TIME space

Hoping to Meet E.T.? Be Careful What You Wish

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

As a new TIME book shows, human beings have not always reacted well to unfamiliar experiences—and beings

Let’s be honest: if we ever encounter an extraterrestrial, we’ll probably lose our marbles—and not in a good way. We’ve been contemplating the meeting for a long time, and the stories we’ve told ourselves have not been encouraging.

There is H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, in which invading Martians lay waste to much of the Earth until they are defeated by a terrestrial virus. There is Independence Day, the 1996 movie in which invading aliens—who clearly haven’t been paying attention—lay waste to much of Earth until they are defeated by a computer virus. There is the celebrated episode of The Twilight Zone that involved seemingly kindly aliens who arrive on Earth carrying a handbook called To Serve Man, which is a perfectly nice beginning—until it turns out the handbook is a cookbook.

In fairness to us, we do seem to have moved a bit beyond our afraid-of-the-dark ways. We sent the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft aloft in 1977 carrying golden disks encoded with information explicitly designed to introduce ourselves to aliens and even tell them where we live. The one time we thought we had uncovered solid evidence of extraterrestrial biology—in 1996, when NASA announced that a meteorite from Mars appeared to contain a microbial fossil—the reaction was far more celebratory than scared.

“If this discovery is confirmed,” then-President Clinton said at a Rose Garden press conference, “it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered . . . We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say as we continue the search for answers and for knowledge…”

Still, a trace of a dead microbe is hardly the same as hitting cosmic paydirt. Suppose one of our spacecraft or radio antennas did pick up signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Suppose, more dramatically, E.T. actually landed here. How would we behave then? The odds are, alas, that what happened next wouldn’t be pretty.

Human beings, for better and often much worse, are a tribal species. Give us a way to define and divide ourselves—by color, language, religion, geography, and certainly by planet if it ever comes to that—and we seize on it. Such a worldview once paid survival dividends, and in some ways it still does. Members of your family or clan or community are the ones most likely to protect you and look out for you. Those guys living two valleys away are likelier to see you as a competitor for resources and mates, and given a chance will deal with you accordingly.

School segregators, ethnic cleansers and people who blow up houses of worship don’t think in those terms consciously, but the primitive impulse is at least part of what’s behind the us-versus-them atrocities they commit.

Sometimes the savagery is us-versus-us. The early days of the Cold War are remembered as an entirely bipolar era, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union standing astride competing halves of the world. But once the intercontinental ballistic missiles got armed and aimed, things began to break down within the friendly camps too (at least in the U.S.). No backyard fallout shelter was complete without a shotgun, the better to repel neighbors who couldn’t be bothered to dig their own when they had the chance but, when the bombs started falling, wanted to huddle up in yours.

Similarly, one of the least plausible—if most inspiring—scenes in Independence Day occurs when citizens of the world join hands to repel the aliens and the screen is filled with images of Israeli and Arab militaries, side by side, working together, the dire circumstances turning enemies into brothers. But the fact is, it’s hard to imagine even the nominally confederated nations of the European Union pulling together that way without France crabbing to Belgium that Italy needs to pull its own weight, Germany scolding Greece that a military costs money and they should have thought about that before they ran up such huge deficits, and Great Britain trying to figure out if ETs can swim and if maybe, one more time, the Sceptered Isle could wait out the whole mess on the other side of the Channel.

We don’t need an alien landing to show us how we respond to a perceived external threat. Consider the hysterical reaction to the Ebola virus alighting on American shores (ground all flights! quarantine all travelers!). Consider the incessant drumbeat about the need to seal the U.S.-Mexican border against swine flu or ISIS or Al Qaeda or whatever other menace is lighting up cable news that day.

Harder to determine is how proof of extraterrestrial life would affect our religious beliefs. The last half-millennium has been a difficult time for some of the most fundamentally devout. Far from living on a world that sits at the center of the universe, we have come to learn that we’re barely in the cosmic countryside, camping out on a lone planet circling one of 300 billion stars in the Milky Way, which itself is one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Our final claim to uniqueness is that for the moment, we remain the only known planet with life. If that changes—when that changes—we’ll all have to find our own ways to adjust. And on that score, there is hope.

