Monday, December 2, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Higher Ed and the Search

Higher education institutions- colleges and universities across the globe- are an important part of our human system of knowledge. Not only do they provide training in many academic disciplines, they teach people how to learn. Higher Ed institutions also support research that is fundamental to our scientific system. So, should higher education devote time and energy to the consideration of extraterrestrial life? It is an area called astrobiology and has many scientists and researchers involved. National space organizations, such as NASA, conduct research in astrobiology. The study of, and search for, extraterrestrial intelligence is another matter entirely. It suffers from a lack of funding, especially from government sources.

Studies show that many humans believe that extraterrestrial intelligence exists in the universe. A 2017 survey by an organization called Glocalities reached 26,000 thousand people in 24 countries. The results showed 47 percent of respondents believed that extraterrestrial intelligence exists elsewhere in the universe. So, why wouldn’t SETI research get more funding and respect? The answer is, of course, the ha-ha effect. People who consider such things are viewed as odd, at best, and crazy, at worst. The surveys show that may be primarily an institutional problem, not a public perception. Institutions are worried that their reputation will be tarnished by supporting SETI research.

The academic leaders in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the understanding of issues connected to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence often stand alone. If they are lucky they have the support of an astrophysics or astronomy department at their institution. But it is also likely they are fighting each and every day for respect and funding. Researchers say it is a career risk to pursue research involving extraterrestrial intelligence.

The big dog in the university study of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is U-C Berkeley. Cornell University, MIT, Harvard, Arizona State University, and Ohio State University also play large roles in research. But there are not many U.S. institutions that openly support significant SETI research. Just look at the reaction the chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department received when he suggested scientists consider the possibility that a large object traveling past Earth, and with an origin outside the solar system, might have been created by extraterrestrial intelligence. Dr. Avi Loeb didn’t say Oumuamua was created by extraterrestrials. He merely suggested that we consider the idea and look for scientific evidence to support or refute the claim. In the end, that evidence proved to the contrary. But the simple suggestion that academics widen their perspective to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence provoked a huge backlash in the scientific world.

I understand the fear. There are many people who espouse theories about extraterrestrial intelligence without any facts to support those theories. And if they do have facts they are from less than credible sources. Still, is it wise for us to let fringe groups impact how the wider scientific community does research and considers new ideas?

It was heartening when Penn State University announced last year a graduate class in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The class is now officially in the college catalog. And Penn State, under the leadership of astronomy and astrophysics professor Jason Wright, is taking another bold step with the formation of PSETI Center: The Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center. It is envisioned as an academic hub for SETI research, learning, workshops, and conferences. It is something SETI researchers have been hoping would happen for many years. As Scientific American reports, there are only seven people who have received PhDs based on SETI research.

I understand that there are many other academic fields and specialties that are more important to humans right now. We are experiencing what I would call a “pants on fire” moment. What I mean by this is that when your pants are on fire it’s tough to consider things that are less immediate. Our pants on fire moment is dominated by climate change, environmental collapse, bacteriological risks, war, political divisions, and a fierce worldwide immigration debate. However, it must be pointed out that if we do contact extraterrestrial intelligence someday, and if that intelligence is able to communicate with us quickly, it would be also be a pants on fire moment for humanity.  It seems prudent to spend at least a tiny amount of time and energy to prepare ourselves for the possibility.
Photo by Quentin Kemmel on Unsplash

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Too Many Humans?

I notice it most when I drive: everything is so congested these days. I took a trip into downtown Nashville the other day and it compared to my traffic nightmares in Boston and New York. It was a far different experience from when I first moved here 15 years ago. I could blame it on the population boom in the city or the increase in tourists, and certainly those are issues impacting traffic, but congestion is a problem for many places here on Earth. The primary reasons are simple: there are more humans on the planet and those people are increasingly living in cities.

The numbers are staggering: the world population increased by 400 percent in the 20th century. It doubled from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to five billion in 1987. There are many factors driving that trend, aside from more people making more people. There has been a decline in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy. Those are good things, of course. Another positive is that thanks to birth control, the percentage of increase in the world population has been decreasing since the 1960s. Still, the United Nations projects that by 2100 there will be just over 11 billion humans on the planet. There is also a rise in urbanization. Rural areas are frequently left out of economic growth and that causes people to move to cities. In 1800 three percent of the world population lived in cities. Currently 55 percent of the world population lives in an urban area. That is expected to increase to 68 percent by 2050.

