Millions of people gawked at the recent discovery of a triangular prism, fabricated in shiny metal and as tall as an elephant, erected in a remote Utah canyon. Careful scrutiny of imagery on Google Earth indicated that the monolith has been sitting unnoticed in the Beehive State for about five years.
There’s no signature, no bronze plaque to indicate its purpose or provenance. Recently, a second metal monolith appeared in eastern Romania, and a third in California. Then, the Utah monolith disappeared — reportedly destroyed and removed by people worried it would attract hordes of unwanted tourists. This week, a group of people destroyed the California monolith while ranting about Jesus, nationalism and making racist jokes.
Many commentators have suggested that well-known installation artists are the perpetrators, although no one has come forth to accept either praise or blame.
But who built these things? And why?
Many commentators have suggested that well-known installation artists are the perpetrators, although no one has come forth to accept either praise or blame. Perhaps they should reconsider. The monoliths are becoming as notorious as Christo’s wrapping of the Berlin Reichstag in the 1990s.
But are we really sure that an artist should get the credit? Imaginative people have another idea: The monoliths could be artifacts planted by aliens, perhaps beings who are somehow familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In that celebrated film, extraterrestrials install a monolith on Earth that, a few hundred thousand years ago, managed to fast-forward evolution by nudging our hooting, ape-like ancestors toward greater intelligence.
Later in the movie, a second monolith, buried on the moon, directs space-faring humans to Jupiter’s moon Europa for additional enlightenment. These seemingly solid monoliths are apparently quite versatile and able to violate some fundamental tenets of Darwinian evolution.
But film lore aside, if extraterrestrials were to give humans a gift, what might it actually be?
To start, we have to consider the shipping costs. Even the nearest star system is more than 4 light-years away, and that’s the minimum distance to any alien neighbors. But whether they’re near or far, the FedEx charges will be hefty. According to my (very approximate) calculations, the cost of transporting a 100-pound monolith to our solar system at one-tenth the speed of light (slow, in other words) could well be over $800 million, assuming the aliens pay 13 cents per kilowatt hour for energy — the same rate charged by the average American utility company.
My point is, it hardly makes sense for aliens to send us inert hunks of riveted metal that have no purpose other than to puzzle the recipients. Such monoliths have little use beyond tying up your horse.
Sending high-tech devices — phasers, communicators or tricorders, to name some iconic hardware from “Star Trek” — feels like a more practical present. And while it’s possible the aliens would offer us such devices, it seems improbable. Any society advanced enough to make an interstellar porch drop is going to be at a technological level that dwarfs ours. Bequeathing humanity sophisticated alien hardware would be akin to you going back in time two millennia and handing Julius Caesar your iPhone. Impressive, but useless.
The one thing of value the aliens could give us is information. Their technology would be something we couldn’t replicate, any more than Thomas Edison could build a laptop. But knowledge is something else. It wouldn’t be easy to understand what they have to teach us, but it’s not a priori impossible.
To get an idea of what this means, imagine turning the situation around. Suppose humans traveled to some far-off planet and delighted a race of intelligent aliens with all the information on the internet (currently reckoned at 40 trillion gigabytes.) OK, you’re thinking, “That’s as useless as a monolith. They won’t understand English.” True. But they could use the best computers they have to sort through that mass of information to find redundancies — things that occur over and over.
For example, they would see lots of images of something that’s furry and frequently falls off countertops. Next to this visual material they would see the cryptic set of characters “cat.” With this type of approach, their computers could quickly assemble a dictionary of nouns — and even a few verbs. Eventually, they could learn much from this material, some of which would inevitably be useful. Information is the most valuable thing one intelligent species could give another.
As far as we know, and despite the fact that the Utah monolith spent five years sitting in the sun, none of the various lizards that scurried around it was nudged toward greater enlightenment. So by Kubrick’s standards, the Utah monolith was a dud. Maybe the one in Romania will do better.
But for those who are now wondering what actual gifts from aliens might look like, you’ll have to keep your eyes and minds open. Just don’t count on a shining pillar in the sand.