At the Vatican, Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno, known popularly as the Pope’s astronomer, is promoting a new kind of faith that happily embraces science. The 2014 book he co-authored with a fellow Jesuit is provocatively titled Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? His answer is straightforward: “Only if she asks.” The response is whimsical and wonderful. And it suggests a profound change.

The human species has undeniably made progress over time, from the primordial soup to the state of nature to a global community that can, on its good days, feed its kids and heal its sick and make great discoveries without killing too many of its own. Yet we have a long way to go. It will be a very good thing when we at last shake hands with an extraterrestrial. But it may be a better thing still that the big day remains at least a few years away.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Education

This Is How Long Your Teen Needs to Spend on Homework to Be Better at Math and Science

It's not that long, but long enough

How much time to spend on homework has always been a major sticking point between teenagers and their teachers and parents. And many teenagers will agree that spending time on math and science is the worst.

But a group of researchers in Spain has arrived at an optimum time that should be spent on that kind of homework — an hour a day.

The researchers, from the University of Oviedo, analyzed the academic performance of 7,725 students for their paper, which was published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Educational Psychology. The students answered questions on how often they did homework and what the distribution of subjects within that time was, following which they were given a standardized test for math and science performance.

“The data suggests that spending 60 minutes a day doing homework is a reasonable and effective time,” said the study’s author Javier Suárez-Álvarez.

Suárez-Álvarez and his co-lead author Rubén Fernández-Alonso found that the average amount of homework assigned is about 70 minutes a day, while some teachers raised that duration to 90 to 100 minutes. However, the researchers found that students’ math and science scores decline with a greater amount of homework.

“Assigning more than 70 minutes of homework a day does not seem very efficient,” Suárez-Álvarez added.

So teens can take heart from the fact that they don’t have to spend more than an hour on math and science homework. As for parents, well, even getting them to spend that much time will be a win.

[Science Daily]

TIME space

Maybe We Really Are Alone In the Universe

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

As a new TIME book explains, a cosmos with trillions of planets does not guarantee more than one with life

You may as well get a lot friendlier with life on Earth—every microbe and mammal, every bird and bug, and especially every human being. Because when it comes to biology, our planet may be the whole show.

Forget the overwhelming math—those trillions upon trillions of planets that are likely out there, at least some of which should be inhabited. Snuff out the one match head that is life on Earth, and the whole universe goes biologically black. We can search for biology all we want, send up all the here-we-are signal flares we can invent, but the fact is, no one will answer—ever—because no one is there.

That, like it or not, may be the truth, and it’s not just the picnic skunks who say so. Some very credible researchers have crunched the numbers and run the odds and taken a good hard look at them without the little frisson of hope even many of the most serious scientists bring to their work—and they come up empty. That’s not easy to accept because for a long time other, equally credible scientists have made a strong case for alien life.

Perhaps the most influential of the life-is-out-there advocates, astronomer and SETI Institute founder Frank Drake, made his bones in the extraterrestrial game with his eponymous equation, a satisfying—if coldly arithmetical—case for the likelihood not only of life in space but of intelligent life. According to Drake, the n in his equation—the number of civilizations in the Milky Way alone capable of producing detectable radio signals—equals the rate of the formation of sunlike stars in our galaxy, times the proportion of stars that are orbited by planets, times the proportion of those planets that would offer life-supporting conditions, times the fraction of those on which life does exist, times the fraction of life-forms that are intelligent, times the fraction of intelligent life-forms capable of transmitting signals, times the length of time such a civilization actually sends those signals before either perishing or going silent for any other reason.

Simple, right? Honestly, it kind of is. Filling in all of the x’s in the Drake equation—which, admittedly, is itself an act of conjecture, albeit highly informed conjecture—typically yields an estimate of thousands of civilizations. Drake himself put it at 10,000. The late cosmological popularizer Carl Sagan estimated the figure at an astounding 1 million. Even if they were off by a factor of 10 or 100 or 1,000, it is clear we are not remotely alone.

