At the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, a cadre of dedicated scientists sifts through radio static in search of a telltale signal from an alien civilization. So far, nothing. Now suppose the long-sought message arrives. Not only do the aliens exist, they are about to stop by for a visit. And then . . . any science-fiction devotee can tell you what could go wrong. But the history of human exploration and exploitation suggests the most likely danger is not direct conflict. Aliens might want resources from our solar system (Earth’s oceans, perhaps, full of hydrogen for refilling a fusion-powered spacecraft) and swat us aside if we get in the way, as we might dismiss mosquitoes or beetles stirred up by the logging of a rain forest. Aliens might unwittingly import pests with a taste for human flesh, much as Dutch colonists reaching Mauritius brought cats, rats, and pigs that quickly did away with the dodo. Or aliens might accidentally upset our planet or solar system while carrying out some grandiose interstellar construction project. The late physicist Gerard O’Neill speculated that contact with extraterrestrial visitors could also be socially disastrous. “Advanced western civilization has had a destructive effect on all primitive civilizations it has come in contact with, even in those cases where every attempt was made to protect and guard the primitive civilization,” he said in a 1979 interview. “I don’t see any reason why the same thing would not happen to us.”
Judaism has the Book of Daniel; Christianity has the Book of Revelation; Islam has the coming of the Mahdi; Zoroastrianism has the countdown to the arrival of the third son of Zoroaster. The stories and their interpretations vary widely, but the underlying concept is similar: God intervenes in the world, bringing history to an end and ushering in a new moral order. Apocalyptic thinking runs at least back to Egyptian mythology and right up to Heaven’s Gate and Y2K mania. More worrisome, to the nonbelievers at least, are the doomsday cults that prefer to take holy retribution into their own hands. In 1995, members of the Aum Shinri Kyo sect unleashed sarin nerve gas in a Tokyo subway station, killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000. Had things gone as intended, the death toll would have been hundreds of times greater. A more determined group armed with a more lethal weapon- nuclear, biological, nanotechnological even- could have done far more damage.
Someone wakes up and realizes it was all a dream
Are we living a shadow existence that only fools us into thinking it is real? This age-old philosophical question still reverberates through cultural thought, from the writings of William S. Burrows to the cinematic mind games of The Matrix. Hut of the Institute of Advanced Studies sees an analogy to the danger of the collapse of the vacuum. Just as our empty space might not be the true, most stable form of the vacuum, what we call reality might not be the true, most stable form of existence. In the fourth century B.C., Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu framed the question in more poetic terms. He described a vivid dream. In it, he was a butterfly who had no awareness of his existence as a person. When he awoke, he asked: “Was I before Chuang Tzu who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being Chuang Tzu?” – with additional research by Diane Martindale