The population of Africa is estimated to double by 2100. That figure may be unsustainable, meaning that many Africans may have to migrate to other countries to survive. Immigration fuels a non-cooperation sentiment that is currently evident in the United States, Australia, and Europe.  You can call it nationalism, but that may be too simple a term. Studies of nationalism stress that such movements are often made up of many different components. Florian Bieber points out that two causes of protectionist behavior are polarization and marginalization of large segments of the population. Bieber’s 2018 article in the Journal of Ethnopolitics suggests that nationalism is indeed undergoing a surge in many countries, but the reasons for such reactions are not always the same. Many public sentiments that are actively categorized as nationalistic may be a more complex reaction to changes in society. Population growth is going to cause more change.

The ironic part of this discussion is that many first-world nations will need more people soon. Japan is already facing a population decline problem and the United States and Europe are not far behind. Population decline can be dangerous for growth-based economies. It would seem that immigration could help to solve the problem, however that will depend on our ability to accept the change that accompanies immigration.

The number of humans on the planet is directly tied to Climate Change. Each and every person has a carbon footprint in many different ways. Thousands of scientists recently participated in a report in the Journal Bioscience that calls Climate Change an emergency, and directly ties human population to the problem.

I believe that these stresses and strains are part of the consideration of extraterrestrial contact. How so? Human reaction to alien First Contact will likely be tied to how we feel about our own world. Problems relating to over population and urbanization dictate the public perception of other issues, such as protectionism, national politics, and international relations. If we are in conflict with each other, it will be tough to have a thoughtful dialog about moving forward in a new relationship with aliens. Xenophobia and religious fundamentalism would almost certainly play a part in the human reaction to First Contact. Even if the majority of the human population were to view such an event as positive, many fringe groups would have a negative perception.

What can we do? Clearly we have important issues in human society to tackle whether or not aliens ever become part of our reality. However, if First Contact does occur someday, understanding the cultural, political, and religious climate here on Earth will be important to determine how best to move forward. Even the most vehement reactions to extraterrestrial contact may come with reasonable concerns. Groups that already feel marginalized may feel more so. People with low incomes could be worried that First Contact will leave them behind economically. In the wake of First Contact, world leaders, analysts, and the media will have to listen carefully to many different people, in many different countries, to get beneath surface level reactions, and find what human issues may be driving negative perceptions towards aliens.

Many people hope that communication with extraterrestrials could help us solve our problems here on Earth. The sharing of technology could help, if handled carefully, and if aliens want to share. However, First Contact, if it includes significant information sharing, will also increase stresses already inherent in human society. The first weeks and months after such an event could be a tumultuous time in human history.
Photo by Anton Kraev on Unsplash

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Top Ten Challenges for Humans

Everyone loves a good top ten list. While I would be hesitant to call the topics on this list good- here are what I would call the top 10 challenges for humans and a look at how extraterrestrial interaction with high-information sharing could help in overcoming those challenges. Or not. With an emphasis on not.
Clean Energy Needs

Technology requires power. Developing countries need more power. The US Government predicts that the world demand for energy will increase 56 percent by 2040.  Fossil fuels supply 80 percent of world energy. While renewable and nuclear power production is growing by 2 percent a year, it’s not anywhere near enough to keep up with demand. The burning of fossil fuels has a major impact on climate change. The eventual depletion of fossil fuels could lead to serious conflict. That’s why energy is the number one concern. If we do make contact with extraterrestrials someday, insight into their energy technology would probably be at the top of our “ask” list. However, it is not likely that we would easily understand alien science. It could take years of communication for alien advice to do us any good. Our science is likely to be very different from extraterrestrial science. Merging the two, if the aliens were even willing to share, could be a long process. Even then, we need to consider the dangers of such information sharing- including how it could harm our civilization.The best bet could be to have aliens look at our technology and provide ideas for improving our techniques in areas such as nuclear fusion and traveling-wave fission. 

Climate Change

Humans finally seem to be grasping the enormity of climate change. It currently impacts our weather, causing rippling effects across the planet for humans and nature. Sea level rise is becoming a major concern in many nations. And yet we have done little to respond. This was brought to the forefront recently at the UN. The primary actions driving climate change are the burning of fossil fuels and food production. The changes needed to tackle these issues will be hard on everyone. They will require a major investment of money and people-power, and significant lifestyle adjustments for humans. Even if aliens did help us with ideas on how to create clean energy, there would still need to be massive changes to cope with the mess that we have already created. It's such a complicated set of Earth-specific challenges that it is unlikely alien technology could help much. We could ask for advice on how to change our atmosphere. Perhaps alien scientists would have a method for removing carbon dioxide? Unless it was a quick fix, humans would still need to deal with the current problems created by global warming.