Unless we are.

Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and the author of the book Eerie Silence—which takes exactly the dim view of our ever encountering an alien intelligence that its title suggests—finds almost no part of the intelligent-life argument persuasive. The biggest hole he finds in the Drake equation is the one involving the subset of planets that could support life that actually do. The fact is, we have absolutely no empirical data that allows us to put a value on that variable in a responsible way. We know of precisely one world on which life has existed, and the rest is largely guesswork. Fill in that one Drake blank with a zero, and the entire equation collapses to zero too.

Davies, though, goes well beyond the flaws of the equation, arguing that there is a perfectly credible case to be made for the presence of life on Earth as a result of a succession of flukes, each more improbable than the one before it, which, together, could occur only a single time in a trillion trillion tries. A chimp randomly pounding a typewriter might indeed come up with Hamlet. Once. It wouldn’t matter if there were 40 billion other chimps hammering away, just as, as Davies has written, it doesn’t matter if there are 40 billion planets in the Milky Way capable of sustaining life. Only a single one will.

Furthermore, he believes that in the improbable event an intelligent civilization exists, it is surpassingly unlikely it would send any messages our way. The popular notion is that because we’ve been transmitting radio and TV signals for more than a century—and because those signals are spreading into space at the speed of light—surely a sophisticated species would have gotten wind of us. Problem is, in a universe that stretches for 13.8 billion light-years in all directions, the 100 light-years our signals have traveled so far make them a decidedly local broadcast.

Most discouraging is that in all the years we’ve been looking for an extraterrestrial sign (and no, crop circles don’t count), there has been, well, only an eerie silence. SETI’s antennas have been pointed skyward for half a century, listening for a repeating signal that would suggest an intelligent sender; so far, nothing. There was one thrilling moment—on Aug. 15, 1977—when SETI scientist Jerry Ehman, working with Ohio State University’s radio telescope, picked up a signal a full 30 times as strong as the background noise of deep space. It was tracked for 72 seconds and had a frequency similar to that of the spectral line for hydrogen. (That’s relevant because SETI scientists have long believed that since hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, it might be chosen as a sort of universal sending frequency.)

On the printout that the radio telescope produced of the signal, Ehman wrote one word: “Wow!” Forevermore, what he heard that night has been known as the Wow! signal. It was never heard again, though, and today it is assumed to have been an atmospheric anomaly, a reflection from space debris or of earthly origin. What it almost certainly was not was an alien semaphore.

Of course, it’s much too early to consider any of this proof of a negative. The universe is huge and ancient, and a 50-year exploration isn’t even a single pixel in the sweeping mural of time. Science does make hard, sudden turns: one day there was no Copernicus saying the Earth isn’t the center of the universe, and then there was—and nothing was ever the same again. Ditto Einstein and his relativistic universe; ditto Leeuwenhoek and the previously unseen biosphere revealed by his microscope. And so it could still be with the discovery of alien life.

Until then, there may be something to be gained from thinking of the Earth as the universe’s only wilderness preserve. If life is indeed a cosmic one-off, it makes it all the more important that we act as this planet’s responsible caretakers. Snuff this biological light, and the descending darkness won’t just be our fault. It will be our crime.

Read next: Watch the Total Solar Eclipse in 5 Seconds

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Dating

This Is Exactly How Much You Need to Drink to Seem More Attractive, Backed by Science

healthiest foods, health food, diet, nutrition, time.com stock, red wine, alcohol
Photograph by Danny Kim for TIME; Gif by Mia Tramz for TIME

No more, no less

Want to seem more attractive to the opposite sex? Drink one — exactly one — very large glass of wine.

That’s what a recent study by a group of researchers at the University of Bristol’s School of Psychology, published in Science Daily, suggests.

