As those clear, 7-year-old eyes stared up at me at one of our public programs at Perkins Observatory, I knew I was in trouble. “Why don’t you talk more about aliens?” he said.
Here is the answer I gave him: “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.”
And that answer is true enough, but it is a falsehood nonetheless. In fact, I have privately pondered the alien issue since I was his age. Here is the answer I wanted to give:
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 would be expended before we get even to the nearest planet. Our intelligence has not reached the level that we can go to the places where intelligent life may or may not exist. Even a simple star is 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 live 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 of any moral stripe 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 that we are afraid of them and their ideas.
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 perfume will really make us more attractive to the opposite sex. Politicians offer us simple answers to complex questions, and we want desperately to believe them.
Most of all, the problems that face us seem more frequent as the complexities in our lives increase. As we face the crisis of the day, we also must face the increased number of tools we have to defeat them. And in the end, none of those tools seem adequate to the task.
If we are smart, 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 chose a brand, and we carefully evaluate ideas before we let them absorb our lives.
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 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 stared into those clear, 7-year-old eyes, I realized 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 is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.