Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Extraterrestrials: Younger astronomers less likely to believe than older ones?

Science writer Fred Heeren noted in "Home Alone in the Universe" (First Things, March 2002) that there may be a generation gap between astronomers in terms of their expectations of finding advanced alien civilizations - and the gap is growing in the wrong directn for ET believers.

Recalling Robert Jastrow's optimism in the 1990s,

“I think that mankind is on the threshold of entering a larger, cosmic community,” he told me during a visit to his home and then to California’s Mt. Wilson Observatories, where he serves as Director. His words carried a kind of ecclesiastical authority, seeming to reverberate from the seven-story dome above him, the observatory he calls a “cathedral dedicated to mankind’s quest for understanding of the Cosmos.” Less loftily, he added, simply, “We’ll be hearing from those guys soon.”
he contrasts it with today's more sobered view:

Other astronomers belonging to Robert Jastrow’s generation recall the same kind of enthusiasm, but new concerns have since dampened it. “I used to rather enjoy thinking that the early civilizations would have set up an intercommunicating system,” said Senior Astronomer Emeritus Eric Carlson of Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. “Maybe laser beams or something full of information about all the other civilizations in the past history of the galaxy, and that this is all circulating around from star to star around the galaxy, and all we have to do is tap into it.”

The actual likelihood that we’ll hear back from anyone that close, of course, depends upon just how densely packed our galaxy is with civilizations—and upon how long those civilizations last. Today Eric Carlson frets about what might happen to any civilization in the course of a 10-billion-year-old galaxy. What will be left of human culture in a billion years, or even a million? “I tend to get this sense of a galaxy as being sort of like a garden,” says Carlson. “You have the early spring flowers, and then you have the late spring flowers and so on, and you have life with consciousness springing up here and there for a while. And whether it’s ever in contact at the same time, I just don’t know.”

The next generation of cosmologists might still say that the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations is “extremely likely,” as cosmologist George Smoot (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories) told me. “But I think the chances of there being life near to us is pretty low,” he cautioned, “and whether there’s life in our own galaxy, besides ourselves, I don’t know.”
He also points out something I mentioned in an earlier post - popular culture is impervious to the reduced expectations:

Incredibly, infatuation with extraterrestrials actually increased in the last decade. The Rockford Files became The X-Files. Mob-fighting “Untouchables” turned into alien-fighting “Men in Black,” also spun into a children’s cartoon series. The biggest hit in late night radio is a national show frequently featuring firsthand witnesses talking about their close encounters with aliens or their spacecraft.

For some people, real life is apparently taking too long to catch up to their media-led expectations—and they aren’t going to wait any longer. During the 1990s, psychologists estimated that 900,000 people claimed to have been abducted by aliens in the U.S. alone, and the trend was increasing.
I think Heeren is right about the aliens being an ersatz religion, one that makes no demands and rewards any amount of gullibility. He also quotes Jastrow as saying, oddly,

“When we make contact with them, it will be a transforming event,” he says. “I do not know how the Judeo-Christian tradition will react to this development, because the concept that there exist beings superior to us in this universe, not only technically, but perhaps spiritually and morally, will take some rethinking, I think, of the classic doctrines of western religion.”
Huh? What does Jastrow think angels are supposed to be in the traditional culture?

See also:

So what if fossil bacteria are found on Mars? Polls show many Americans expect Star Trek!

Some scientists hope that the aliens are NOT out there!

Increase in UFO sitings in Canada - what's behind that?