TOM BURNS: Here’s how I handle the ‘alien’ question


You can classify the questions from children at Perkins Observatory by grade level. Fifth-graders are impressed by the flashier elements of astronomical speculation. They want to know about wormholes and multiple universes.

Third-graders ask a more elemental – and for me, more fundamental – question: Is there other life out there? More specifically, is there intelligent life? In the third-grade vernacular, the question usually comes out, “Are there other people like us in space, you know, like ALIENS.”

Here is the answer I want to give them: “We know a lot about the stars and planets. We don’t know much about aliens. We don’t even know if there ARE any aliens. I like to talk about the things we know something about.”

In fact, the scientific side of the question is quite complex, and I hope to discuss them here in the coming weeks.

For now, let’s ask what is, for me at least, a more interesting question. Why do we care about extraterrestrial life in the first place?

Humans care about aliens because we feel so alone in a vast and nearly empty cosmos. A star hovers brightly in the nighttime sky, so close that it seems that if we had a ladder long enough we could almost touch it. Yet the universe is large beyond our imagining. Given the current level of technology, trillions of dollars and many generations will be expended before humans ever get to the nearest planet, and the planets are spitting distance compared to the unimaginable distances to the stars. Our intelligence has not reached the level that we can go to these places. Even a simple star is far beyond our reach.

So we hope that those places can come to us in the form of far more intelligent races. If those beings are good, they will solve our problems on Earth. If they are evil, they will unite us in the quest to defeat them, and in that unity, we will solve our problems on our own.

We are castaways on a tiny island, surrounded by vast oceans of space. We have neither boat nor radio that will bridge the great deep, and we are, at the core of our being, afraid of being alone. Aliens, real or imaginary, provide a great deal of comfort.

The trouble is that we are also rational beings. We know that many of our fellow humans want us to believe what they believe. We are bombarded by clever requests to buy into all manner of commercial, moral, social and intellectual messages. We know that the consequences of believing an untruth can be catastrophic to our mental, physical and political well-being. We want some simple truth to solve our problems, but so many people want us to believe things for their own benefit.

If we are smart, we develop a healthy skepticism about ideas. We wonder if a certain soft drink is really the choice of the new generation or if a certain underarm deodorant will really make us more attractive. We ask hard questions about groups that draw us in with beautiful ideas and then demand our total allegiance. Soft drink companies and political cults certainly want our money but, more frighteningly, they want our minds.

If we are wise, we demand that the evidence for any proposition is compelling before we believe it. We try all the soft drinks carefully before we choose a brand, and we carefully evaluate ideas before we let them absorb our lives.

So here is my answer to that third-grader: “I don’t know. Nobody knows.” Those are the three most powerful words you can say if they lead you to say the second most powerful words: “I want to know.”

I don’t know whether the universe is populated with intelligent civilizations or whether they have visited us. The evidence is not compelling that they have, and I will never be able to prove the negative proposition that such intelligences don’t exist. I leave those questions to that generation of third-graders who may yet find an answer.

As for me, I prefer to spend my ever-decreasing time on our planet talking about the miracles that we know, and here is one of them:

As I stare into those clear, 7-year-old eyes, I realize that a mind, full of promise, exists behind them. We have discovered an intelligent race in the universe, and it is us. We are not alone in all this vastness. We have each other. We must nurture the intelligence of the next generation — and the one after that. We must show them the glory and richness of their universe and their place in it. In those eyes — and not in some visitor from beyond — is our greatest hope and our most promising escape from the unspoken fears that haunt our lives.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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