The recently leaked news about an intriguing, potentially extraterrestrial radio signal detected as part of the Breakthrough Listen project may not turn out to be “it”—the unequivocal sign of a technological species out there in our galaxy—but still offers a great opportunity for some reflection on the nature of cosmic life.
Some details of this curious narrowband hum at a frequency of around 982.002 MHz, and its apparent coincidence with the direction of Proxima Centauri, have been reported, and we’ll have to wait a little while longer for the full technical analysis to be presented. In the absence of any further insights the best that scientists can say for now is that this signal is of great interest, but we must assume that an explanation is much more likely to be mundane (or at least within the pantheon of recognizable, known phenomena) than a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence and agency.
Nonetheless, in hearing this news, one wonders whether this is what it will feel like when (and if) we eventually find evidence that we’re not alone in the cosmos. After all, 2020 has been a doozy of a year; a weird, horrifying branch of the human timeline that has so often felt like it was an alternate reality we would’ve done better to avoid. Why not add the discovery of other technological life to the mix? For that matter, why shouldn’t that discovery just sneak up on us in a comparatively ordinary fashion?
We tend to be well primed by Hollywood renderings of first contact, or indeed the notional protocols that are in place (and that have been long discussed) for announcing to the world that there are indeed aliens out there. But for all those predispositions and plans the story could just as easily happen like this: a rumor, a leaked bit of news, a preliminary discussion from the scientists, and then lo-and-behold it’s basically all over, and the fact of a populated galaxy just becomes another piece of history: All because of a monotone carrier wave signal from Proxima Centauri emanating from some ordinary alien activity. Perhaps just a telemetry band for their modest interplanetary spacecraft, or some kind of planetary radar, or a fledgling planet-bound communication system, or who knows what. No fancy data stream or purposefully directed signal, just a species going about its business in precisely the way that we do.
There’s an interesting parallel too with our discovery of planets around other stars. Back in the early 1990s we had the first evidence of planet-sized objects around pulsars. An astonishing and wholly unexpected discovery, but one that we perhaps didn’t quite rejoice in as much as we could have because it just wasn’t anything like a “normal” planetary system (for us Earth-centric thinkers). Then, the first detected planets around sunlike stars were also a class of unanticipated giant worlds on compact orbits. Eventually, after another decade or so, it became apparent that abundant planets of all stripes are the norm rather than the exception. Today it’s hard to imagine that we ever really thought it could be otherwise; a cosmos where planets would be rare now seems rather absurd.
Perhaps that is how it will also go for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. There’ll be some initial oddities, some curiosities that aren’t quite the things we planned for. A dull carrier wave signal for instance. Over time more evidence will show up, until eventually it’s clear that there are lots of species out there, puttering around in their own little neighborhoods and doing nothing truly extraordinary, because those possibilities were, in the end, more the product of our lively imaginations than anything that the universe compels life towards.
Of course, I’m being a little facetious, the first discovery of life of any kind elsewhere in the universe would be shocking and world-changing, and technological life would rank at the very top of the shock-o-meter. But shock passes, and we also have no way of knowing exactly how this would play out. Rumors and preliminary findings have a way of dulling surprises, no matter what’s at stake.
Eventually it might all just be a bit of a relief. We’ll neither be alone, nor surrounded by anything particularly extraordinary. Copernican mediocrity will be somewhat restored, and we can go back to worrying about everything else that can go wrong on our speck of rock and water as it sails through the cosmos.