Humanity Vs Aliens: They Could Wipe Us out with Diseases

Neil deGrasse Tyson and others consider whether alien diseases have the potential to wipe out humanity and maybe already have in the past.

Space exploration is an essential enterprise for humanity. We need to go deeper into space to understand more about our planet and the universe, to pinpoint potential new homes in case this one goes kaput, to find new resources for mining metals and minerals, and maybe even to locate some intergalactic brothers and sisters. The space program has led to the development of new technologies and has been a source of hope for most of humankind. But with every scoop of extraterrestrial soil our rovers dig up, come some fears.  The scoop could contain alien bacteria that might thrive here on earth in ways that are unexpected, unknown and possibly very deadly.


We could potentially have no immunity to extraterrestrial microbes. They could quickly wipe out large chunks of the human population, like a modern-day Black Plague. And that’s not the only threat.  Such bacteria could go after animals, plants and earthly microbes. Our food sources could be gone before we do.

People praying for relief from the bubonic plague, circa 1350. Original Artwork: Designed by E Corbould, lithograph by F Howard. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The encounter between us and aliens or alien bacteria could be similar to what happened to Native Americans when Europeans arrived in the 15th century. Over 95% of possibly 54 million people were killed due to lack of immunity to such illnesses as smallpox and flu.

NASA and other space agencies instituted decontamination programs to make sure the samples are quarantined. The international Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states in its article IX that “States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”

The crew of Apollo 11 in quarantine after returning to Earth, visited by Richard Nixon. 1969. Credit: NASA.

But back contamination practices like quarantines and all types of sterilizations have their own limitations, as what they are looking for is limited to what we know to look for. An unknown life form would behave unknowingly. While no sample from Mars has ever been brought back yet, the 2020 NASA Rover mission is planning just that. And for that, NASA is planning to build special facilities for studying the samples, possibly staffed by robots

So could aliens wipe us out?

Whether one is afraid or hopeful in relation to potential extraterrestrials perhaps depends on one’s character, general outlook on life, and level of knowledge. Stephen Hawking is famously pessimistic on the subject, thinking that not only are aliens likely to wipe us out, they will probably think of us the same way we think of bacteria.

Others, like Neil deGrasse Tyson are more positive. Tyson thinks we are not likely to catch a disease from aliens because they would be completely different from us, the same way we don’t catch illnesses from trees. “The more remote a species is genetically from you, the less likely they’re gonna have a disease that can jump to you”. And aliens would be completely removed since they would have evolved on a different planet.

Also out there is the theory of panspermia, which claims that life on Earth could have begun from bacteria brought onto the planet by comets or meteors from outer space, maybe even Mars itself. This could have happened by accident or even intentionally, whereby intelligent lifeforms from outer space sent bacteria to Earth to generate or transfer life. So we might be aliens ourselves. 

A team of researchers concluded that some terrestrial algae could survive space travel, concluding that the panspermia theory is not necessarily farfetched. 

Could alien diseases already be here?

There have been many theories without significant proof that attributed such diseases as the plague, ebola, mad cow disease and even flu pandemics to Earth’s contamination by objects from outer space.

Centers for Disease Control microbiologists are shown in this 2007 photo in the process of suiting up to access the interior of the organization's Biosafety Level-4 (BSL-4) laboratory. Credit: CDC

There is also the curious case of Morgellon’s disease, a condition suffered by tens of thousands of people around the world who believe there are tiny bugs and string-like objects living under their skin. The controversial condition has no known cure, and as is often the case when science doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer, conspiracy theories thrive in explaining the origins of Morgellons. While there are possible earth-bound answers, some attribute the disease to alien pathogens that contaminated Earth via meteors or even the Genesis mission, which returned outer space samples.  

Genesis solar wind sample curators at NASA's Johnson Space Center handle collectors in the ultraclean Genesis cleanroom. Genesis samples are the first extraterrestrial materials returned to Earth by NASA since the Apollo program, which ended in the early 1970s. Credit: NASA/JSC

The most famous sufferer of Morgellon’s is the singer Joni Mitchell, who has described her illness as a "weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space."  Mitchell's hospitalizations in 2015 brought the illness to media’s attention. It’s fair to say that most within the medical profession attribute the disease more to a psychological condition rather than actual manifestation of alien bugs, but it wouldn’t be the first time people dismissed something they couldn’t effectively explain. 

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.