Scientists recently found evidence of strange objects orbiting a distant star, leading some to speculate about the possibility that we have discovered signs of engineering by some extraterrestrial civilization. This could be a false alarm, but no one will be too surprised if one day soon the first indisputable evidence of extraterrestrial life is discovered. But if that happens, will it make scientists feel like brilliant geniuses – or will it make them feel stupider than they have ever felt before?
Two “Eureka, We're Geniuses” Scenarios
I can imagine two ways in which scientists might discover extraterrestrial life in a way that would make them feel like Einsteins. The first way would be if scientists were simply to discover evidence of extraterrestrial life or a technological civilization, without finding any evidence that there existed extraterrestrials more intelligent than us. Such a thing could occur merely by the use of advanced spectroscopy.
Spectroscopy is a technique that allows scientists to figure out what elements are associated with a distant light source, by analyzing the spectrum or pattern of lines produced when the distant light passes through a prism or something working like a prism. Using such a technique, astronomers may be able to detect oxygen in the atmosphere of a planet revolving around a distant star, which could be an indication of life (scientists don't think our atmosphere had much oxygen until life was widespread). They may also be able to detect elements or compounds that could be markers of civilizations.
Such a discovery would tell us nothing about how advanced a civilization was, but would at most tell us that some civilization existed. If such a discovery were made, scientists would have every reason to feel pretty smart. They would have made a long-awaited fundamental discovery, without finding anything that proved that man was inferior in intelligence to some other extraterrestrial race.
Another very different way to look for extraterrestrials is to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Imagine if such a signal were found, and scientists were able to decipher or translate the signal. Then scientists would feel like geniuses. No matter how advanced the civilization turned out to be, there would be a certain type of "we're kind of on the same level” feeling, if we had managed to decipher or translate a signal extraterrestrials sent out. You may not be on the same level as Einstein, but when you read some difficult thing he wrote, and are able to understand it, you feel pretty darn smart.
Two “Oh My God, We're Dummies” Scenarios
But I can also imagine two scenarios under which the discovery of extraterrestrial life might make us feel very stupid. The first scenario is one in which we receive radio signals from extraterrestrials, but simply are not able to figure them out. This is all-too-likely a scenario. An extraterrestrial civilization might be millions of years more advanced than ours. So why would they “dumb down” their radio messages, making them simple enough to be understood by beings who only invented radio telescopes a few decades ago? It seems that if we were to receive radio signals from extraterrestrials, there is a large chance that we would spend decades knocking our heads against the wall, trying to understand the messages without success. We might feel a little bit smart for having received the radio messages, but we would feel a lot dumber because we couldn't translate the messages. Twenty years after the radio messages were received, we might see headlines like the one below.
Another possibility with a high chance of happening is that we might discover signs of some massive engineering project by extraterrestrials. We might analyze the light from some star, and find that there seems to be massive abnormalities that can only be explained by assuming that some extraterrestrial civilization has undertaken some vast engineering project millions of times more ambitious than building the Panama Canal (perhaps something involving dismantling and rearranging entire planets). Such a project could only be undertaken by a civilization many thousands or millions of years older than ours.
How would we feel after discovering such a situation? We would feel pretty stupid. We would know that there was some other civilization with godlike technical powers vastly beyond ours. We would also suspect that the more we looked, the more such civilizations we would find. Climbing down meekly from the pedestals we have placed ourselves on, we might sadly realize our rightful places as tiny little fish in the vast cosmic ocean, not the lords of creation we once imagined ourselves to be.
Or maybe we wouldn't. Maybe we are so hooked on thinking of ourselves as the most important creatures in the universe that we will refuse to believe almost any evidence contradicting such an idea. I can imagine humans of the future refusing to believe in any evidence astronomers produce that godlike extraterrestrials exist, no matter how clear and dramatic it is. Perhaps the only thing that will convince us of our cosmic inferiority will be if spaceships bigger than stadiums begin to hover in our skies night after night.