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Where are the Aliens?
Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer
Robert J. Sawyer
writes and presents a weekly science column for
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.
The columns, which have the umbrella title
Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science,
are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and
syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.
Recorded 29 October 2002
Host: The hottest DVD right now is the 20th-anniversary
edition of Stephen Spielberg's ET. When that film first
came out, everyone wanted to make contact with aliens. Well, it's
now two decades later, and we still haven't. What's going on?
Here's science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, with a look at
why no ETs have phoned our home ...
Robert J. Sawyer: So where the heck are the aliens?
Since 1960, we've been listening for their radio signals. So far,
nary a peep. Surely, if alien civilizations exist, they will
invent radio and given that the universe is billions of
years old, lots of broadcasters should have emerged on the
galactic stage before we did. So where are they?
Sound Effect: Radio frequency sweep
The answer might be buried in our own history. Marconi invented
radio in 1895. Just fifty years later, we had another major
invention: the atomic bomb. The ability to communicate across
interstellar distances and the ability to destroy on a vast scale
appeared almost simultaneously within a single human
lifetime. And that pairing likely happened everywhere in the
universe: after all, both inventions are natural outgrowths of
the same discovery the nature of electromagnetic
Now, Marconi was your classic scientist of lore: a driven man,
working alone, in his own home.
The A-bomb, on the other hand, took all the efforts of one of the
most powerful nations on Earth. But that was then: these days,
it's a lot easier to build bombs, and they're much more powerful
than Fat Man or Little Boy. Eventually, nuclear technology will
be just like radio something individuals can work on in
their basements. And, of course, the other technology of mass
destruction will soon also be the stuff of basement labs:
genetically engineered biological weapons. It's inevitable that
enough power to wipe us all out will soon be in the hands of
every individual whack-o, terrorist, and malcontent.
Now, I'm an optimist. I like to believe that good old Homo
sapiens is an Energizer-bunny kind of species: we'll just
keep on going and going and going.
But the silence from the stars has to be explained somehow
and there are only three possibilities. Either no other
civilizations ever did emerge. Or all the other civilizations
that have emerged ended up destroying themselves. Or
perhaps those that do exist are giving us the cold shoulder.
Actually, that we're alone in the universe seems increasingly
likely. In the book Rare Earth, two astronomers recently
outlined the long list of unlikely events that gave rise to a
stable environment on this world, and point out the
implausibility of such conditions being duplicated elsewhere.
Then again, maybe the universe is populated, but a Star
Trek-style noninterference directive is in effect, and all
the aliens have decided not to communicate with us, lest they
interfere with our normal development.
Music: Theme from Star Trek
Star Trek has always made that sound benign even
noble. But think about it. Could all the aliens, on all
the planets everywhere in the galaxy, have decided to keep quiet?
Remember, it's not just weapons of mass destruction that become
increasingly common with time so do communication
technologies. Even if we're not of interest to some unified
galactic federation, is it really believable that no
aliens on any world want to communicate with us not
even alien school kids? Not alien religious groups? Not alien
Only a completely totalitarian government could prevent all its
citizens from doing something as simple as sending radio signals
out into space. But, given that the choice seems to be between
controlling what everyone does or letting individual
maniacs blow everyone up, maybe all advanced civilizations
do become totalitarian by necessity.
And if that's the case, I think I prefer the notion that we are
I'm Robert J. Sawyer.
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Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer
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