Ecological Collapse

Climate change and other human-caused environmental impacts are causing many species to go extinct. Some are calling it ecological collapse. The attention to the subject has tended to focus on mammals. The bigger issue may be insects. Scientists report a decline of more than 75 percent in insect biomass across nature areas in Germany between 1989 and 2016. Insects are part of the foundation of our biological world. Another study shows a massive decline in the number of birds in North America. Our environment is a fragile network of species working in concert. When species go extinct in the insect world there is a direct and immediate impact on the entire ecosystem, and that includes agriculture. It is unlikely that extraterrestrials would have ideas to help us with our ecology. It is specific to our planet. We have been studying Earth ecology for hundreds of years. The problems caused by the extinction of species will be ours to solve.

Nuclear War

It is a sign of our times that I put the threat of nuclear war behind these other challenges. It is just as dangerous a situation as ever. The other challenges have simply surpassed it in the level of threat. I don’t see alien interaction helping much in the area of nuclear proliferation. If anything, we would run the risk of hawks wanting to put nuclear weaponry into space to protect us from extraterrestrials.

Conventional Warfare

Alien First Contact, especially high-information contact, could create many stresses on human society. In the worst case scenario this could lead to war between nations. The most important part of any alien contact strategy would be to have all nations involved in the process and to quickly resolve problems as they arise.

Famine and Illness

Climate change and ecological collapse could easily move famine and illness to the top of the list. This is another area where humans will be on their own. Aliens would be unlikely to have advice about human agriculture. Illness is becoming a bigger issue with the rise of superbugs. Our overuse of antibacterials has created drug resistant strains. This is rapidly becoming a huge dilemma in developing countries, such as India, and the threat is growing in many other nations. Human science will need to get us out of this one, as well.

Human Migration

The movement of humans is already a source of major conflict in the world. It is likely to grow worse as climate change renders some areas of the Earth uninhabitable. We will need to work together to solve all of these problems. The movement of humans from one country to others will be a tough one to negotiate. Aliens wouldn't be able to help us with human migration. As with all human social dilemmas in the wake of alien First Contact, it would be our problem to solve.

Population Growth

Despite a decline in population growth, the UN projects that there will be more than 11 billion humans on the planet in 2100. That makes many of the other issues on this list much tougher to solve. Once again, this is something we would have to deal with on our own. One interesting side note- countries such as Japan may be facing a dangerous decline in population in the coming decades. There could be a solution found in human migration, if we can manage to put up with each other.

Repressive Governments

Repressive governments, and democratic governments becoming isolated from the international community, will be significant impediments in the quest to overcome the challenges I list here. Once again, there is not much aliens could or should do about our governments. In fact, we would want to make sure extraterrestrials didn’t interfere in any of our institutions.


The wide-scale problems caused by cybercrime include everything from the hacking of business and government computer networks to interference in elections. It’s the latest example of how our technology can quickly be used to hurt us. Perhaps aliens would have some insight for how to better protect ourselves, but once again, the human Internet is likely a unique creation. We will probably have to solve these problems on our own.


As you can see, I don’t think that alien information would help in solving most of these human challenges. In the long-term, there could be some technological benefit from interaction with extraterrestrials. In the short-term, such a relationship would likely create more challenges than benefits. That does not mean that we should stick our collective heads in the sand in hopes that aliens will go away. The revelation of First Contact would be an inevitable part of the growth of humanity. If handled correctly, it could be an exciting step forward. Such steps do not come without conflict.

There is powerful part of alien First Contact that I have left out- the impact to the human perspective. First Contact could lead to a better understanding of our role in the universe. Perhaps we would then view people from other countries, and humans from other races and cultures, as not so different from ourselves. That could create better international cooperation. The key will be how leaders react. If they rise above the fray, and help humans to see the big picture, we could benefit greatly from First Contact. If they fail, and lead us into greater conflict, we could suffer for many generations to come. All of the issues on this list would continue to get worse. So, how do average humans make a difference? They will need to stand up and be heard. If the majority of people on the planet press for positive change in the wake of First Contact, leaders will be forced to listen. First Contact could be an opportunity for humans to choose a new path forward.

