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How Science News Travels In the Alien Zoo

There's a paper "posted":http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.4462 to the internet now that, since getting somewhat randomly "picked up":http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/aug/18/aliens-destroy-humanity-protect-civilisations by the Guardian, is making the...

by Michael Byrne
Aug 23 2011, 3:40pm

There’s a paper posted to the internet now that, since getting somewhat randomly picked up by the Guardian, is making the rounds in a pretty real way. Odds are decent that you’ve already heard something or other about aliens and how they might want to destroy us because we’re destroying the Earth. Like, aliens might view Earth’s ecology as more important than a rather clumsy, and comparatively primitive civilization.

It reads:

ETI [extra-terrestrial intelligence] that place intrinsic value on civilizations may ideally wish that our civilization changes its ways, so we can survive along with all the other civilizations. But if ETI doubt that our course can be changed, then they may seek to preemptively destroy our civilization in order to protect other civilizations from us. A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilization may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilizational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of Earth's atmosphere (e.g. via greenhouse gas emissions), which therefore changes the spectral signature of Earth.

There’s actually several scenarios outlined in the paper, from aliens spreading disease to aliens giving us a technological hand, but the above quoted is the one that’s making people go “whoa real actual scientists said that!” Really, the paper seems more like a fun exercise undertaken by a group of researchers who probably spend a great deal of time on things far more tedious/mundane.

Which doesn’t mean that I can’t pull out my own favorite scenario for your perusal. It’s what’s called the Zoo Hypothesis, a not-new solution to the Fermi paradox (simply: there should be a lot of aliens out there, so what haven’t we found one).

ETI could have the capability of hiding from us given the likelihood of their superior technology, and there are many ways that ETI could remain undetected by us if it chooses to do so. The simplest approach would be to hide among the asteroids and observe us at a distance. In this case, such ETI will cease to be invisible to us when we have searched enough of the asteroid belt to detect signs of their presence, such as mining on asteroids, excess infrared radiation from spacecraft, or intelligent conversational space probes. A more sophisticated approach would eliminate all outgoing electromagnetic signals by to hide any signatures of its presence, and ETI with even greater technological prowess could engineer a virtual planetarium surrounding Earth so that we are forced to observe an empty universe.

In essence, we’re just living in a well-crafted zoo created by a super-advanced alien civilization. See also: the simulated universe. We only know what we can perceive, and our perceptions are fairly easy to manipulate.

That’s pretty fun to think about, but maybe one of the best takeaways from the paper is found in the form of a statement from one of the authors, Shawn Goldman, released a few days ago in response to the the Guardian piece. See, Goldman, in the original paper, noted that he was affiliated with NASA. This led the Guardian and the Drudge Report to claim that the paper was from NASA. Which is understandably not a good look for the organization.

But I do admit to making a horrible mistake. It was an honest one, and a naive one. . .but it was a mistake nonetheless. I should not have listed my affiliation as "NASA Headquarters." I did so because that is my current academic affiliation. But when I did so I did not realize the full implications that has. I'm deeply sorry for that, but it was a mistake born our of carelessness and inexperience and nothing more. I will do what I can to rectify this, including distributing this post to the Guardian, Drudge, and NASA Watch.

I’d hate to think this guy’s career is fucked because the Drudge Report is, uh, the fucking Drudge Report and can’t tell the difference between NASA-affiliated author and “NASA REPORT.” But he seems pretty scared in that response. The shitty thing is that there’s a whole lot of people that would love to smear NASA and most anything science, particularly global warming-related.

NASA looking like it commissioned a study about aliens destroying us because of climate change is like anti-science asshole bait on a silver platter. And suddenly you have House commissions recommending full defunding for NASA and huffing and puffing about the “’merican people paying for environmental wackos to write movie plots.” Ugh.

Connections:

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.