The Inquirer ran an interesting syndicated column by Charles Krauthammer Monday, which somehow connected NASA’s announcement of new planets, SETI’s failure to connect with aliens, and the creation of a potentially dangerous version of bird flu. It can be summarized in a couple of sentences:
NASA’s Kepler satellite is about to demonstrate the galaxy has lots of habitable planets. Nobody out there has answered our radio signals or otherwise tried to befriend us. We are intelligent and have created dangerous stuff like atom bombs. The probably did too and destroyed themselves. We’re still here because politicians are the real heroes of history.
This could only be written by a guy who was class president or editor of the school newspaper and decidedly not on the math team or head of the science club.
The Krauthammer piece came up near the end of an interview I did with physicist Lawrence Krauss for next week’s Planet-of-the-Apes column, and neither of us found it all that surprising that aliens haven’t gone out of their way to talk to us. Maybe we are all putting a personal spin on the situation. I know what it’s like to be ignored. Every time I go on Twitter I get flashbacks to my geeky junior high school years.
It may be that there’s other intelligent life out there and they aren’t looking for us. Look at whales. They haven’t helped one iota in the quest to determine whether we’re alone. Maybe other intelligent beings are lazy. Maybe they’re too busy Tweeting each other.
It’s also possible that we earthlings are among the first technological civilizations in the galaxy. It took a generation or two of star formation to create all the carbon and other heavy elements. We don’t know how likely it is for intelligent, technological life to emerge, and we don’t know whether 4.5 billion years is relatively fast or slow.
Krauthammer ends with this:
"Fairly or not, politics is the driver of history. It will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few — the only — who got it right."
This seems like a dig at science. The new bird flu really isn’t a fair example to be put alongside the atom bomb. The flu virus was created by researchers to try to understand the potential evolution of bird flu. It was an advisory board made up of scientists who decided to be careful and keep the process a secret. And idea was to save lives, not destroy them. So far flu research has led to vaccines and these have saved lives.
Medical advances have changed the course of history, altering the tally of who lives and who dies. Nature may yet find ways to kill us more efficiently than we can kill each other. And then it will be up to science to drive history.