[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

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 radiation.

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 science-fiction fans?

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 alone.

I'm Robert J. Sawyer.

More Good Reading

Other "Science FACTion" commentaries for CBC Radio
"2020 Vision" scenarios for Discovery Channel Canada
Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer

Rob's novel Calculating God, which deals with the Fermi paradox

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