What's better than finding aliens? Finding dead aliens. Why? Because it might be the only thing that gets humanity to straighten up and fly right. At least, that's according to Harvard University professor Avi Loeb who said as much at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington D.C., in a talk which I assume was titled "Scared Straight in Space."
Professor Loeb appears to believe, like many people do, that humanity is at a crossroads and our shortsightedness and technological progress combined may be a lethal mixture. At the summit, Loeb argued that we may be such wayward children that we might need to see the direct consequences of horsing around with nuclear weapons and all of the other potential big bungles we've got cooking up. He says that a propensity for planetary suicide might be more common than we think, and might be one of the solutions to the famous Fermi paradox, which basically states that there's a whole bunch of reasons why we should have found aliens by now, but we haven't. So what gives? Loeb says:
"One possibility is that these civilizations, based on the way we behave, are short-lived. They think short term, and they produce self-inflicted wounds that eventually kill them."
According to Loeb, finding evidence of an alien civilization that almost made it to the stars would serve as a wake-up call to humanity, and thus why what he calls "space archaeology" is of vital importance to the future. He says along with looking for living alien civilizations, we should widen our search to include the wreckage of alien civilizations that got a little too rambunctious for their own good: scorched planets, radioactive fallout, broken tech half buried in grey alien sands. Loeb says:
"The idea is we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it's habitable for as long as we can make it habitable."
But for Loeb, there are more reasons to explore the stars than just the space version of that movie you're required to watch in driver's ed. While his views seem to suggest a pessimistic view of the universe, there's a sense of whiplash when he muses on what might happen if we find a living alien civilization:
"Our technology is only a century old, but if another civilization had a billion years to develop space travel, they may teach us how to do it,"
No, they would eat us. But Avi Loeb, who is the chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department and sits on the board of Breakthrough Starshot, also happens to have co-authored the recent paper suggesting that the interstellar object Oumuamua might be an alien spaceship. So it's clear he's got the gift of sensationalism, which might be necessary to drum up public support for space exploration. And he may be right, it's not that crazy to think that humanity might need some evidence of a larger game to bring us all together.
But maybe we wouldn't get scared straight. Chances are if we found the ruins of an alien civilization, nuked to oblivion, we'd look at it and say "get a load of these idiots, we'd never be that dumb."