our species as if we were animals in the cosmic menagerie. And so far, all they’re seeing is a bunch of animals talking to one another. But if you go to the zoo and all of a sudden one of the zebras turns directly toward you and starts pounding out a series of prime numbers with its hoof, all of a sudden you’ll have a very different relationship with that creature.
That’s what we’re hoping to do with METI—Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. We want to let the aliens know that we’re interested in an interstellar conversation. It may just be that our taking the initiative is a prerequisite to learning they’re out there.
Gizmodo: What movie do you think gets it wrong the most when it comes to aliens? For example, I think Signs had the biggest plot hole of all time by making the aliens allergic to water, on a planet that’s full of it. What a bunch of stupid aliens!
DV: The movie about extraterrestrials that I hate the most has to be Species, because it violates a fundamental truth: it’s gonna be tough, if not impossible, to communicate with aliens.
The movie’s premise goes like this. SETI scientists get a reply back to the message transmitted by astronomers in 1974 from the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico, a three-minute interstellar message that gave a bare-bones overview of chemistry and our DNA. And I do mean bare-bones. In reality, any extraterrestrial receiving the message would be hard-pressed to understand that this low-resolution bitmap has anything to do with chemistry, and if they did understand every part of the message as it was intended, they would only have the most basic description of the chemical elements in human genetic material—how many atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus there are in the different sections of DNA. That’s it.
In Species though, the aliens are able to use the Arecibo message as a blueprint for reconstructing humans, and then go a step further, sending instructions for creating a human—alien hybrid. A supermodel hybrid played by Natasha Henstridge.
The other big scientific error in this movie? The alien reply to the Arecibo message came just a few years after the original message was sent from Puerto Rico. In reality, it will take 50,000 years to get a response, because the destination is a globular cluster of stars 25,000 light years from Earth.
Species does have one thing going for it. It anticipated the Chilbolton crop circle messages, found next to the Chilbolton radio telescope in the United Kingdom, where a modified version of the Arecibo message showed up overnight. Unfortunately, the Chilbolton message is no more compelling as evidence of real contact than the movie Species.
Gizmodo: Why do you think aliens are always really aggressive in sci-fi movies?
DV: In truth, peaceful aliens are kind of boring. We don’t watch Game of Thrones because everyone treats each other nicely. Conflict in fiction is engaging, and what better conflict than the threat of annihilation by marauding extraterrestrials?
But we pay a price for these dire visions of annihilation. They can have a serious impact on science. When Steven Hawking says “don’t transmit, because whenever a more advanced civilisation meets a less advanced one, it’s a disaster for the less advanced,” that makes it all the harder to do METI.
It’s easy to dismiss alien invasion movies as simply amusing science fiction. But their impact is much greater. We have no concrete evidence of how extraterrestrials will behave, so to get guidance, we look toward Hollywood. When we’re trying to interpret ambiguous situations, we rely on what psychologists call the “availability heuristic.” We look at the vivid, available images in front of us, and that guides our reasoning.
What could be more vivid as we try to anticipate the nature of contacting extraterrestrials than the latest blockbuster in the Alien franchise? But does that make these images reliable or realistic? Nothing could be further from the truth.
Gizmodo: Do you think realistically we’ll find life somewhere in the next few decades?
The key to success in SETI—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—is in looking at enough targets. We now know that virtually all stars have planets circling them, and perhaps as many as one in five star systems has a potentially habitable exoplanet at just the right distance from its star to support life. Or maybe more than one suitable planet, as in the TRAPPIST-1 star system. So there’s a lot of real estate out there where life may live.
On a related note, over the past few decades we have discovered that life can survive in the harshest of environments here on Earth—from the frozen tundra of the Arctic, to deep-sea hydrothermal vents, to acid hot springs, to the core of nuclear reactors. Once life get started, it’s tenacious. So we are all the more encouraged that life could survive on planets even radically different from Earth.
But will we ever search enough exoplanets to have success? In the next couple of decades, with the launch of the James Webb telescope, we may be able to image the atmospheres of exoplanets, giving us clues about the existence of indigenous microbial life. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is also ramping up. At METI’s optical SETI observatory in Panama, we’ve already monitored thousands of stars for brief laser pulses, which would indicate advanced civilisations sending intentional messages our direction. So far, we’ve found no direct evidence of intelligence in the cosmos. But as this project develops, along with others, our chances increase dramatically with each passing year.
In the next decade, the Breakthrough Listen project plans to search for signals from civilisations circling one million stars, as well as a hundred other galaxies. With those kind of numbers, we have a reasonable chance of finding ET if they’re are out there and trying to make contact.
Gizmodo: What is your favourite alien from a sci-fi movie or TV show?
DV: When we choose our favourite extraterrestrial, it’s natural to think about who we would want to hang out with. A cuddly, caring ET? A consummately logical Spock? When we watch a movie, it’s natural to project ourselves into the action. I like the recent movie Arrival precisely because it did that—it brought the extraterrestrials to Earth—and yet the scientists in charge of understanding them had to struggle to make sense of their language. And that seems realistic to me.
The scientists in Arrival tried to attribute a positive, unthreatening image to these extraterrestrials by calling them Abbott and Costello, but these aliens never became Amy Adams’ best friends. And that’s the reality of contacting extraterrestrials. As in Arrival, our encounter with a radically Other civilisation may force us to re-examine something as fundamental as our sense of time, but it’s never going to bring us in contact with a new best friend. For that, we need to reach out to others here on Earth.