Photo by Srikanta H. U on Unsplash

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Expertise After First Contact

There are no experts when it comes to extraterrestrials. It’s a simple statement and easy to make because we have no facts to support such scholarship. We don’t even know if intelligent extraterrestrial beings exist. So, if Alien First Contact does happen someday, we won’t be able to turn to experts for advice. Luckily, there are enterprising scientists with expertise related to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. These astrophysicists and astronomers use technology to explore the universe, looking for signs of intelligent life. Astrobiologists have similar roles, in the sense that while they have no extraterrestrial life to study, they have acquired expertise in how to look for signs of extraterrestrial life. These scientists would be on the front lines of the human response if we do eventually make contact with extraterrestrials. Their roles would depend on the nature of that contact. All three fields would be incredibly important if a far off signal is discovered. Such a discovery would likely come from such a scientist and they would lead the path forward. Direct First Contact would be more complicated. If aliens did visit our solar system it would create a different set of challenges. The close proximity of such an event would place more emphasis on human reaction. The tiny field of astrosociology would come into play. It is defined by its creators as the study of “the social, cultural, and behavioral patterns related to outer space.”

First Contact expertise could be divided up into two basic areas: The Study of Us and the Study of Them. The Study of Them would be an examination of the extraterrestrials themselves: their biology, psychology, society, development, science, and religion. The Study of Us would be our reaction to such information and the impact it has on our psychology, society, science and religion. Initially there would be no experts in such things. It would be necessary for human academics in those areas to apply their current knowledge to this new perspective. Comparison would probably be the first study. I think all human experts would have to first consider intelligent extraterrestrials by comparing them to humans. After all, humanity is the only benchmark we have. Comparison could then lead to a more robust study of extraterrestrials and the human reaction to First Contact.

I have often mentioned in this blog that an important consideration in the wake of First Contact will be the impact of information provided by extraterrestrials. In the case of a far-off signal, that may be less important, as communication could be quite arduous. If aliens came to our solar system, and had learned our languages, that information sharing could be much quicker and thus have much more of an impact. Experts will need to carefully assess that sharing. If we receive too much information at once we may find our institutions washed away in the process. Imagine a tsunami of foreign knowledge about physics, engineering, biology, and chemistry. It could wash away the foundations of our science. New perspectives on religion and society could have a profound impact on our social institutions.

In the long term, the academic process will adjust for these many changes and we will develop new experts in many different areas After First Contact. But getting there could be difficult. Current experts would need to move quickly to take on the challenges created by Alien First Contact. Institutions would need to be more flexible than they usually are when it comes to developing new ways of doing things. Politicians and other leaders would need to be very careful about how they react to First Contact situations. Everyone would need to work together. There would be short term needs for which expertise will be lacking. Entire new fields of study will open in the long term. We need to make sure those lines of inquiry support the needs of the human civilization. Even if aliens arrive with the best of intentions there will be a great threat to humanity. A new perspective will be exciting. It will also be dangerous to our institutions. It will take clear heads, innovative thought, and good intentions for humans to move forward in a positive way.


Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

Monday, August 19, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: A New Era and the Three Periods for Humanity

Alien First Contact of any type will bring a major shift in perspective for humanity. Direct First Contact, extraterrestrials visiting our solar system to say hello, would create a new era for humanity. Human history could forever be marked as Before First Contact and After First Contact. I have expressed optimism for what that massive change in perspective could do for humanity. It could cause us to find new importance in our international relations. The realization that we are in this together may increase cooperation between countries here on Earth. If aliens provide us with new information about our place in the universe that too could change our perspective. Perhaps they would also have insight into our climate change issues and clean energy needs?

I don’t think that entrance into a new era will come easily. It seems to me that the impact of First Contact on human civilization would likely occur in three major phases. The first would be the Stunned Period. Humans would simply watch in awe as events unfold. It may seem remarkably peaceful at first. It is simply the eye of the storm. Within a matter of days or weeks the Stunned Period will dissipate.

