NASA’s Jupiter mission, having achieved orbit around the gas giant that is likely to be the earliest planet in our system, provides fodder for many fantasies of science and fiction. We are such a great species of animals, you know? Look at what we’ve done. Think of all the new knowledge we will derive from this mission. Think of the gizmos.
The real finds of the mission will probably not come from the giant itself but from its 67 moons, or others that may be discovered before the Juno spacecraft swan dives into Jupiter’s gas clouds on February 20, 2018, on its 37th orbit.
Moons like Europa, with silicate surface and water-ice crust, an atmosphere composed mainly of oxygen, and gravity about one sixth of ours, have offered writers and poets scenic backdrops since Galileo Galilei first glimpsed that moon’s profile on January 6, 1610. It is a pretty cold place, about minus 170 C (-274 F) most days. With that low gravity, perhaps it’s a bit easier than on Earth to hop around to try to stay warm.
Suppose, just suppose, that NASA discovers something truly provocative. Suppose on one of those moons there is evidence not only of oxygen-breathing, water-loving life similar to our own, but indisputable evidence of prior advanced civilizations. Suppose we were given to understand that they rose and fell by their own hand, either through their own induced runaway climate change or through the unleashed horror of their own unique weapons of mass destruction. How would that knowledge affect us?
Our guess: probably not much.
To be sure, it would be the news story of the year, even the decade. It would sell a lot of ink, make for plenty of new films and performances — all the ways we tell ourselves what is going on, with ourselves at the center. But would it change the political realities of climate change, nuclear weapons or self-destruction by overpopulation? Probably not.
Sages would bemoan our human inability to grasp the existential threats felt by the ancient Ioans or Europans, much as they do now. Skeptics would poke holes in the evidence, much as they do now. Many conferences would be held in posh hotels in scenic locations. Books would be written, eloquently imploring us to take these lessons to heart. In the end, none of that would matter. The news would fade from the headlines, and then from the back pages. Threads would still be found in history books and online discussion groups, but for the most part, we would be back to where we were in almost no time, and none the wiser.
Because we are humans. The ‘sapiens sapiens’ appellation is a bit of hubris. We are really not that bright as vertebrates or mammals go. We soil our own nest, sacrifice the patrimony of our young to our passing pleasures, are easily attracted to shiny things and addicted to sweets. As planetary citizens we tend to be more like planetary sociopaths. We’ll exterminate any other species that we decide we don’t like, or have a hunger for, or don’t even think about, regardless whether it matters in the greater scheme of things. Besides, we don’t really get the greater scheme of things, even though we pretend we do.
The aliens of Europa could pack their whole sordid history onto the NASA transmitters aboard Juno and we would tell each other, oh yeah, that was an episode of Star Trek in 1964. We are too jaded to be able to listen now.
If someone is right now hard at work crafting some message in a bottle—a dire warning to a race of future alien beings who may some day come to Earth and assay that layer of radioactive plastic in seafloor sediment that traces the ascent of Man — we’d say why bother? What makes you think alien explorers would be any more alert than we, who have known the dangers of the atomic Pandora since Einstein and the inevitable result of greenhouse warming since Arhennius?
Either you have the ability to behave appropriately or you don’t.
There is inescapable irony in the admission that our race is able to send a spacecraft 600 million miles to explore a large planet and its moons but is unable to muster the collective will to save itself from itself.