Our prospective alien rulers may look less like us and much more like bags of goo.
It’s not uncommon for biologists to cringe a little at popular science fiction when alien beings are portrayed as some kind of variation of human beings. Television shows like Star Trek are the worst offenders, where almost every alien is just some actor with blue skin, antennae or weird latex ridges glued to his forehead. This isn’t always done out of ignorance, but rather due to budgetary or dramatic considerations. It’s difficult for the audience to connect with something entirely other. Even with a movie like District 9, where the aliens were all CGI and could have looked like anything, the repulsive prawns had enough human characteristics and emotional expression to provoke compassion for their situation. Real aliens would almost certainly be nothing like us — at all. We don’t even know if life needs to be carbon-based, and exobiologists have been saying for a long time that we had better be ready for the unexpected.
British scientist Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock wonders what life might look like if it evolved in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet such as Jupiter or Saturn. She envisions football-field-sized “jellyfish” drifting through methane clouds, scooping up chemical nutrients and converting any available light into energy with solar panel-like skin. Onion-shaped ballast bags hanging from their bodies would offer buoyancy by taking in or releasing atmospheric gasses. They could communicate with each other using light pulses while an orange underbelly would provide camouflage, hiding them from any equally weird predators. To top things off, these aliens would be based on silicon, not carbon like all life on Earth is. “Our imaginations are naturally constrained by what we see around us and the conventional wisdom has been that life needs water and is carbon-based,” Aderin-Pocock says. “But some researchers are doing exciting work, playing with ideas such as silicon-based life forms evolving on other planets in environments very different to our own. My vision of aliens is an inhuman, silicon-based life form that looks much more like a jellyfish than sci-fi’s little green men. Silicon is just below carbon in the periodic table, has some chemical similarities, and is widely available in the universe. So perhaps we could imagine similar instructions to DNA but with silicon. Or maybe life doesn’t have to resemble anything like DNA at all.”
“My vision of aliens is an inhuman, silicon-based life form that looks much more like a jellyfish than sci-fi’s little green men.”
Dr. Aderin-Pocock goes on to speculate, as many scientists believe, that intelligent life in the universe could be extremely rare. Her guess — keeping in mind that no one has enough information to do anything but guess — is that the Milky Way might have only four intelligent civilizations. Given the vast distances that would separate us, she thinks contact may never happen, at least not for a long, long time. “The Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is carrying a recording of greetings from Earth in different languages, has been traveling through the Solar System since the 1970s and has only just made it into deep space,” she says. “To get to our nearest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, would take it 76,000 years.” Of course, simple life may be very common, possibly residing in our own solar system. It’s still anyone’s guess, but one thing we’re pretty sure of is that whatever we find won’t resemble a Klingon.