Nukes, ETs, and Earthlings: A Thought Experiment for a Species with Atomic Bombs

Klaatu speaking to the world’s leading scientists with the robot Gort standing guard. (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951)

“I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. . . . We, of the other planets . . . live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war — free to pursue more profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection. But we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet — but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.” — Klaatu (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951)

Items in the World News

What does the above 1951 movie quote have to with events in 2017? Quite a bit, including the thought experiment posed in this essay. Consider two recent stories in world news — ramped up chances for nuclear annihilation and aliens possibly effecting the brightness of Tabby’s Star. Let’s consider them and pose a question for us Earthlings.

Tough guys and hair gods who might well ignite a nuclear war.

1) North Korea wants long-range nuclear missiles and President Trump promised that any threats against America “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Such nuclear madness and insane rhetoric have not been seen since the end of the Cold War (1947–1991).

2) The Kepler space telescope has spotted a distant star—known as Tabby’s Star—with irregular transits (an object or objects passing between the star and the Kepler telescope) that cause significant dimming. This suggests the slim possibility that an advanced extraterrestrial civilization is harvesting energy from its sun or has built a megastructure orbiting the star. More likely, it could just be packs of meteors orbiting the star or some other cosmic phenomenon yet to be identified.

The Kepler Space Telescope has spotted irregular transits and large-scale dimming of Tabby’s Star. For this thought experiment, let’s assume the transits and dimming are caused by an alien megastructure (as conceived in the bottom image)..

The Thought Experiment

For the purpose of this essay, let’s assume that Kepler has indeed spotted a megastructure orbiting the star. Perhaps it is a massive device made by an advanced and peaceful civilization in possession of supreme art, science, technology, and philosophical enlightenment about their origins and destiny in the universe. [No, I am not talking about so-called “ancient aliens,” the new religion promoted on the TV series, Ancient Aliens. As I explained in my new book, Specter of the Monolith, the series hijacked the narrative of 2001: A Space Odyssey and is complete nonsense.]

Perhaps this massive device includes a space telescope (of some kind) and they have spotted us on our planet. If this civilization exists, spots us, and decides to visit us, how could we Earthlings justify ourselves, with our endless warfare and ecological destruction? How would we explain that 1) we aim weapons of annihilation at each other, 2) we kill off massive numbers of other species, and 3) we pollute the air, land, and oceans of our only planet?

What would we say to the intergalactic visitor? Would we say, “Hey ET, you got God?” That’s what a Vatican astronomer wants to do, along with baptizing them. When ET answers “No,” you know the next step: yet another holy war. To prevent that, maybe we stay 100% secular and show the ET some of our best art works, latest medical inventions, top scientific discoveries, and great fashion and architecture. But, you know there is nothing we can say to justify our behavior with regard to war and eco-destruction. The real thought experiment is: what would the ETs say or do to us, given our war worship and narcissistic pretenses to cosmic centrality and significance?

Aliens show up and begin annihilating humans until Jeff Goldblum’s laptop and wireless internet saves the day (1996).

ETs vs. Earthlings

For decades, Hollywood has been producing films featuring extraterrestrials who arrive and wage war upon Earthlings, as illustrated in War of the Worlds (1953), This Island Earth (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Independence Day (1996), War of the Worlds (2005), Battle Los Angeles (2011), Oblivion (2013), and many others. Sure, some of these films are classics and have multiple cultural meanings. But aren’t these films really a pop-culture cover for the fact that if any species attacked first, it would most likely be humans in the name of their imaginary Creator and political-military rulers?

Militarizing space, strip-mining the moon, nuking and terraforming Mars, extending nationalism and religion into space, seeking to baptize ETs — these visions and behaviors collectively illustrate a delusional species filled with delusional tribes. Though the “ancient-astronaut” theory is nonsense, it is still useful to imagine what would happen if a philosophical and powerful extraterrestrial suddenly appeared on our planet.

Klaatu (R) and Gort (L), the laser-eyed robot. Drawing by Matthew Lawrence (Matthew Lawrence Studio).

Enter Klaatu: The Enlightened ET

Perhaps Hollywood has already anticipated what kind of visitor we might get from a planet orbiting Tabby’s Star. Maybe the visitor will be like Klaatu, the intellectual extraterrestrial from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), a film many times better than the Keanu Reeves version from 2008. This atomic-age and space-age classic provided a stern warning for Earthlings, which by the mid-20th century were on the path to developing enough nuclear weapons and rockets to potentially destroy life on Earth and eventually wreck havoc out in space, too. We’re in the same spot in 2017. Why have we not evolved since 1951?

