Tuesday, January 20, 2009


There is plenty of debate within the broader consideration of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Let’s set aside the ufologists and alien conspiracy theorists for now. For this discussion let’s concentrate on two concerns. First, what would happen if intelligent extraterrestrial life is discovered via telecommunication? Secondly, what would happen if intelligent life is discovered by direct visitation? How would we react? How should we react?

There are no clear answers. The primary reason for this is that there has been very little discussion and almost none in a systematic, scholarly fashion. Michael Michaud talks about this in his essay titled “A Unique Moment in Human History” published in the book “Are We Alone in the Cosmos?” Michaud worked with the Congress of the International Astronautical Federation to establish some guidelines for the detection of extraterrestrial life. This led to a Peter Boyce suggestion in 1987 that there be an established set of principles that searchers should follow. Those include measures to be taken if an artificially produced, intelligent signal is discovered. This was developed into the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”. It is a sober and rational list of procedures for detecting communication, verifying such communication as being valid, and then telling the world.

Such discussions are helpful, for they provide some context in which we might look for answers should such an occurrence come about. The group called the Extraterrestrial Contact Act http://www.contactact.org/ has attempted to take this further. They have a protocol for how First Contact should be handled, whether it is via telecommunication or direct visitation. It seems mainly a device to make sure that any extraterrestrial contact is brought to the public arena, and not kept secret by agencies or governments. They have been attempting to get legislative action on the topic taken up by the U.S. Congress or the United Nations. Needless to say there has not been much movement on those fronts.

Procedures and protocols are a good idea for helping to frame First Contact scenarios. However, neither proposal takes into account the myriad of possibilities regarding First Contact. And they probably shouldn’t. The authors have stayed focused on the most likely possibilities.

What is still missing is a detailed discussion on the impact of First Contact on our civilization and how we should handle the transmission of knowledge between our civilization and our extraterrestrial counterparts. Michaud does briefly raise the issue of culture shock. First Contact would undoubtedly lead to profound issues for our civilization. I think though, the real discussion needs to occur within the various fields that could be impacted. What do physicists think are the advantages and potential dangers for interaction and knowledge transfer with an extraterrestrial civilization more advanced than ours? How about information technology experts, economists, social scientists, and psychologists? Part of the problem is that the authors who are brave enough to talk about these issues are not experts in the fields that would likely be most affected. Getting top scholars to talk about such questions would be tough. It would have to happen in a truly august setting to make scholars feel comfortable to participate. What if the United Nations started a serious discussion, designed to bring in world experts in a number of different fields? Almost everyone enjoys a what-if session. Such a meeting could help provide some ideas and context if First Contact ever occurs.

As it stands now we are simply left with our pants down, in the dark, with our backs turned to the universe. Perhaps it is time we prepared, even just a little, for what would be the most significant event in the history of the human race.

First Contact Extraterrestrial Alien Proposal Idea Hello Introduction Space Visitors

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