Would Mars attack?


Who doesn’t love a good alien invasion story? UFOs buzzing around. Lasers firing. Buildings exploding in flames. What’s not to love?

Picture credit: Mars Attacks

Picture credit: Mars Attacks

But why would Martians ever attack us?

If Hollywood is to be believed, it’s because aliens want our water, or they want to enslave us, or they want to steal our minerals. In reality, none of these are valid reasons.

We like to think we have a lot of water. After all, 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. And yet there’s more water on both Europa and Titan, two of the moons of Jupiter, than there is on all of Earth. Any thirsty alien is going to stop by there for a drink. It might surprise you to learn that even dry, dusty Mars has roughly half as much water as Earth locked up in icecaps and subsurface aquifers. And there’s no pesky locals to worry about.

As for minerals, mining asteroids is far more productive.

ICT outsourcing giant Accenture estimates that even with the cost of launching into space (something our intrepid aliens would have already accomplished), the cost of mining asteroids is coming astonishingly close to mining minerals on Earth, and the cost is only going to plummet further as our space-faring technology improves.

Picture credit: NASA estimates Eros has 20 billion tons of gold (20,000X everything produced on Earth each year)

Picture credit: NASA estimates Eros has 20 billion tons of gold (20,000X everything produced on Earth each year)

Ah, but what about enslaving us? Nope. Not economically viable. The cost associated with navigating across the vast oceans of space to reach Earth must surely outweigh any manual labor benefits gained on arrival. Once, slavery sustained economic progress on Earth, but even without the moral impetus to treat others fairly, that model hasn’t been economically viable for over a hundred and fifty years. And with the advent of robotics, even purpose-built factories with low cost workers are becoming out-moded. I doubt ET would be motivated by such archaic notions as enslaving people.

So why would aliens ever visit Earth?

Well, there is one reason, and one reason alone. Earth contains something far more precious and valuable than the finest gold or the rarest of gems like the Hope diamond—Life.

The Great Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is one of the most distant objects that can be seen with the unaided eye. It is high overhead in the constellation Andromeda on early winter evenings in the northern hemisphere. In long-exposure photographs, like this one, dust lanes and bright star-formation regions are visible throughout the galaxy. M31 is accompanied by satellite galaxies M32 and M110. A pair of small dust lanes can be glimpsed near the core of M110, the lower satellite galaxy. M31 is about 2.5 million light-years from Earth. Two frame mosaic, each frame 96 minutes L on 2012-12-13 and 120 minutes RGB on 2013-01-04 through an Astro-Physics 105mm refractor at f6.2, plus 112 minutes L (of the galaxy core) through a 155mm Astro-Physics refractor at f5.4 on 2014-11-15, all using a QSI 583 from northern New Jersey. North is to the right and slightly down. © 2014.

The Great Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is one of the most distant objects that can be seen with the unaided eye at 2.5 million light-years from Earth—picture credit Tom Matheson

From staring out into space over the past few centuries, we’ve learned the universe is an astonishingly vast and lonely place. The most precious substance in the universe is life, which is somewhat ironic given how abundant life is on Earth. Ah…. so they would come to steal our life forms? Nope. That’s not it either. One of the wonderful characteristics of life is that it reproduces, effectively duplicating itself. There’s no need to steal anything. Just a few bacteria cells are enough to form untold colonies. Just a few seeds can produce a forest given time.

Aliens would never attack Earth because there’s simply no militaristic reason that justifies the immense cost in getting here, but I’m sure they’d love to visit, because life is so rare as to demand investigation.

One of the astonishing things about evolution and the process of natural selection is that life winnows and refines chemicals with remarkable efficiency. Biology is astonishingly effective at finding novel chemical solutions to problems. And this is something life-science medical research companies like EcoBiotics have realized, turning their microscopes to the rainforest and tropical reefs in the search for cancer treatments. There are at least 10^60 (that’s 1 with 60 zeroes after it) different chemical structures that can be formed using carbon, but the vast majority of these have no use in biology. Numbers like these are stupidly big, but evolution has had billions of years to experiment on various combinations of molecules to find effective solutions to common problems.

Although alien life would differ vastly from Earth-life at a macroscopic level, shrink down to the level of molecules and there are probably going to be an astonishing number of parallels simply because alien life has to work with the same set of 115 known elements. Everything we see around us is constructed from a “lego set” with barely more than a hundred different types of lego brick, when our kids have access to over four thousand.

Picture credit: Lego. There are 4200 different types of lego brick

Picture credit: Lego. There are 4200 different types of lego brick

So from ET’s perspective, Earth would be a treasure chest of novel chemical solutions. Earth would be something to be explored, not only from the novelty factor or out of scientific interest, but because there might be unique applications that are beneficial to them.

I explore this concept in my novels Xenophobia and Welcome to the Occupied States of America, looking at how unique life is on this remarkable planet.

Scientists estimate there are a trillion different species on Earth, that’s 1,000,000,000,000 different forms of life!! There are more species on Earth than there are stars in the Milky Way, which is astonishing. Earth really is an oasis in the middle of a celestial desert. If aliens ever do visit Earth, the one thing that will surprise them is how we take life for granted, and how we’ve driven species to extinction in pursuit of money. Perhaps the greatest thing First Contact will accomplish is an appreciation of just how wonderful our planet really is.

welcome small

If you’re a fan of good science fiction, be sure to check out Welcome to the Occupied States of America.

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