Hey Bill Nye! Would Humanity Make Peace with Aliens—or War?

Once we discover alien life out there, humanity will never be the same.

QUESTION: If humanity at some point in the future discovered another alien civilization, at least mildly comparable to our own, if society as it is now stayed basically the same, how do you think we would react to it, you know: be violent or have a new colonial era, or make peace and advance with everyone or something like that? Thank you.

BILL NYE: What if we found or discovered another alien civilization, would there be colonization? I hope not. I just feel that another alien civilization probably couldn’t live on the earth and we probably couldn’t live there. There’s too many details that wouldn’t work, unless we’re all wearing spacesuits. But maybe. I just don’t think that there would be that much interaction. That is to say, I think it’s much more like we will find an alien civilization on a world so distant, so remote, that there won’t be going back and forth in spaceships. If it’s, let’s say, 40 lightyears, as it is to these TRAPPIST-1 planets, the ones they found around this very cold or relatively cold small star—cool star, then the way we’d communicate with them is by radio or by light, electromagnetic waves. And so there wouldn’t be a chance for colonization or misplaced bank accounts or whatever else would go wrong—or warfare. That just wouldn’t be possible. Instead though, it would be profound. It would change the way everybody feels about being a living thing in the cosmos. It would be extraordinary. And furthermore we do this research looking for alien civilizations at a tiny fraction of our international budget. It’s a worthy thing to always be doing in the background. Listening and looking for aliens.

Finding an alien civilization will change humanity dramatically, but not so much in the obvious ways. Will we interact, trade, learn from one another's technology, or start intergalactic wars? None of that is highly likely, mostly for logistical reasons. Bill Nye thinks that the change will be more of an internal, philosophical, and spiritual change. What will it mean for humans to not be the only living thing in the cosmos? Many of us want to know and so, operating on just a small budget running in the background of all other scientific pursuits, there are astronomers and physicists continually looking and listening for life out there so that we may one day be able to ask ourselves that very question. Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.


An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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The Flynn effect appears to be in retrograde. (Credit: Shutterstock/Big Think)
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