With the release of ‘Independence Day – Resurgence’ in kiwi cinemas this week, I thought it might be a good time to ponder what aliens might really think about humans – in relation to our scientific efforts to make ourselves known in space.
The most pervasive signal from humans so far are radio waves. Science tells us that longer wavelength radio waves such as FM radio, television signals and cellphone signals escape and expand our presence into space at almost the speed of light, that’s around 300,000km per second. Short wave radio cannot escape the ionosphere and the signals bounce back – so conversations between radio hams will thankfully not be the first thing ET hears. Radio has been around for just over a century, meaning a bubble of human news, music, entertainment and reality shows (suddenly this makes the radio hams sound more appealing!) have reached around 100 light years away from Earth.
The closest star to our Sun is Alpha Centauri which is 4.3 light years away, so it took about 4 years for radio to reach there. But Alpha Centauri is not believed to support any habitable planets so there is probably no one there to hear us.
The nearest system with potentially habitable planets is called Wolf 1061. This is around 14 light years away and so aliens there may have known about us for just over a century, and could well be grooving along to early 21st century hits from R Kelly or the Sugarbabes right now.
A visit from aliens
So if the aliens did detect us and decided to come and visit, what would they encounter along the way to prepare them to meet Homo sapiens?
The first space debris they would encounter would be the ‘Pioneer plaques’ that have been flying through space aboard the Pioneer spacecraft since 1972-1973. These plaques contain information about our solar system, human anatomy and our scientific understanding. They have attracted a fair bit of criticism during the 1970s for allegedly sexist portrayal of the female human figure. Scientists lost contact with the Pioneer probes in 1995 but these plaques would certainly be a good route marker for alien visitors, and hopefully doesn’t leave the negative image of a misogynistic species.
Not too far behind they would encounter the Voyager spacecraft, and then closer to Earth the Goddard Space Flight Centre estimate there are over 2,200 satellites currently in orbit. A curious alien might then enter our solar system and this is where I think they may start to get confused. This is because of the rather weird choice of payload for NASAs Juno spacecraft, due to arrive at Jupiter any day now and already sending back stunning imagery of the Jovian moons. Three Lego ‘minifigs’ (plastic little Lego people) are aboard and I think they just might confuse a visiting alien. This is because although these minifigs are amazingly popular they not really very humanoid, in fact I am pretty certain nobody I know has an interchangeable head and square legs.
This is not the real problem though. Rather it is the fact that of the three figures, two are male and one female and it is hard when looking at them not to conclude that there is some gender bias at work here. They depict the Roman God Jupiter and his wife Juno, plus astronomer Galileo Galilei. The aliens may already be asking a few tricky questions about how this threesome live together, but what is also a bit disturbing is that whilst Jupiter holds a big butch lightning bolt and Galileo a telescope and what appears to be a football, Juno has what looks rather uncannily like a frying pan (Lego say it is a magnifying glass to symbolise her search for the truth).
Given Siouxsie Wiles’ truly excellent TEDx talk on gender bias in Lego products I am wondering if the sexist perception introduced by the Pioneer Plaques might just be reinforced when the aliens find this Lego trio and conclude the males of our planet force the female to cook food for them after a tough game of footy and under threat of divine lightning bolts if it’s not done?
Maybe that’s reason enough for the aliens to want to annihilate us? BUT as with all good movies there is a twist at the end, because Juno is only planned to survive 33 rotations of Jupiter (about a year) before crashing into Jupiter’s atmosphere and being lost (Minifigs included) in the gas clouds – so we might just survive after all!
Featured image: CC flickr Sweetie187