The researchers asked 40 heterosexual men and women, divided equally between both genders, to complete an attractiveness-rating exercise. The volunteers were then shown two images of a person, one taken while the subject was sober, one after the subject had consumed 250 ml of wine (equivalent to a very large glass), and one after 500 ml of wine (two-thirds of a bottle) had been consumed.

The photos of those who drank 250 ml wine were rated as more attractive, followed by images of sober subjects. The photos of those who had drank 500 ml were considered least attractive.

The researchers attributed this to the increased facial flushing that comes with consuming low amounts of alcohol, along with additional muscle relaxation and subtle smiles that portray a heightened positive mood.

One more good reason to drink in moderation.

[Science Daily]

TIME human behavior

The Weird Reason Humans Shake Hands as a Greeting

It's to smell each other

It may not be as undignified as two dogs greeting each other but a handshake may amount to the same thing, according to a new study.

Researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science found that people use the traditional greeting of shaking hands to surreptitiously smell each other.

The researchers secretly filmed subjects to see how frequently they touched their own faces, and if that number changed significantly after shaking someone’s hand. When people received a handshake from someone of the same gender, face-touching with the right hand increased by more than 100 percent.

Nasal catheters were fitted to subjects to measure airflow, which proved they weren’t just touching their hands to their faces. They were sniffing them.

“It is well-known that we emit odors that influence the behaviour and perception of others but, unlike other mammals, we don’t sample those odors from each other overtly,” Professor Noam Sobel, Chair of Neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science, said in a press release.

Interestingly, hand-sniffing only increased on the right hand, used for the hand shake, among subjects of the same gender. When people shook hands with someone of the opposite sex, they were more likely to smell their left hand.

 

TIME Research

See the Human Body Under a Microscope

Closer than you thought possible

'Science is Beautiful'
‘Science is Beautiful’

The new book ‘Science is Beautiful’ shows how the human body can be alluring even in minutia.

TIME human behavior

Using Phonics Makes Learning to Read Easier, Says Study

485208231
Getty Images

People are able to read better when their visual processing is more sensitive to auditory information

New research suggests that relying on phonics, a method of learning where an individual sounds out words, helps students to learn reading faster when compared with the whole-language technique, which hones in on visually memorizing word patterns.

In a study published in Brain & Language, scientists at the University of Buffalo utilized neuroimaging technology to suggest that phonological information is vital to helping an individual identify words while they’re being read. Moreover, individuals perform better at reading when they are more sensitive to auditory information.

“Better readers seem to have more of these neurons taking advantage of auditory information to help the visual word recognition system along,” says Chris McNorgan, an assistant professor of psychology who managed the study.

[Science Daily]

TIME human behavior

Fast Food Could Make Children Perform Worse in School

Jamie Grill—Getty

New study shows that kids who eat the most fast food have lower test scores in science, math and reading

A new study shows that children who regularly eat fast food don’t perform as well as their fellow students in school.

“Research has been focused on how children’s food consumption contributes to the child-obesity epidemic,” Kelly Purtell of Ohio State University, who led the study, told the Telegraph. “Our findings provide evidence that eating fast food is linked to another problem: poorer academic outcomes.”

The study, published in Clinical Pediatrics, measured the fast-food consumption of 8,500 American 10-year-olds and then reviewed their academic test results three years later. The children were a nationally representative sample and researchers took into account more than two dozen factors other than fast food that could skew the results.

Among those who ate fast food on a daily basis, the average science score was 79, as compared with 83 for those who never ate fast food. Similar results were discovered for reading and math.

[Telegraph]

TIME human behavior

New Google Doodle Honors Renowned Psychoanalyst Anna Freud

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Ergy Landau/Photo Researchers—Getty Images/Photo Researchers Anna Freud

Freud, the youngest child of "father of psychoanalysis" Sigmund Freud, pioneered the field of child psychology

Google’s latest Doodle celebrates the 119th anniversary of the birth of Anna Freud, whom TIME once referred to as “that pioneering lady of psychoanalysis.”

She was the youngest child of Sigmund Freud, the modern day architect of psychoanalysis, and the only one of his six children to follow in his footsteps.