The Stunned Period is not without dangers. Our world leaders will decide how First Contact proceeds. If they react poorly, the Stunned Period could quickly turn into chaos. One nation taking rogue military action against visiting extraterrestrials is an example. The nations with larger military forces, and better technology, will not only need to keep their forces calm, but be prepared to react to a rogue nation attack, such as the firing of an ICBM. Similarly, there will be a threat posed by every fighter jet or missile battery within range of an extraterrestrial craft. It would take great discipline to keep first responders and members of the military calm and yet vigilant. All militaries, in all nations, will need to be on alert in case of Direct First Contact. Just because aliens say they are here in peace doesn’t mean that is really the case. But we cannot be on a hair trigger alert. It is too dangerous. There must be a level of vigilance that is high enough to protect, while staying well away from imminent action.

Up next would be the Initial Reaction Period. In this period, all of the old hostilities and fears inherent in human relations would resurface. I believe that the Initial Reaction could be quite chaotic. Many voices will be screaming to be heard. Many groups will have differing opinions about how humans should act. Those opinions will likely fall on a continuum between fear and optimism. Some groups will want humans to protect themselves at any cost and no matter what the stated intentions of the aliens. Others will be wildly optimistic, wanting as much contact as possible to occur as quickly as possible. Within that cacophony of opinions will be extremist groups, some threatening to take physical action if they don’t get their way. Those actions could be violent. The degree to which the Initial Reaction is chaotic will depend on two primary factors: the responsiveness of governments to matters as they arise and the commonality of those government responses worldwide. If nations come together in a unified response and show the public both strong organization and care for public opinion, the violence could be quelled. If nations react slowly, and without disciplined leadership, the chaos could spread. If nations fight with each other, and have vastly different responses to First Contact, the chaos could be a world-wide phenomenon.

I believe that eventually humanity would be able to rise above the chaos and come to a consensus plan to move forward. Once again- how long that takes depends on the actions of individual nations. If governments are responsive and decisive the chaotic period could be short. When there is an international agreement on moving forward we will enter the third period, which I will call the Settlement Period. In this sense I use this dictionary definition of Settlement: an agreement composing differences. There will undoubtedly be differences in how nations think First Contact should proceed. The Settlement is the airing of those differences followed by negotiation and resolution. Why call it the Settlement Period? This process is likely to go on for many years, with each new situation bringing about a need for the airing of differences followed by negotiation and resolution. The primary sense of Settlement would be that all nations have a common process in place to solve problems and agree that using the process is better than conflict.

International relations are currently problematic here on Earth, to say the least. However, the way we are acting now doesn’t mean that we can’t rise above our differences in the future and provide a strong, unified response to extraterrestrial First Contact. I believe that anything is possible when it comes to humanity. We just have to believe in ourselves and trust each other.

Photo by Sadman Sakib on Unsplash

Monday, August 5, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Simulation Universe

Theorists have postulated that we could be living in a simulation: an artificially created universe designed for purposes unknown to us. The latest proponent is MIT researcher Rizwan Virk. The computer scientist has a new book: “The Simulation Hypothesis.” Digital Trends interviews him in a recent article. He says that there is a 50 to 100 percent chance we are living in a computer simulation. Of course, such speculation has no scientific evidence, but it is an intriguing idea that could have a big impact on extraterrestrial First Contact.

Nick Bostrom with Oxford University proposed simulation theory in 2003. But the origination of the idea comes from science fiction through the years, most notably in the 1999 movie “The Matrix.” Virk thinks that the level of sophistication of our video games, and virtual reality, shows that such a simulation could be possible with much more advanced technology.

A simulation universe leads to a couple of interesting possibilities when it comes to extraterrestrials. They could also be participants in the simulation, with no greater knowledge of the truth than us. They could be participants who have already figured out the truth. Or they may not exist at all. If there is a simulation, perhaps the creators just wanted to see how one civilization, alone in the universe, would develop. That would explain the so-called “eerie silence” that researchers use to describe the lack of observable signals from extraterrestrials.

Knowledge of a simulation universe would have a great impact on the psyche of humans. It could cause some people to go mad and give up living. It could cause anarchy in society as people decide to no longer let rules dictate their actions. We take our reality quite seriously. A disruptive revelation of such a magnitude could send us into a tailspin. Or we could be convinced that such matters don’t change anything for our individual lives. After all, what really would change? We would still need to breathe, eat sandwiches, and keep out of the cold. If we didn’t attend work we would still be fired and not have enough money to survive.  Simulation could become a new religion- something that doesn’t necessarily directly impact our day to day life, unless we choose to make decisions based on that belief. It seems likely many people would hold onto their old religions and reject simulation theory, even if we do find evidence for it.

