Monday, October 13, 2008

Why Not Prepare?

In 1960 the U.S. Congress received a report from the Brookings Institution titled “Proposed Studies On The Implications Of Peaceful Space Activities For Human Affairs.” Most of the sober document addressed the rapidly developing space race and the long term impact of space exploration on our society. A very small part of the report did address the topic of extraterrestrial life. The conspiracy folks have been picking at the document for years, alleging that some of the language implies a cover-up of extraterrestrial proof. What I find fascinating is what we have chosen to ignore for 48 years. The study argues for an in-depth evaluation of the impact of extraterrestrial life discovery on human civilization. So, why was it never done? Perhaps I have missed something that came since, but I can find no sign of the U.S. government taking up the issue in any in-depth fashion.

It’s interesting that the concerns of 1960 are the same concerns many of us have today. These quotes are from an online summary of the document made after a Freedom of Information request to NASA.

“Though intelligent or semi-intelligent life conceivably exists elsewhere in our solar system, if intelligent extraterrestrial life is discovered in the next twenty years, it will very probably be by radio telescope from other solar systems. Evidences of its existence might also be found in artifacts left on the moon or other planets. The consequences for attitudes and values are unpredictable, but would vary profoundly in different cultures and between groups within complex societies; a crucial factor would be the nature of the communication between us and the other beings. Whether or not earth would be inspired to an all-out space effort by such a discovery is moot: societies sure of their own place in the universe have disintegrated when confronted by a superior society, and others have survived even though changed. Clearly, the better we can come to understand the factors involved in responding to such crises the better prepared we may be.”

And in ending the document the authors say:

“While the discovery of intelligent life in other parts of the universe is not likely in the immediate future, it could nevertheless happen at any time. Whenever it does occur its consequences for earth attitudes and values maybe profound. Hence a long-term research effort, which would aid in preparing for this possibility, could usefully begin with: A continuing determination of emotional and intellectual understanding and attitudes regarding the possibility and consequences of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial life. While space activities offer a special opportunity to study the relationship of innovation to social change, understanding the relationship will require examination of other innovation situations, too. Research is recommended to determine: What factors historically have entered into support or rejection of new ideas or technologies. What was and wasn't appreciated about the potentialities (or lack of them) in the innovation and under what personal and social circumstances did this occur? In particular, what were the roles of physical environment, politics, personalities, limited systems analysis capabilities, insufficient communications to decision makers, etc.?”

The report focuses on mankind discovering artifacts of extraterrestrial life, rather than a one-on-one encounter with an extraterrestrial civilization. But let’s say that there is a one in a million chance that extraterrestrial life is going to appear on the Earth and say hello. Given the incredible impact of such an event, isn’t it worth thinking about? The odds may be huge but the resulting chaos and change would be worth evaluating in a sober, scholarly fashion. Instead it has been left to conspiracy folks and a few level headed science fiction writers.

It’s time to move forward and consider what might happen in a First Contact situation, if not for us, for future generations.

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