The word we've awaited for years arrived last week in an email from California's SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute:
"Planets suited for life are more common than first thought. That's what a team of astronomers just announced minutes ago."
Finally, we thought, a place to relocate where there won't be any TV commercials in which John Malkovich interacts with his iPhone voice pal, Siri, as though she's his favorite and funniest companion. (You know, John, if you didn't constantly present such a weird image, you might have some regular friends to hang with.)
The SETI news release touted its upcoming conference where the potential for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe will be discussed, and with a positive spin. "Small planets -- the type of worlds most favorable for biology -- may be more common than thought," SETI's statement said. "Like weeds that can grow anywhere, Earth-size planets can be found around nearly any type of star."
The unfortunate thing about the above is the comparison of a planet like ours to a weed, as that's just the way brainiac physicist Stephen Hawking believes some super-advanced race of space invaders might view us. He said so on the Discovery Channel, which is where the Morning File research team obtains most of its limited scientific knowledge.
"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans," Mr. Hawking predicted and reminded.
We agree with Mr. Hawking that it would be bad if aliens rounded us up like Indians on reservations, treating us inhumanely despite naming all of their sports teams after us. ("The Fighting Homosapiens vs. The Earth Warriors, tonight on ET-ESPN at 7:30!") And we'd hate to be in a position where our only economic opportunity was running a gambling hall for the aliens far from home, so they could be irresponsible deadbeats without their alien wives ever knowing.
This point of how alien visitors would treat the human race is the subject of debate, according to a Post-Gazette story last week, even though we've been under the impression since the 1980s that tossing them some Reese's Pieces would be sufficient to win them over. While Mr. Hawking suggests real E.T.'s are as likely to be as mean as Allegheny County jail guards, the SETI Institute's Jill Tarter holds out hope for friendlier encounters.
"If aliens were to come here, it would be simply to explore," she suggested. "Aliens coming here hellbent on trashing the neighborhood and claiming all our resources -- I'm skeptical of that."
Easy for Ms. Tarter to say. As one who's spent her career transmitting signals around the universe encouraging extraterrestrials to pay a visit ("Oh, you must come, you'll love it -- our sun is only an average-sized star, but every major city has a Cheesecake Factory with great desserts, if you don't mind the wait"), she's going to be the first one they reward once they're in charge.
And then Ms. Tarter, with some new title like Prime Minister of Earth, will let their flying saucers hover over our cities incessantly without paying any kind of air-space parking fee, all the while ignoring how much it would benefit Pittsburgh International Airport to have the aliens use its empty boarding gates.
Though the aliens are undoubtedly headed this way in some future generation -- one more thing the grandkids can look forward to in addition to global warming -- we expect to be long dead by then. That doesn't mean we don't want to try to get into space ourselves to meet the invaders on neutral turf.
And that's exactly what we plan to do, courtesy of Celestis Inc. The Texas-based firm specializes in sending a bit of a person's cremated remains into outer space in return for a few thousand dollars. It's the kind of business proposition that works perfectly in the nascent, not-NASA era of privatization of space flight.
When a private SpaceX rocket was launched last month to take supplies to the International Space Station, it also included ashes that once were the persons of several hundred different individuals, including pioneer astronaut Gordon Cooper and James Doohan, who played Scotty on "Star Trek."
The ashes were in a rocket section that was sent separately to orbit the globe for a year before it burns up while falling back to Earth. (Geez, how much burning can these cremated people take?) While it won't be an eternal trip, it does get them away from that creepy Siri-Malkovich relationship for months, so several thousand dollars seems a reasonable enough price to pay.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255. First Published June 18, 2012 4:00 AM