The big takeaway from these considerations is this- extraterrestrial contact could be like nothing we have previously imagined and very disruptive to our sense of reality. We imagine all sorts of lovely things coming from extraterrestrial contact- new knowledge and advanced technology. But the revelations extraterrestrials provide about our reality could be more than we can bear.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


Monday, July 22, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Perhaps We’re Smarter Than We Thought?

I often bring up the subject of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on this blog. I do so primarily because it seems possible that if we meet representatives of an extraterrestrial civilization someday, in-person, those representatives could be machine based intelligence. My assumption is that any aliens with the technology to travel to our solar system would be much more advanced than humans, since we don’t have the ability to go very far, very fast, currently. Machine based intelligence would certainly have an advantage over biological beings when it comes to space travel.

But when estimating how quickly human AI is developing, the media has been sharing a new theme recently: perhaps we are not as far along in AI development as we thought. It’s come to light that it may take much longer for human AI to reach long term goals, such as driverless cars. Check out this article in the New York Times. Auto manufacturers once stated that the first commercial driverless cars could be on roads in just a few years. Now most engineers agree that it may be a decade or more for that to happen. One AI entrepreneur, Kai-Fu Lee, questions whether achieving human intelligence is even possible for a machine. Our brains are apparently more complex than we thought.

So, where does that leave us in terms of extraterrestrial First Contact? If aliens have been waiting for us to progress in areas of AI, so that we could better understand them as machine based intelligence, perhaps contact day is far-off. In the meantime, I will send an email using Siri voice control from my car and laugh at the ridiculous results. I hope we can fix that soon.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Space Force

The United States Space Force is projected to be $2 billion, fifteen thousand person off-shoot of the United States Air Force. And that’s just for the five-year start-up. It would consolidate many current space monitoring and defense activities. It would also develop new strategies for defense and it is these possibilities that give one pause. The use of weapons in space is limited. In 1967 the UN General Assembly passed the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” That International Law prohibits mass destruction weapons, such as nuclear warheads, in space or Earth orbit. The U.S. Space Force could use lasers and conventional payload missiles to protect U.S. satellites. Russia and China are developing such technology. It is argued that the United States will be vulnerable if it doesn’t respond. The impact it would have on Alien First Contact could be considerable.

There is no evidence that extraterrestrials have traveled to our solar system. However, if they do travel here, the threat of attack would be a serious concern to humans, especially if the alien craft was in Earth orbit; the closer the proximity, the greater the threat. Much would, of course, depend on the nature of the aliens. If they profess peace we could be a little less worried. But there would always be that nagging fear, rattling around in the back of our minds: What if they are not telling the truth?

So, we would be scared.

Now, let’s take the alien point of view. Human controlled conventional missiles and lasers in space could be a real threat to an alien craft, just as fighter jets and ground missiles would be a threat inside Earth’s atmosphere. We would assume that extraterrestrials capable of sending a probe or piloted craft to our solar system have technology more advanced than ours. The big question would be- does that technology include on-board weaponry? If it were a scientific mission, such measures would only get in the way.

So, they may be wary of us.

A little paranoia on all sides is not necessarily a bad thing; it could keep everyone – us and the aliens – honest. A human Space Force, while not developed or even considered for alien visitation, would provide humans with an extra measure of security nonetheless. It may help quell human fears in the early days of a Direct First Contact situation. Keeping us calm would be important.

I think the real issue is what would happen After First Contact. Worried humans could go on a space-based arms spree, perhaps even voting to allow nuclear weapons in space, all in the name of protecting ourselves against aliens. The aliens in question could be as nice as possible and the threat would still be perceived. The same could be said of a non-communicative AI probe. That scenario might even be worse, because if the probe is non-communicative, we would be getting no reassurances of peaceful intentions.

Perhaps beefing up our space defense against extraterrestrials would be necessary, but who would control such defenses? Individual nations could turn those weapons on each other. The threat of nuclear weapons in space would be significant, which is why the 1967 UN treaty was so well supported. Fear will be a huge issue in any First Contact event and when humans get scared we go for our big guns.

The balance of caution and optimism would be critical in the wake of Direct First Contact. If aliens do visit us someday, there would have to be some level of elevated defense preparedness, if even just in monitoring. But there would also need to be a highly disciplined level of control, and we would have to offer our own reassurances to the visitors.

