alien megastructure
Artist impression of an alien megastructure Danielle Futselaar/SETI International

If we were to discover an alien civilisation in the far-reaches of space, it would have little impact on humanity and our day-to-day life, a Seti scientist has said. John W Traphagan, a trustee at Seti International and professor of religious studies and anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, posed the question of what would happen if we did find an alien megastructure around the star KIC 8462852.

The idea of this megastructure came about because KIC 8462852 showed extremely unusual patterns of dimming – with something cutting out over 20% of its light. The biggest planets in our solar system would only block out around 1-2%, in comparison. This led some to speculate an advanced alien civilisation had built a huge structure around the star to harness its energy – a theory first proposed by theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson decades ago.

Since then, researchers have found no evidence of such a structure and Nasa has said it is probably comets. Nevertheless, Traphagan asked what would happen on Earth if they had finally found evidence of alien life.

In a blog for Seti International, he said the discovery of extraterrestrial life would be "one of the biggest discoveries in human history", but it would probably not change humanity – at least in the short term. Traphagan said that for scientists, it would be tremendously exciting, while "religious zealots", who believe we are somehow special "because god made us", would likely claim the data was incorrect.

"Then there's everyone else," he said. "Will impoverished people in Haiti or Africa be changed by this? Will those billions who simply struggle to get from one day to the next care about the fact that we are not alone in the universe? ... I'm not so sure. In fact, while discovery of an alien civilisation may, in the very long run, have a significant influence on humanity, in the short run I doubt it will have much impact at all."

Traphagan said for most people, the discovery of alien life would not matter a great deal because this knowledge would have little impact on their lives. He said: "[The] discovery of ET may represent little more than a brief, intriguing blip on the radar as they build careers, raise families, and look at their smartphones.

"The fact is that as important discovery of ET may be in the abstract, at the concrete level of daily life, learning that another civilisation exists/existed 1,400 light years away from us doesn't necessarily mean much to many of Earth's inhabitants. It's interesting, but it may not be very relevant to life on a very self-absorbed world."

He concludes by saying that regardless of if and when we find alien life, just considering the possibility it is there could help to make people a little less focused on themselves. Traphagan added: "Maybe thinking about others out there might get some to think more about others right here on Earth."