Monday, November 16, 2009

Creative Minds

“One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind. Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories. Two-thirds of 2001 is realistic — hardware and technology — to establish background for the metaphysical, philosophical, and religious meanings later.”

-Arthur C. Clarke in “The Making of Kubrick's 2001” (1970) by Jerome Agel, p. 300

“Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today - but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”

-Isaac Asimov

Here’s a shout out to the creative minds who have given humanity a reasoned approach to extraterrestrial First Contact.

Science Fiction writers have been preparing us for many years. Arthur C. Clarke provided us with an understanding of satellite technology and space exploration. Isaac Asimov understood the importance of computers, and even more so the possibilities brought forth by the cyber world. They both have written extensively on extraterrestrial intelligence, and how mankind might be changed forever by that revelation.

Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov are among many writers who have explored future possibilities for mankind. These two went beyond the literary world and interacted with scientists and the science establishment. They became leaders in the push for a more rational discussion of extraterrestrial intelligence.

It is this body of work that has prepared us for what may come next. Kendrick Frazier called it “beneficial cultural conditioning” in his 1976 essay “First Contact: The News Event and Human Response.” It appears in a larger work called “Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, edited by James Christian. Frazier openly calls for a National Science Foundation investigation of the subject. Thirty-three years later there has been some progress. NASA has worked with scientists and writers in a creative outreach on the subject. Still, we have no framework in the United Nations for handling such a discovery. The subject is still an outlier and reasonable academics undertake the discussion at their own risk.

Hollywood has taken up the cause, if only to find new avenues for our amusement. Recently sexy, secretive space aliens have taken to the airwaves for a new network show. We’re titillated. We may even open ourselves up to a new context for humanity. In reality though, it does not do much to advance the cause.

How could we let such an important subject sit on the sidelines of popular debate? The discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, in any form, changes how we view ourselves forever. It will be the single most important event for our collective culture. Whether it be some microbial find on a distant moon, a contact message sent via electromagnetic communication, or sexy aliens descending from magnificent spaceships… we will be changed. The time could be very near. Are we ready? Have we prepared?

Astronomers and astrophysicists have been on the front line of this issue for many years. A few brave souls have risked career and reputation to take the creative leap and ask whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.

One of the most important meetings in the discussion of extraterrestrial intelligence was held in 1961 at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. It was organized by the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences. New York Times science writer Walter Sullivan describes the meeting in his 1964 bestseller “We Are Not Alone”. Green Bank brought together some of the top minds in science and yet publicity was avoided. The subject was too controversial for the traditional science fields. J.P.T Pearman organized the conference. Otto Struve, the director of the observatory served as host. The scientists included Phillip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi, who had just called for a radio astronomy search for extraterrestrial signals, one of the reasons for the conference, and the beginning of SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The other attendees included Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and genetics, and Carl Sagan; the astronomer and astrophysicist attended as a member of the Space Science Board.

It is this group that formed the scientific forefront of extraterrestrial research and conjecture. Frank Drake, formulated an equation during the meeting that has been the basis for support of SETI ever since. The Drake equation moves from the macro (the rate at which stars were formed in the galaxy) to the micro (the longevity of each technology in a communicative state). Even in conservative estimates it shows that there could be millions of extraterrestrial civilizations capable of communication. However, in all fairness just a few tweaks of the variables in that equation could also lead to there being few extraterrestrial civilizations, if any at all, aside from ours. Still, it strengthens the argument that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is worthwhile.

SETI is the best hope we have for discovering intelligent life. The scientists dedicated to this cause have also helped to prepare humanity for the impact of that discovery. While Direct First Contact is seldom mentioned, SETI discussions bring up many of the issues that Direct First Contact would raise. No matter what the form of discovery, we are better off thanks to their hard work.

Science Fiction writers paved the way. A group of incredibly imaginative scientists gave it a framework for research. Carl Sagan spent his life engaging the public in the discussion. Now we need governments to take heed and prepare for an open and transparent approach to extraterrestrial First Contact. If plans do exist in the United States or United Nations they need to be made public. If those plans do not exist, planning needs to be seriously considered. First Contact of any form would be a profound event. It would change the way we view ourselves and impact our civilization for thousands of years. To pay so little attention to the issue at the governmental level seems ill advised. Someone needs to take a creative leap and risk reputation to put this on the agenda in the United Nations.

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