In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes. In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other. In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping. In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence. And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.
That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life. They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe. Could the scientists be wrong? Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.
Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity. Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms. The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.
Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect? It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old. But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.
Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario. As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.