Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sorting Through the Weird Stuff

The Brookings Institution issued a report in 1960 that called for a systematic review of the impact of extraterrestrial contact. It was part of a much larger work entitled “Proposed Studies On The Implications Of Peaceful Space Activities For Human Affairs.” Needless to say that review was never done in the United States to any real extent. There have been, of course, the widely publicized UFO investigations, compiled by government agencies. These have dealt with UFO reports and their validity, or in this case lack of validity.

There has been plenty of rumor mongering about an alleged secret United Nations meeting on extraterrestrial contact. The United Nations has set forth guidelines for space exploration and property rights. However, a serious discussion of the impact of extraterrestrial visitors has not been conducted as far as I can tell. The most in-depth discussions have been scientific in nature, one of the more famous being the NASA “Life in the Universe” conference held at National Ames Research Center Moffet Field, California in 1979. Indeed the scholarly work of detecting biological life in the universe has become quite concrete, including a role in the active inquiry to discover if life, or the building blocks of life, ever existed on Mars.

The scientific pursuit of extraterrestrial life is certainly in good hands with NASA scientists and with SETI, despite the lack of funding. However, the discussion of the implications of First Contact has been more haphazard. It has been taken up by a few daring scientists. The front guard has clearly been the science fiction community and those interested in UFOs.

It is my belief that we need to take this topic more seriously. The impact of finding evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life would be profound. And if that intelligent life pays us a visit before we know it exists, the impact will be an informational tsunami, with many elements of our human society in danger of being washed away.

So, where do you go for a rational discussion of the impact of intelligent extraterrestrial contact? The classic work goes back to Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. More recently Ben Bova and other science fiction writers have taken up that torch and carried the subject out of fiction and into a realistic discussion. Often though, you have to weed through other topics to get to the issue of impact, and preparation. “Making Contact” is one such book. It was released in 1997 and edited by Bill Fawcett. The subtitle is “A serious handbook for locating and communicating with extraterrestrials.” I’ve ignored the book up until now, mainly due to the silly sub heading. There is a big UFO focus in the book and a rather ridiculous set of appendices that include pictures you can show extraterrestrials to help communicate, and a list of helpful things to have on hand in case an alien ship lands in your backyard. All of this is unfortunate, because “Making Contact” has a few chapters that tackle interesting topics.

In regards to reasons for an extraterrestrial visit Fawcett lists: Colonization, material gain, threat at home, threat from Earth, galactic kinship, religious conversion and exploration. This opens up a couple of possibilities I had not considered, particularly threat from Earth and religious conversion. Religious conversion certainly makes sense given its role exploration role in human history. We may assume that advanced technology means a move towards a scientifically based society. But we have no proof that technology goes hand in hand with a larger role for science in society. Perhaps civilizations reach a point where science becomes a religion, or where religious belief overtakes scientific pursuit?

The threat from Earth is a particularly interesting idea. We are a rather violent and arrogant species. With the advent of nuclear weaponry and computer technology, perhaps we are a threat to other civilizations now? An extraterrestrial society could determine they must neuter us before we achieve interstellar travel capability.

In regards to my last posting on possible biological contamination, contributing writer Mickey Zucker Reichert, M.D. is less concerned. He offers up a very persuasive chapter about why biological threats may not be a big issue. The primary reason he states is the likelihood that extraterrestrial biology and human biology, and in particular gene structure, is dramatically different and common viruses and other germs would not be a hazard for the other race. Reichert does seem to advise a moderate dose of caution for handling the first visiting extraterrestrials. I agree with his conclusion that the threat of biological contamination, as small as it is, should not be allowed to interfere with an orderly and civilized First Contact. Sticking aliens in quarantine and examining them like bugs for weeks on end would be a bad first greeting. Not doing anything to protect against unintended biological circumstances would also be a mistake.

Fawcett also makes a strong argument for why extraterrestrials should, at least in basic ways, be like humans. The development of appendages, a large head with eyes, legs to walk on: these are part of the human design because it makes biological sense given our environment. If the extraterrestrial environment is quite different, they may be put together differently. But Fawcett tackles that issue as well, saying that the building blocks of life require certain conditions, many of which would make a life-sustaining planet similar in many respects to Earth. This would seem to argue against the Reichert position. Close examination, though, shows that they are making different points. Reichert says the genetic make-up of humans would be different from extraterrestrials. Fawcett says that the basic assemblage of limbs and body style might be the same in humans and extraterrestrials. The two arguments can coexist in the same universe.

The shame in all of this, I suspect, has nothing to do with the editor and his well spoken team of writers who contributed to the book. I would imagine that chapters like “Alien First Aid” and “How to get along with an extraterrestrial” may have been publisher requests to make the work more “spicy” for the book buying public. That’s just my guess, but given the thoughtful nature of the other chapters, a list of equipment to have with you when hoping to encounter an alien, sounds like something only a publisher could come up with.

It does beg the question: what can’t we have a rational discussion about this subject without falling into a debate about Roswell and alien abduction? Who knows, these could be valid subjects if we have evidence that such incidents occurred. We have no such evidence currently and the entire debate of government conspiracy and alien fear muddies the biggest question of all: what the hell will happen to our civilization if we are contacted by a technologically advanced society from another planet? It may be an incredibly remote possibility, but the implications for our world could not be bigger.

First Contact Extraterrestrial Alien Proposal Idea Hello Introduction Space Visitors

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