By John W. Traphagan, Trustee, METI International
Although the speculation that the odd star KIC 8462852 might have something very unnatural orbiting it--a Dyson swarm or some other megastructure--seems to have been unfounded, it's worth contemplating what it might mean for humanity should the speculation prove to be accurate. From the start, SETI scientists assumed the odds were very much against our neighbor 1,400 light years away having anything other than some natural phenomenon that we simply didn't know about before orbiting it. And observations both by the SETI Institute using the Allen Telescope Array and optical SETI observations in Panama by METI International have shown no evidence of ET. But even with a lack of empirical data, there is a chance, slight as it may be, that we've finally hit the jackpot and found evidence that humans have or had neighbors in the universe.
So what if we're not alone? Many in the SETI community and elsewhere have argued that this would be one of the biggest discoveries in human history and that it would change our way of seeing ourselves. I agree with the first point, but I'm less sanguine about the second part of the equation. Clearly, learning that we are not alone represents one of the great discoveries in human history. It will only happen once in our entire existence--like stepping on the moon was the only first-time humans stepped on another object in our universe beyond Earth.
But assuming that this will change humanity is tricky. Among educated elites like theologians, artists or philosophers it should certainly have an impact on how they see our place in the universe and, perhaps, open the door to new ways of thinking about the meaning of our existence. For religious zealots who are convinced that humanity is in some way special because a god made us that way, it should provide a troubling blow to their arrogance, which, in turn, will probably lead many of them to dig in their heels and argue that the data are fraudulent. Astronomers and other SETI scientists (like me) will be tremendously excited about the prospect of some distant time in the future when we might communicate with the people who built those megastructures or sent a message--assuming they are still there, since much of what we are seeing now when we look upward happened long ago (in the case of KIC 8462852, 1,400 years ago).
And then there's everyone else. Will impoverished people in Haiti or Africa be changed by this? Will those billions who simply struggle to get from one day to the next care about the fact that we are not alone in the universe? Will people around the world start displaying the musical hand signals created by composer Zoltán Kodály to communicate with ET, like in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
I'm not so sure. In fact, while discovery of an alien civilization may, in the very long run, have a significant influence on humanity, in the short-run I doubt it will have much impact at all. Remember Neil Armstrong? When I ask my students--that is, students at one of the major research universities in the U.S.--who Neil Armstrong was, many have no idea or only a vague sense. Arguably one of the most important achievements in human history by someone who should be among the most significant individuals in history, for many even here in the U.S. Neil Armstrong and his first step on the moon are now only a dim memory, if a memory at all.
The fact is that for most people on Earth, learning that we are not alone doesn't matter much because it doesn't help them get through life. And even for those who are highly educated and comparatively wealthy, like my students, discovery of ET may represent little more than a brief, intriguing blip on the radar as they build careers, raise families, and look at their smart phones. The fact is that as important discovery of ET may be in the abstract, at the concrete level of daily life, learning that another civilization exists/existed 1,400 light years away from us doesn't necessarily mean much to many of Earth's inhabitants. It's interesting, but it may not be very relevant to life on a very self-absorbed world.
And this is an unfortunate reality. It should be relevant, because it situates our entire civilization and history in something much larger than our little planet. But because we live on a world riddled with war, disease, and poverty and filled with people who struggle each day just to live, learning we are not alone just doesn't hold much salience for most of us. And even for those more fortunate, the latest stock price is likely much more meaningful than our place in the universe. Knowing we are not alone doesn't help much when buying a new BMW.
Perhaps, though, if we do learn that KIC 8462852 or some other star had someone making really big things around it centuries ago, the door will open at least a crack for some of humanity to lose a bit of our myopic self-centeredness and begin thinking about our world and our civilization as part of something much bigger--and more important--than ourselves and our tiny ambitions and desires. I have no idea where that might lead, but being less self-absorbed can only be a good thing for the wealthy of our world. Maybe thinking about others out there might get some to think more about others right here on Earth.