It seems common knowledge that the government snagged a flying saucer from the New Mexico desert in the summer of 1947. Expert testimonials from any number of sources repeatedly tell us we got integrated circuits, lasers, fiber optics, Velcro, and other technology from that saucer. It seems there are “expert” testimonials for every facet of our lives. From evolution and global warming to swine flu and trillion dollar bailouts, “experts” tell us what to believe. We live in a world where power screwdrivers are rated by volts, vacuum cleaners are rated by amps, movie stars and professional athletes are paid millions to tell us what shampoo to buy, and an important consideration for our presidential candidates is their wearing of an American Flag lapel pin.
However, as Galileo pointed out 400 years ago, hours and days of “expert” testimonials are worth far less than a few minutes of actual observation. In fact, such testimonials have no place in science and are worse than worthless since they cloud the facts and confuse the issues. Unfortunately, despite hundreds of years of visible success of the Scientific Method, many people still prefer testimonials or even divination over verifiable facts. I guess it is just too much trouble to investigate details and… think.
Anyway, if we had a working, albeit damaged, flying saucer more than 20 years before the moon landing we certainly should have been able to copy it, right? Probably not. If Isaac Newton, one of the smartest people to ever walk the earth, was just handed a cell phone he would not have been able to tell if it was a weapon, paperweight, or religious artifact. He would not have been able to recognize the intended purpose of the resistors, capacitors, or any of the ICs. However, he may have been fascinated with the sparks and heat that resulted from shorting the battery. With no cell towers and no datasheets he would have found it a very curious device.
Many technologies must be invented before we achieve interstellar flight. I’m not worried about the raw science, string theory math, and such. That is fundamental theoretical research. Our many fine universities and brilliant graduate students will take care of that. I’m more worried about the implementation of complex scientific devices. “Big Science” requires big money and big money can only come from governments or large corporations. A large corporation should only be spending big money if it reasonably believes the investment will result in a substantial profit in the relatively near future. Only governments can toss large sums of money at projects unlikely to yield a financial return. Fortunately there is ample precedent for government spending with little hope of tangible monetary gain.
The current mindset of the human race is not well suited to developing technology need to join other worlds travelling interstellar space. Humans seem most willing to invest significant resources and money implementing complicated technology during times of war. Recent examples include the creation of the first operational jet fighter (the Messerschmitt Me 262) and the splitting of the atom. It seems geeks only get funding for Big Science for military supremacy or political advantage. Christopher Columbus wanted to explore but he had to convince Queen Isabella to sponsor him. Wernher von Braun wanted to explore but had to convince Hitler and Kennedy to sponsor him. One must wonder (and perhaps fear) the motivation of the sponsors of the alien geeks who sold their souls for the funding to come visit us.
If it exists, alien spacecraft technology would certainly be many, many years ahead of us, but it is not just the technology. The reliability, to travel trillions and trillions of miles, would have to be astonishing. This seems a far more difficult problem since humans don’t have the patience and focus needed to implement high reliability devices. Airplanes crash, subway trains collide, water pipes break, major cities lose power, and more. Many people talk the talk but ultimately everything gets shipped before the last bug is found and few design anything to last for decades. Furthermore, long-lasting products actually interfere with the future revenue of selling replacements. The fundamental culture of our society does not seem well suited to building things reliable enough to travel between the stars.
Why have humans ventured out to new horizons? Well, some of us are made to want to explore. Some humans risk life, reputation, family, and financial security to invent and discover. It seems most humans, however, are too worried about basic survival to care about that “stupid stuff”. While poets speak of the human inquisitiveness and desire to explore, my personal observation of the human race suggests these traits are confined to a relatively small percentage of the population. That small percentage, however, has dragged the rest of us kicking and screaming into the future.
Don’t believe for a minute the moon landing was about science and exploration. Of course many (most?) of the actual scientists were doing exactly that, but the funding only came because we couldn’t let the Soviets land on the moon first. If alien races are coming here, it costs them money – and lots of it. Thus I conclude that if aliens are indeed coming to our planet, they must have a very different culture from ours – OR – they want something important. I certainly hope their culture is different. If it’s not, I’m pretty sure I won’t like finding out what it is they want, and… I really won’t like the anal probe.