Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Take Me to Your Teacher, Earthling: Resources

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Take Me to Your Teacher, Earthling: Resources

Article excerpt

If aliens land, should they be welcomed or taken away by men in white coats? The prospect of a close encounter can make for an interesting classroom debate, writes James Williams.

Most of us have seen films about extraterrestrials: Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET: The Extraterrestrial. We are thrilled by the notion that there may be "something else out there", even if Hollywood often paints that "something else" as predatory and terrifying.

But how would we really greet and treat an alien visitor to Earth? Rather than the Men in Black, they would most likely be greeted by the men in white coats, armed with instruments to extract DNA (if that is what aliens have in their cells), scalpels, myriad scanners and test tubes.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist and discoverer of pulsars (rotating neutron stars that emit regular pulses of electromagnetic radiation) made headlines in July when she suggested at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin that we will find proof of life elsewhere in the universe within the next century. Although Bell Burnell and her supervisor, Antony Hewish, did not believe that the regular signals they detected from distant pulsars were signs of intelligent life, they labelled the first signal LGM-1, which stood for Little Green Men 1.

But would we even recognise life from another planet? Life on Earth is carbon-based, water is crucial and there are six essential elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur (CHNOPS). In 2010, it was announced that a life form capable of living off arsenic - normally very toxic - had been discovered, though that claim has recently been disputed. Life that exists on Earth in very hostile environments is given the collective name extremophiles. But these are mostly bacteria or low-level life forms. Intelligent, sentient life from another planet would be a whole different issue.

The likelihood of an alien visiting Earth in a spaceship is remote. The distances between galaxies make such travel impossible within a human lifespan. Films are full of theories about jumping across light years using wormholes, but such structures do not, to our knowledge, exist in a way that would allow them to be used for interstellar travel. It may, however, be possible to detect radio signals that indicate we are not alone.

The most interesting question for the classroom is moral and ethical debate about how you would treat an alien visitor. Using the analogy of pests on Earth, we know that people are far less worried about killing bugs and insects than other, more cuddly animals. So what if our alien visitor was a small, ugly, cockroach-like creature? What if it looked dangerous and was unable to communicate with us? How would the military and scientists treat it? Would we employ our own moral and ethical stances with something that is not of this world?

In science fiction, writers have thought long and hard about this question. They have introduced rules about how we should interact (or not) with alien life forms. Star Trek has its "Prime Directive", for example, the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets, which states that there should be no interference with the development of any alien civilisation.

Sentient, intelligent life is likely to have developed a means of communication with humans, most likely a form of mathematics. And how we would treat such life forms could be vital to our future survival.

While conspiracy theorists insist that aliens have and probably still do visit Earth, no government acknowledges the existence of intelligent life in our solar system, though they do not rule out intelligent life somewhere in the universe. …

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