Is there life out there somewhere, intelligent life? This is the question I am most often asked at one of my stargazing programs. It is a question that has been asked over and over again in many different ways. The universe is a big place and maybe we are feeling a little lonely not having heard from anybody else.
In 1896 Nikola Tesla claimed to have listened to radio signals from Martians he was sure inhabited the Red Planet. SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has continued in some form or another for decades, although a loss in government funding has limited its scope.
What if there are aliens out there in our own backyard, so to speak? Would they be able to find us? Let’s pick a star nearby, one that you have almost certainly never seen and probably never heard of, Zeta Reticuli. It is actually a pair of sun-like stars orbiting each other and can only be seen at latitudes far south of here. The sixth-brightest star in the dim, obscure constellation Reticulum, “the net,” it is barely visible to the naked eye on a very dark and clear night.
This little pair of stars has one of the most colorful histories of any celestial object up there. Remember that UFO crash near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947? Conspiracy theorists claim the government has aliens from that crash pickling in glass jars hidden away in a warehouse somewhere. They even say there is a 16-millimeter movie reel with footage depicting military doctors performing an autopsy on one of the aliens. Guess where they were supposed to come from? Zeta Reticuli.
Then there was that science fiction movie “Alien,” a story about a space ship landing on a lonely, inhospitable world and inadvertently bringing an alien creature on board with them. In one of the most iconic scenes in all of science fiction, the creature claws its way out of one of the crew member’s chest at the dinner table, then runs amok through the ship, picking off the hapless astronauts one by one. Where did they pick up that nasty creature? Zeta Reticuli.
Then there is a group of people, almost a cult really, loosely bound together by a website known as Zeta Talk. Look that up for fun some time. The leader claims to be receiving telepathic communications from far-off aliens by way of an implant inserted in her brain. Where are those aliens? Zeta Reticuli. It is amazing what some people will actually believe! They predicted a giant mysterious planet called Niburu was going to crash into us in 2003 and when that did not happen, again in 2012. As far as I can tell we are still here!
Suppose there are intelligent beings in the Zeta Reticuli system. Would they know we are here? If they are as smart as us, they would probably know about earth because we have the technology to find a small planet in our neighborhood, but would they know about us humans?
You might think that if they have telescopes that they would be able to see the light from our cities at night. That is unlikely because the powerful glare from our sun would drown out even the largest cities. It would be like trying to spot a firefly buzzing around a searchlight from a million miles away.
Pop culture in space
If they have an antenna big enough, they might be watching our TV shows. Now that is a scary thought! When you turn off your TV after watching the news or whatever, you might think that is the end of it. Actually, those signals travel out into the cosmos at the speed of light indefinitely. Zeta Reticuli is almost 40 light years away, which means they are now watching what we watched 40 years ago, shows like “The Dukes of Hazard,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Happy Days” and of course “Saturday Night Live.” Now that is downright embarrassing, and if there are sentient beings there, they have probably already decided that there is no intelligent life here and what feeble forms may exist need to be exterminated!
Another and probably the most likely way aliens from out there might guess we are here is by examining the earth’s atmosphere. They would be able to pick out elements associated with life like carbon and oxygen and assume that life might be here, though they would not know for sure if it would be intelligent or not.
Be sure to go outside at night and check out those bright stars of winter sometime this month. They will not be around much longer. The big show is happening early in the morning when Venus and Jupiter dominate the pre-dawn sky.
One more thing about aliens. The late and great physicist, Stephen Hawking, gave us a warning about the whole extraterrestrial thing before he died. He said trying to contact intelligent life out there was a foolhardy endeavor for the human race. In our own history whenever an advance civilization came in contact with a native population, it did not turn out very well for the natives. His advice is for us to lay low on our little planet in the backwater of the cosmos and hope nobody notices us.