Are we alone?

A few people saw the shiny discs skipping through the sky of the mountains over Washington state in June, 1947. Kenneth Arnold was the one who reported the sighting, but others saw it too. They all described disc or saucer shaped objects but couldn’t explain what they were. A few days later, and 1,700 miles away in Roswell, New Mexico, another strange sighting occurred. Reported as a crashed flying disc and then a downed weather balloon, it’s from the newspaper reports of these incidents that we get the terms flying saucer and unidentified flying object. From then to now a subculture of interest in alien life visiting planet earth has developed.

Even when some scientists became interested in the search for extraterrestrial life, it remained a niche subculture, not taken seriously by the mainstream. But, in 1985, in earnest, SETI began listening for radio signals from other civilisations. The universe is vast and there is so much to listen to that SETI points it’s radio telescopes at each star for only half an hour before moving onto the next. It’s the intergalactic equivalent of swiping left because with the briefest glimpse, that star doesn’t look like an attractive prospect.

Whatever Arnold saw, and whatever crashed at Roswell, and however many stars SETI listens to, we are compelled to keep asking; are we alone?

But why? Why are we so interested in the possibility of the existence of intelligent life? To find out that we are not alone would be the biggest event in the history of humanity. It would change everything. We could learn so much from an advanced intelligence, exchange knowledge and culture, science and technology. But perhaps the real reason we keep asking is because we don’t want to be alone.

As individuals we ache for connection, so it seems undeniable that our species, made up of individuals, aches for connection too. We look into the night sky and we don’t want to believe that, as vast as the Universe is, intelligent life could only have emerged once… but, as vast as the Universe is, we have to accept that we aren’t going to find it anytime soon.

And if we did find it, would we be ready for it? Not just ready to believe and accept, but ready to connect. When Brené Brown talks about creating connection she describes how it depends on showing vulnerability. Connection is a vital human experience, it gives purpose and meaning to our lives, but in order for connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be seen. We have to feel worthy of belonging, have the courage to be ourselves and be imperfect, to show up where there are no guarantees. So many of us don’t have that. We don’t show our vulnerability as individuals, as communities, as nations, and certainly not as a species.

To connect, we communicate, and for many of us technology is the answer. We’re just not sure what the question is. Maybe we want to know if listening to radio waves from space, joining video calls, or using dating apps will give us the connection we need. Will the mask of technology make it easier for us to share our vulnerabilities, or does seeing other’s perfect Instagram bodies make it harder? Many studies have concluded that in-person communication results in significantly better emotional connection than that which is technology-mediated. But anyone who has kept in touch with distant friends and relatives by using video calls might say that technology-mediated communication is better than no communication at all.

Even if other intelligent life does exist, we need to connect with each other before we can connect with it. If we don’t form those connections, then we are alone.