question of the weekend: Do you think — or hope, or fear — that we’ll encounter or communicate with alien intelligence within your lifetime?

I’m fascinated by sites like Whitley Strieber’s Unknown Country, where the author talks a lot about his ongoing alien abuduction experiences (his 1987 book Communion purports to recount the beginnings of these experiences) and how multidimensional godlike extraterrestrials have some connection to the Maya and ancient wisdom and 2012, which is going to kill us all, probably. And The Watcher Files, which presents a sort of Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory about how aliens, probably in cahoots with the Illuminati, are injecting all of us with chips and mind control devices in an attempt to create the New World Order, which the Bible warns us about if you know how to read it. And Cosmic Conspiracies, where crop circles are evidence of aliens but humans cannot possibly have walked on the moon. (I suppose it makes sense that if you can’t imagine that humans could create crop circles, there’s no way you could conceive of humans flying to the moon.)
I’m fascinated, if not surprised, that one of the biggest questions science asks and could — hopefully, someday — answer takes on an overtly religious quality to so many people. I guess “Are we alone in the universe?” is a sort of religious question for some people, and particularly so when the idea of aliens as real and present here and now and doing bad, bad things becomes a way to explain all that seems inexplicable about the world and about the way people act. (It’s odd, isn’t it, that there don’t seem to be any alien conspiracy theories that involve benign aliens hidden among us and maybe just observing us.) I don’t personally understand how it’s comforting to think that someone with mysterious motives and superpowerful capabilities is behind everything that seems wrong and evil about the world, whether that someone is a deity or an extraterrestrial. But perhaps it’s less scary than thinking that nothing is behind what’s going on and that no one is in charge.

I’m with Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy: aliens exist but they’re not visiting us. It seems to me, of what we know about the universe, that the conditions that gave rise to life on Earth are simply too ordinary for similarly favorable conditions not to have arisen elsewhere too. (Probably not the same conditions as we have on Earth, though! I think we’ll find, if we ever get down to serious exploration of our galaxy, that we won’t find any planets similar enough to Earth to be able to walk around unprotected on them, or get the nutrition we need from their plant and animal life.) Even if only a fraction of life-bearing planets have intelligent, toolmaking life, there’s should still be lots and lots of people we can talk to out there.

Do you think — or hope, or fear — that we’ll encounter or communicate with alien intelligence within your lifetime?

If you’ve thought about this question at all, you’re probably already familiar with the Fermi Paradox, which is, basically: If the universe is teeming with life, as it appears it should be, where the hell is everybody?

I hope that before I die we learn of the existence of other intelligent beings in the universe. For me, the saddest thing ever might be to learn that we are alone, or, worse, to just never find anyone else and keep searching in vain.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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