Monday, November 30, 2009

E.T. - Please Phone First

So, what if an extraterrestrial ship is camped out in our solar system, analyzing our culture and investigating whether or not we are ready for First Contact? If they have that kind of technology it would be easy enough for them to land on Earth and say hello. But are we ready for that? You could make a serious argument that they should call first before landing.

Right now we have all our eggs in one basket: SETI. The search for electromagnetic signals (and laser light) from extraterrestrials has grown impressively in the last 30 years. Dr. Chris Impey is with the University Of Arizona Department Of Astronomy. He recently described SETI research as taking in as much data and as much scope in recent months as it might have in the entire history of the research. The technology and computing power has grown significantly.

SETI has the best backing in the scientific community for one primary reason: it is science based. Speculation is fun, but scientists need to observe, collect data in a systematic way, compare that data to known constants, and test a hypothesis. If the hypothesis is supported and the study passes peer review scrutiny, then that new piece of insight or knowledge may form another part of the framework for that particular field of study. The problem with speculation is that there isn’t anything to measure. Sure, you can come up with ideas supported by knowledge of things that have been studied scientifically. But even at the most advanced level it’s still speculation.

SETI researchers have formed an organized protocol for extraterrestrial First Contact. When a signal is received, tested and confirmed, there are procedures for reporting that find and disseminating news of the discovery to the world. The process is admirable for its transparency, and for embracing a global view. The researchers in SETI seem to agree that the discovery of an extraterrestrial signal should not be kept top secret by any government or even for that matter by the United Nations. First Contact is important to everyone and humans across the world have a right to know when it occurs.

Direct First Contact has no such protocol, as far as I know. Perhaps NASA has a secret plan somewhere. The United Nations may have thought through the prospect more than we realize. None of it has been made public to my knowledge. To be fair NASA has done quite a bit to support the issue of extraterrestrial intelligence, through conferences and astrobiology research. However, Congress cut NASA SETI funding in the 1990’s and it has not returned. Speculation about Direct First Contact would likely be viewed even more negatively by lawmakers and the public. SETI work continues through primarily private funding.

Direct First Contact receives attention primarily in the popular media, though the UFO debate, science fiction books and Hollywood movies. It is not the type of subject that most scientists would dare study. The UFO folks have made it nearly impossible for someone to base a career on a study of the implication of Direct First Contact, due to the paranoia and hysteria that the UFO debate had engendered.

So, would it be best if the aliens called first? They could beam a signal directly at one of our SETI arrays from Saturn. It may take a while but researchers could rule out any man made possibility. The SETI protocol could be instituted and a welcome could be prepared. It makes sense, if you trust all the parties involved…and there would be a lot of parties. Would the United States government move to halt the SETI notification process? Would the United Nations Security Council attempt to squash the publicity? Let’s face it, the government agencies are the ones least prepared for First Contact. Even the Vatican has done more to prepare than the U.S. Government. If there is not some secret plan out there to be enacted, government leaders would want some time to consider the consequences. They would want to prepare and study. All of which they should have been doing for the last 20 or 30 years (and often at the suggestion of the very scientists who they have asked to consider such issues).

The only way extraterrestrial visitors can ensure a big hello for the entire planet is to do it themselves. They can organize it to provide the most transparency possible, in the quickest way possible, while still taking into account the legitimate safety concerns of government agencies. In this method government has no choice but to respond in a transparent fashion. Once the media and public are fully engaged there is no way to put the lid back on the bottle.

E.T. could phone first, but he would retain much more control by landing on our doorstep and ringing the bell.

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