It was inevitable that the human military presence in space would continue to grow. Countries are heavily reliant on satellite technology. It would be foolish not to protect that technology from other humans. The United States Space Force is not such a bad idea. However, in case of alien First Contact the added stressors and potential overreaction would be dangerous. Protecting ourselves against aliens could make us more vulnerable to each other and increase the risk of annihilation by error. Would it be worth it?
Photo by NASA.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: UFOs in the Spotlight

don’t usually watch TV shows about UFOs. What I have seen in the past has been silly, overwrought, and lacking in evidence. A new series on the History Channel is quite different. “Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation” is based primarily on video and first person accounts from U.S. fighter pilots. The Pentagon released the videos in 2017. The thoughtful investigation for the TV show is led by a group of former military members. The videos show pilot encounters with objects off the west and east coasts of the United States. The video and descriptions are fascinating. The producers don’t jump to conclusions. They let the pilots describe why these UFOs were operating outside of the current parameters of human aviation technology. The videos came to light in the New York Times in 2017. The Times followed up with another article recently. Senators even had ameeting with some of the TV show researchers this week in Washington. It is perhaps the most attention paid to UFO accounts by legitimate sources in many years.

Let us not forget that UFOs are Unidentified Flying Objects. In the great majority of cases those objects are finally identified. Kansas City had a recent UFO sighting by members of the public. It turned out to be a highly classified type of surveillance balloon by a subset of the U.S. military. Many of the pilots in the TV series say they assumed the objects they encountered were part of a military test, something they were not made aware of, and that the disappearance of the video and radar files of those UFO observations were related to those tests. For me, the most interesting angle to come up in the TV series is an examination of the cover-ups that occurred after each incident. On closer examination of those cases, the disappearance of those digital records didn’t appear to happen as part of a government conspiracy, but could have simply been the actions of superiors who didn’t want to be embarrassed and risk their career success by reporting a UFO. That seems like a much more believable reason for UFO encounters not being reported by the government. They are kept quiet, and not connected, not because there is an organized conspiracy, but rather the actions are taken by individuals trying to protect their careers. The pilots say so themselves in interviews. The only connection between the pilots experiencing UFO encounters, on different days or different shifts, comes when they talk amongst themselves. Could it be that the so-called government UFO conspiracy was simply a collection of individual decisions to cover-up specific incidents?

So, where does that leave us in terms of extraterrestrial First Contact?  It certainly provides more questions to ask if we do make contact with aliens some day. Contact in this sense would be an actual conversation of some sort, one where we could share a great deal of information, and in real-time, not spread out over many years because of distance. One of the first topics would have to be previous extraterrestrial history in our solar system and inside Earth atmosphere. Have they had drones or piloted crafts in Earth atmosphere?  If so, why?  And if so, what other types of contact have occurred?  If they have been here in the past, we would have to discuss reports of alien abduction and direct contact with humans. I personally don’t believe such things have occurred. But in the event of a conversation with extraterrestrials, a discussion of their history of contact with humans would be a top priority.

I have always found talk of government conspiracy when it comes to UFOs to be ridiculous given how disorganized and full of leaks the government is with every other issue. Perhaps we have all missed this angle because of a shared fear of embarrassment? I understand why astronomers and astrophysicists avoid the discussion of UFOs like the plague. It really has been a plague for some scientific careers, just as it likely would have been for military careers. I have avoided such discussions on this blog for many of the same reasons. However, in the realm of complete speculation, which is what any discussion of extraterrestrial contact is at this point, is it wise to leave this issue unexamined? We have no evidence of alien contact. But that doesn’t mean that such contact has never occurred. We need to keep our minds open to any eventuality until we receive evidence to the contrary.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: The Power of Humanity

The wonder of discovering an extraterrestrial civilization will eventually lead to an examination of who we are as human beings. If we meet technologically advanced extraterrestrials we may feel inferior. We may fear extraterrestrials because they are different from us. We may be incredibly impressed and seek to emulate alien thought. However, the discussion of those issues will eventually lead back to who we are as humans. What is the power of humanity? What makes us proud to be human? What would we share with extraterrestrials as examples of what we are capable of: music, literature, visual arts, science, technology, philosophy? 