Born in Vienna in 1895, Freud’s tryst with psychology began at the early age of 13, when she would take part in her father’s weekly discussions on psychoanalytic ideas.

She went on to become one of the founders of the field of child psychoanalysis, having been drawn to it when she taught at an elementary school in the early 1900s.

The Freud family fled Austria during the Nazi occupation in 1938 out of fear of persecution, and emigrated to London where Anna established the Hampstead War Nurseries for children rendered homeless during World War II. She applied her training and knowledge to the children at the institution, which was renamed the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic after being granted charity status in 1952.

Following her death in 1982, it was renamed the Anna Freud Centre and continues to be one of the major global institutions for the mental health of young children.

TIME human behavior

The One Equation That Explains All of Humanity’s Problems

Relax, it's not nearly this complicated
niarchos Getty Images Relax, it's not nearly this complicated

There's you, there's me and there's everyone else on the planet. How many of those people do you care about?

Good news! If you’re like most Americans, you don’t have much reason to worry about the dangerous state of the world. Take Ebola. Do you have it? No, you don’t, and neither does anyone in your family. As for Ukraine, it’s not your neighborhood, right? Ditto ISIS.

Reasonable people might argue that a position like this lacks a certain, well, perspective, and reasonable people would be right. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a position way too many of us adopt all the same, even if we don’t admit it. If it’s not happening here, it’s not happening at all—and we get to move on to other things.

I was put freshly in mind of this yesterday, after I wrote a story on the newest—and arguably least honest—argument being used by the dwindling community of climate deniers, and then posted the link to the piece on Twitter. Yes, yes, I know. If you can’t stand the tweet heat stay out of the Twitter kitchen. But all the same, I was surprised by one response:

Just out of curiosity, how has ‘climate change’ personally affected you? Has it brought you harm?

And right there, in 140 characters or less, was the problem—the all-politics-is-local, not-in-my-backyard, no-man-is-an-island-except-me heart of the matter. It is the sample group of one—or, as scientists express it, n=1—the least statistically reliable, most flawed of all sample groups. The best thing you can call conclusions drawn from such a source is anecdotal. The worst is flat out selfish.

No, climate change has not yet affected me personally—or at least not in a way that’s scientifically provable. Sure, I was in New York for Superstorm Sandy and endured the breakdown of services that followed. But was that a result of climate change? Scientists aren’t sure. The run of above-normal, heat wave summers in the city are likelier linked to global warming, and those have been miserable. But my experience is not really the point, is it?

What about the island nations that are all-but certain to be under water in another few generations? What about the endless droughts in the southwest and the disappearance of the Arctic ice cap and the dying plants and animals whose climates are changing faster than they can adapt—which in turn disrupts economies all over the world? What about the cluster of studies just published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society firmly linking the 2013-2014 heat wave in Australia—which saw temperatures hit 111ºF (44ºC)—to climate change?

Not one of those things has affected me personally. My cozy n=1 redoubt has not been touched. As for the n=millions? Not on my watch, babe.

That kind of thinking is causing all kinds of problems. N=1 are the politicians acting against the public interest so they can please a febrile faction of their base and ensure themselves another term. N=1 is the parent refusing to vaccinate a child because, hey, no polio around here; it’s the open-carry zealots who shrug off Sandy Hook but would wake up fast if 20 babies in their own town were shot; it’s refusing to think about Social Security as long as your own check still clears, and as for the Millennials who come along later? Well, you’ll be dead by then so who cares?

N=1 is a fundamental denial of the larger reality that n=humanity. That includes your children, and it includes a whole lot of other people’s children, too—children who may be strangers to you but are the first reason those other parents get out of bed in the morning.

Human beings are innately selfish creatures; our very survival demands that we tend to our immediate needs before anyone else’s—which is why you put on your own face mask first when the plane depressurizes. But the other reason you do that is so you can help other people. N=all of the passengers in all of the seats around yours—and in case you haven’t noticed, we’re all flying in the same plane together.

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