I used to imagine what plants and animals in a distant solar system’s Goldilocks zone – the habitable zone where temperatures allow for the presence of water and life – would look like and how their evolutionary timeline would differ from ours.
When we think of extraterrestrial life, it’s hard not to associate the idea with outlandish UFO conspiracists and eccentrics who move to the Mojave Desert waiting for alien contact, but the idea that there’s intelligent life out there isn’t inconceivable when considering the vastness of our known universe.
Even within our own solar system, scientists have recently discovered evidence suggesting Mars could have had life at some point in the past.
Astrophysicists and cosmologists like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan believed it was hard to imagine that there couldn’t be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. They, too, often wondered what those lifeforms would be like.
Sagan had somewhat of a sympathetic view toward what intelligent life elsewhere might be like, and he believed that – if humans did ever come into contact with extraterrestrial life – we could learn from each other and communicate using mathematics. Similar to movies like “ET,” Sagan’s 1985 novel “Contact” expressed an optimistic view that human-alien relations could be amicable.
It’s possible that a socially and technologically advanced alien race would abhor the violence and war that seems so widespread in our world today, but what if they were just as warlike as us?
Movies like “Battle of Los Angeles” (2011) and the “Alien” series imagined aliens this way. In movies such as these, the aliens are often depicted as genocidal and imperialistic, making human-alien relations hostile.
Stephen Hawking believed this is what alien contact could look like. In Hawking’s view, extraterrestrials would not go through the trouble of coming to Earth without wanting something, and he believed their motives would be nefarious.
Perhaps aliens in real life would view us as savages much like European colonizers viewed indigenous peoples throughout the world for centuries and use this to justify the exploitation and oppression of humans.
"Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach," Hawking said in 2010 on an episode of "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking” on Discovery Channel.
"If so, it makes sense for them to exploit each new planet for material to build more spaceships so they could move on. Who knows what the limits would be?"
Still, Hawking said we should take our chances. “We must know,” he said.
Looking at these two conflicting views on what alien contact might look like, we can only hope that relations are as amicable as Sagan might’ve imagined if or when we make contact.
Until then, all we can do is wonder what that would be like.