In the 1970s NASA sought to collect those very ideas on special discs that were placed on each of the Voyager space probes. They are now traveling outside of our solar system in interstellar space. Carl Sagan chaired the committee tasked to create the discs. Much of the information on the discs described our human biology and the physical makeup of our planet. Aside from the sciences, and an attempt to show how we view the world around us, there were also cultural depictions. Those included pictures of architecture, cities, and food. Music recordings ranged from Bach to Chuck Berry. These subjects, updated of course, might be similar to what we share with extraterrestrials if First Contact does occur someday. However, if the aliens are thoughtful and enterprising, they will have already seen much of that through our television transmissions flying through space or thanks to the Internet, if they have sent a probe to Earth orbit.

The bigger question is this: who are we? What would set us apart from other civilizations in the universe? I think we would inevitably turn to the basic, positive functions of human life: love, friendship, family, community, learning, creativity, communal progress, curiosity, religion, science and philosophy. That would, in turn, lead to questions: What about the negative aspects of humanity? Conflict is an inherent part of human existence. Just to live on this planet is a struggle. We could point to the institutions of government and religion as ways we attempt to join together and overcome conflict. And, of course, to be honest, we would have to share those same institutions as things that often drive us apart.

Despite horrific wars, daily violence, and conflict of all varieties, we are apparently thriving with 7.7 billion humans. We have built a large civilization. And as we have come to learn in recent years, that progress is not necessarily always a good thing. We are changing our planet in ways that nature did not intend, so much so that we face many new challenges. Climate change is impacting our weather and our coastal cities. Species extinction is at record levels and proceeding at an astonishing rate. We face the threat of ecological collapse. The threat of nuclear war hangs over our heads. Is this who we are- beings hell bent on dominating each and every square foot of planet Earth? Do we care nothing for other species? Do we care nothing about the future of coming generations of humans? Are we selfish creatures prone to self-aggrandizement?

Certainly all of those aspects of humanity are true to some extent. But let’s get back to the basic positive functions of human existence and focus on one in particular: love. Love may be quite unique in the universe. Perhaps extraterrestrial beings are already so closely connected to each other that they don’t even understand human differentiation and thus love? Or they could be so far advanced in technology to not even understand the concept of caring and love. So much of what I have described as human is the result of specific biological needs on this planet. Different biological needs on different planets would create not only different extraterrestrial biology, but also different alien psychology. This difference could be especially acute if aliens are machine-based artificial intelligence.

If love and friendship are so important to us, why do we so often dwell on conflict and division? Our existence in 2019 is beset by many challenges. It is difficult to support 7.7 billion humans. There are natural human behaviors that cause us to seek the best resources for ourselves and those closest to us, while leaving other people without. We struggle with how we govern ourselves and how we interact as communities. We are attempting to overcome the weight of our history.

Despite the news of the day, we continue to improve our lives. We generally live in a safer, healthier, and higher opportunity world than our ancestors. We face new challenges daily, and together we manage to overcome those challenges. We can find cures for disease and new ways to grow crops to feed more people. We have done these things for thousands of years. We continue to develop. How do we do that? We rely on love, friendship, family, community, learning, creativity, communal progress, curiosity, religion, science, and philosophy. And so I come back to the power of humanity. What is it that we can sum up as representing the human civilization? I think most of us would agree that it is love. Love, in it’s many forms, is the glue that holds our civilization together. Fred Rogers, of the TV show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, perhaps said it best:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

There are humans dedicated to helping war refugees. We send aid to other nations in times of famine and natural disaster. We rush to assist a person who has been hurt. We take these actions every day, and perhaps in far greater frequency than we take part in conflict and violence.

Our civilization is built on the good work of people- the so-called “common people” in every city and every nation on the planet. I would imagine that they are the great majority of humans on the planet. They are often not the most famous or the most powerful humans. They are certainly not perfect. They may do an awful thing one day and then turn around and do something good the next. But they will most likely be there in times of need. There are billions of people on planet Earth helping other people in one way or another. That is the power of humanity. And no matter what we learn about alien worlds, that essential nature of humanity is something we need to come back to when assessing this new perspective. Humans have the power of love. We can support each other and create tremendous change when we work together. We can overcome nearly any challenge imaginable, if we just believe in each other and understand that power. The only things holding us back are negative thinking, selfishness, and inaction. Critical thinking is essential. It shows you how to make things better. Negative thinking becomes a spiral to drag us down, either individually or collectively. We give up and succumb to the horrible. Love can pull us out of that hole. We have used it to do so throughout human history. Let us proudly show off our great human power to any extraterrestrial strangers we meet some day. And let us resolve to use it here on Earth to heal wounds and make our world better.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash