The Royal Society in London is the academy of science for the United Kingdom. Just last week they held a conference that may be one of the most relevant for First Contact. The two-day meeting featured an examination of not only the scientific possibilities of extraterrestrial life, but also the impact of extraterrestrial First Contact. Perhaps the most newsworthy moment came from the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Dr. Mazlan Othman called for an international protocol to deal with the detection of life in outer space.
The Office for Outer Space Affairs has been in existence for 52 years. The agency was formed to promote peaceful uses for outer space, prevent space based weaponry, and discuss the risks posed by asteroids and space debris. In dozens of resolutions the General Assembly has taken up these topics and left the question of extraterrestrial life off the table. It’s an understandable situation. Weapons in space, and poor maintenance of satellites would pose an immediate threat for humans. Extraterrestrial life may or may not exist.
It’s interesting that Dr. Othman chose to attend the London meeting at all. The title was “The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society.” That seems pretty radical for United Nations participation. For the most part, such discussion by her in the media has been in the realm of humor. Here’s a quote from Dr. Othman in a recent article that discusses the more sober objectives for the Office of Outer Space Affairs: global weather patterns and feeding the hungry.
"If we do make contact with aliens, who do you think should be representing mankind?" jokes UNOOSA director Mazlan Othman. "It would be the secretary general of the United Nations... that's why we're here," adds the cheerful Malaysian astrophysicist.
It makes you wonder how seriously she considers such possibilities. Certainly attendance at the conference would seem to imply she at least finds extraterrestrial intelligence issues to be intellectually stimulating. I wish I could have attended the conference and heard her speech. If she is truly calling for a United Nations based international protocol for alien First Contact that is indeed a big step in the right direction. The folks at SETI League have suggested a transparent and rational protocol.
The SETI proposal could be the basis for the formulation of a United Nations protocol. It does, of course, leave out many of the aspects of Direct First Contact. The two may be similar, but as I have discussed, Direct First Contact has much more immediate needs. The threats and consequences of Direct First Contact would be magnified greatly, and our response time reduced to nearly nothing. Perhaps, just perhaps, the United Nations would be forward thinking enough to consider such Direct Contact issues, if an overall international protocol is ever developed. In the meantime, here’s to hoping that Dr. Othman may be someone to lead this issue forward, into the realm of real international discussion.