Klaatu arrives with a gift to study the stars. Naturally, he is immediately gunned down by trigger-happy Earthlings.

Klaatu was the first extraterrestrial philosopher hailing from Hollywood to offer the human species a message of hope, peace, and benevolence. Not surprisingly, Klaatu is gunned down by a soldier as soon as he steps off his flying saucer in Washington, DC. But fortunately, Klaatu has traveled with a peacekeeping robot named Gort, who quickly uses his laser to transform all the army’s weapons into piles of dust.

Frankly, I would love for Klaatu, or for any real-life ETs and space voyagers, to visit Earth and land their spaceships on the lawn of the White House, at Moscow’s Red Square, in Mecca, or maybe beside the Vatican, the Pentagon, the Great Pyramids, or the Great Wall of China. (Perhaps the most appropriate sites of all would be Mission Control in Houston and the Yuri Gagarin Monument in Moscow.) Such a visit might wake us from our dream of cosmic centrality, which has caused so many nightmares on Earth and will eventually cause more in space. As listed in the table below, there are many things an extraterrestrial might do.

From Chapter 4 of my new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017)

Perhaps the cool extraterrestrial philosopher would give humans a friendly interstellar “status update” on Facebook, followed by uploading some videos to YouTube and selfies to Instagram. Or maybe Gort’s lasers would reduce our rockets to dust as well as the technologies we plan to use to strip-mine the moon and terraform Mars. Better yet, maybe an army of Gorts would obliterate every last one of our weapons in a planetary effort to establish “gun control.” Can’t you just see the National Rifle Association freaking out, not to mention the world’s armies and terror warriors?

If these soldiers and terror warriors want to keep battling, let them do it with stones and spears, not drones, jetliners, and nuclear bombs. Keep in mind that humanity’s extension of weapons and theisms into space pose an eventual threat to all extraterrestrial species. Look at what happened to Klaatu: He was immediately shot.

Look at what has happened on Earth in the past, what is happening today, and — by all evidence — what will continue to happen in space. Tribal warfare and military violence. Our species is populated with war-mongering fanatics ready to kill for their Creators, tribes, and nations—even in space. That’s a fact. Isn’t war worship part of the reason Star Wars: The Force Awakens is one of the top box-office films of all time?

Stephen Hawking suggest ETs might do to Earthlings what Earthlings have done to others.

Hawking’s Warning

What would enlightened extraterrestrials do if they visited our planet? Stephen Hawking thinks members of a highly advanced civilization might annihilate humanity and not think twice about it as they journeyed through the Milky Way. Or perhaps they would colonize Earth and convert it into a zoo, or eliminate humans altogether and use the planet for recreation and wilderness areas for their species. Given all the tribal wars and ecological destruction humans have wrought on Spaceship Earth, an extraterrestrial philosopher might indeed decide that we need to be utterly exterminated as a precautionary measure — thus removing the threat of the human species from the universe.

Arrival (2016) shows the conflict between tribalism and enlightenment among Earthlings.

We have known this verdict was plausible since 1951, when Klaatu announced that we would face extinction unless we could learn to live in peace as a planetary society (see quote at top of this essay). With the emergence of the Cold War, Klaatu offered a warning about nuclear warfare and extending our propensity for violence into the universe. Sixty years later, the point is this: What justifies the continuation of our existence, given the ongoing terror wars, ecological destruction, and beliefs in cosmic centrality on Spaceship Earth? Can we hope to avoid being obliterated by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization? Isn’t that the existential message of Arrival (2016)?

Future Past

Why should the space future be any different than the Earthly past? If a comet or meteor were hurtling toward Earth and destined to render all human life extinct, and Klaatu could actually prevent the collision with advanced technologies, why should he? Klaatu could make the argument for our extinction in the name of peace or ecology — that he would be preventing a future holy war in the Milky Way or imminent environmental destruction on a planet like Mars.

Of course, the dimming of Tabby’s Star is most likely caused by natural phenomenon, but the slim possibility of an alien megastructure creates a thought experiment we should ponder as we continue to wage war and wreak havoc on Planet Earth. The point is nuclear weapons (and planetary destruction) represent complete tribal madness and cannot be justified when you think in terms of the human species and what an enlightened extraterrestrial observer might conclude about our behavior. When are we going to grow up?


This essay is based on ideas from my new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017), now available in Amazon (which has a fresh inventory in stock) and iBooks. The book uses 2001: A Space Odyssey as a starting point for the most original critique of space films and a hopeful ecological vision of the human future in space.