Dada is the sun, Dada is the egg. Dada is the Police of the Police.

10/13/2005

Speaking of gamma-ray bursts

You learn something new every day. Apparently some people believe that gamma-ray bursts, which are proud homophobe/physicist Jonathan Katz's area of expertise, are actually the result of extra-terrestrial warfare. Well, at least that's what Gregg Easterbrook, via Matt Yglesias, seems to think:
Are Gamma-Ray Bursts the Mushrooms Clouds of Outer Space? Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful events humanity has observed. In some, for an instant one point in deep space appears to emit more energy than all the stars of a galaxy combined; the brightest recorded such burst, whose light reached Earth in 1998, was so intense that for an instant the source seemed more luminous than the entire universe combined. Relatively long gamma-ray bursts are believed caused by the collapse of giant stars much more massive than our sun. Last week, astronomers in several countries jointly declared their belief, based on results from a spacecraft NASA launched to study gamma bursts, that brief gamma-ray bursts are caused by collisions of neutron stars, which are the dense remnants of old, dying stars.

Maybe this analysis is right, but allow me (actually, you can't stop me) to repeat a fear I expressed here last year: that gamma bursts are muzzle flashes, "the emission lines of horrific weapons being used by civilizations that have acquired fantastic knowledge compared to us, but no additional wisdom." The standard pop-cultural assumption is that advanced aliens will be benevolent, freed of primitive belligerence. What if instead space aliens are at the Henry Kissinger level of development in terms of morality -- but equipped with star drive and gamma bombs? It just seems spooky as if we might be observing the evidence of distant combat using weapons of cataclysmic power.
Is it rational to believe in alien civilization? I'm not talking about those who think that weird little naked grey people with big heads are routinely traveling to Earth to sodomize hillbillies. I mean, what about people who believe that somewhere in the vast universe there exists intelligent life roughly comparable to that on Earth? Is this belief every bit as kooky? Or does it make sense? Is the prospect of distant alien civilizations unlikely? Are is it something that we have to be agnostic about?

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