Aliens Probably Make Art

Science fiction always explores aliens' technological abilities—why not their artistic ones?

Where's the architectural variety? Image: Shutterstock

Take a look at pretty much any sci-fi work and you'll probably see aliens portrayed as a technologically advanced civilization, generally featuring laser weapons, telepathic communication, and light-speed starships. But, where's the art?

If alien civilizations exist, they'd probably be full of artists; at least, that's what David Grinspoon, the Library of Congress' astrobiology chair says. So why not try to imagine what it'd be like?

That's why Grinspoon and Ka Chun Yu, curator of space science at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science formed The House Band of the Universe—in part to imagine what alien music might be like, but also to show definitively human audiences that the universe outside Earth isn't all astrophysics, chemicals, and space rocks.

The band will perform two shows this weekend in Washington DC. It's part funky jazz, part spoken word astrobiology lesson, part philosophical musing, and part visual trip through the solar system (so, sort of Sun Ra like?), but the whole point of the venture is to explore the question: Do aliens make art?

"There's beauty not just on Earth but elsewhere, in places humans have never been. It makes me wonder if extraterrestrials think it's beautiful and if they have an appreciation of beauty," Grinspoon told me. "I think they really do. What really interests me about the question is it makes us consider some aspects of ourselves. What if art is a response to being conscious within the universe? Do they respond in the same way we do?"

It makes sense, if you think about it. The photos that NASA has taken with the Hubble Space Telescope and all manner of other missions it's launched show the amazing red spot on Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the, at times, positively Earth-like terrain of Mars, the swirls and whorls of galaxies: If human artists are inspired by galactic entities, why wouldn't sentient beings on other planets feel the same?

But then, you take a look at science fiction, and it's mostly talk of advanced physics and math and futuristic technologies humans might one day aspire to. Art is missing (not always—but most of the time). Grinspoon says that's a uniquely human problem.

"The people who think about alien civilizations and write papers about it, they're technologists and scientists who wonder what kind of tech and science they'll have," he said. "We always picture this dream where the information we learn from aliens would be in physics and math. Well, maybe it'd be music."

Even among SETI folks, there's some controversy surrounding the topic. Back in 2010, at a SETI conference, most participants suggested that aliens would be interested in our art and religion, but that we probably couldn't offer anything up on the scientific and math fronts. This way of thinking at least suggests that aliens would be interested in our art, but it doesn't really suggest they'd be making much of it themselves. 

One SETI expert, however, Seth Shostak, said that the question of whether aliens have art might be the most important of all for making some sort of connection between our civilization and a hypothetical alien one:

"If we could ask only one question, I think maybe not 'Do you have religion?' but, 'Do you have music?'" would be best, Shostak said.

Shostak and Grinspoon aren't off their rockers. Grinspoon helps develop NASA's space exploration strategy, has worked with the European Space Agency to develop planet-exploring spacecraft, and is now helping steward the Library of Congress' first foray into the lifecycles of different planets—specifically the ones whose denizens help shape the planet's geology (that is, looking at humanity as merely one of many planetary events). 

And if we're a planetary event, then maybe Earth is just one event in one solar system in one of an innumerable amount of galaxies. If we can make music here, then why assume it's not happening somewhere, out there in the great unknown?