Amid several weeks filled with more than the usual complement of outrageous revelations and offenses against norms of decency and common sense, news arrived that two scientists at the University of Nottingham in Britain have calculated that more than 30 intelligent civilizations could exist in our Milky Way.
Granted, the Milky Way is huge, and the closest of those alien civilizations likely would be thousands of light-years away. Not traditional neighbors, in other words. But consider this: The scientists used Earth as the model for how life may develop in other parts of the Milky Way. If Earth is the model, the Milky Way could be in trouble.
If these other civilizations developed as Earth did, perhaps their most powerful country also is led by someone who apparently approves of building concentration camps for certain religious groups. Perhaps that same leader many parsecs away is expressing his concern that he might lose an upcoming election if voting is made easier for more people, and is working hard to make it more difficult to vote. Perhaps he and other leaders in that land are ignoring warning signs about a spreading killer virus, in defiance of the advice of medical experts throughout that land and all over that world.
Perhaps the top environmental agency in this other world also is deciding not to put limits on a chemical that is linked to brain damage in infants and found in the drinking water of as many as 16 million of that land's residents, just the latest of many steps it has taken guaranteed to pollute the air and water those people breathe and drink. Perhaps people in those worlds are being killed by law enforcement officials who kneel on their necks with callous indifference.
The Nottingham scientists used evolution in their calculations, assuming that elsewhere as on Earth it would take 5 billion years for intelligent life to form. If we're all proceeding in tandem, perhaps people in other worlds also are wracked, knowing that some of their brethren are being treated unfairly because of the color of their skin, the religion they practice, the people they love, the gender they are, or the place they come from, and knowing that it's wrong and knowing it must stop and yet knowing that the mistreatment continues.
And then I wonder what these other civilizations would be like if they were a comparative speck of time, say 5,000 years, ahead or behind us.
If they're 5,000 years behind us, will they avoid the worst of what constitutes human behavior here? Will they know to nip bad acts in the bud? As they make their way through the earliest stages of their evolution, will we here on Earth survive long enough to develop communication and detection systems capable of finding these civilizations, which the Nottingham scientists say would be an average of 17,000 light-years away, in order to warn them of what might lie ahead? Would they listen to us?
If they're 5,000 years ahead of us, do they even still exist? Did they encounter anything like the self-broiling of their world and act before it was too late? Have they learned to refrain from harming one another and are they now treating each other like the equal life-forms that they are? Are they so advanced that they already have found us but backed away, confounded by our inexhaustible capacity to do both good and evil to ourselves and by our utter inability or unwillingness to change?
If they do approach to warn us, will we listen?
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.