Monday, March 15, 2010


No matter what you say about us humans, you have to admit we have a pretty good sense of humor. Whether extraterrestrials would understand humor, or care about our witty remarks is something else entirely. Let’s hope so. If they’ve been reading the UK Telegraph online they will need to understand dark humor.

The Telegraph recently helped to launch a contest: what message would you send to outer space, in hopes that extraterrestrials would receive it? The good natured contest marks the start of National Science and Engineering Week in the UK and the release of Dr. Paul Davies new book The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe?
They received 1000 responses to the contest and writer Robert Colvile has quite a bit of fun with the suggestions:

“Please kill us now … have no mercy,” urged a gentleman from Indiana. “We are evil and you must defend yourself.”

“Keep away from this planet,” agreed Pamela from Sicily. “Mankind is only intent on depleting, abusing and destroying [it]. They will do the same to yours should they find it. Mankind is the worst virus in the universe. You have been warned.”

Nick from Calne was equally blunt: “If you manage to work out how to travel to us, don’t bother, as we’ll probably probe you, try to blow you up or worse still, steal your technology and invade… Have a nice day.”

Rob from Georgia, meanwhile, was prepared to throw the rest of mankind to the lions: “Dearest Aliens, if you choose to conquer Earth, please do not kill or enslave those of us who can name all 12 men to have walked on the Moon. We are the ones worth keeping around.”

Seema from Elgin had a compelling reason for ET not to bother with us: “If you’re planning to visit our planet, please know you will need to remove all metal from your person, take your shoes off and submit to a full body scan, carry all liquids/gels/aerosols in clear plastic bottles no bigger than 3.4oz, surrender all cigarette lighters and batteries, pack all jams and jellies (but pies can be carried on)… Oh, yes. Welcome to the Earth!”

As if all that negativity wasn’t off-putting enough, another theme came through loud and clear from the entries: even those elements of humanity that aren’t genocidal are terrifically needy. “Come and say hello!” begged Doug from Dublin. “You have already made our mistakes ages ago, come and tip us off and save us a lot more grief!”

Wow. That says quite a bit about us. Let’s just hope that the 50 messages chosen for transmission were a little less dark.

So, what does all of this mean? It seems to me that our expectations of what contact with extraterrestrials will be like has a lot more to do with us than with them. We tend to throw our hopes, fears and frustrations into conjecture about extraterrestrial First Contact. We either want space aliens to come fix all of our problems, or we want them to stay away. Throw into that mix the conspiracy theories and complete whack jobs found all over the internet and you have quite a bit for extraterrestrial visitors to sort out.

A sad fact: there is very little useful scientific data regarding human perceptions of extraterrestrial contact. There have been only a few legitimate polls over the years, most notably by Roper in the 1990s and another by the University of Connecticut and National Geographic in 2005. That poll features more hopeful results:
90% of Americans who believe life exists think we should communicate back if we heard communications coming from another planet.

That says something about the positive nature of alien First Contact. However, it doesn’t address the primary problem: we don’t use critical thinking when considering extraterrestrial contact. Most of the people who would add a rational voice to the First Contact debate won’t talk about it, because of the lack of scientific evidence. I don’t fault the skeptics, the crazy nature of the UFO and abductee community would drive many rational thinkers away. It’s too bad though, we need that type of thinking in preparing for the very unlikely event of First Contact.

The idea that E.T. will come to Earth and fix all of our problems is naïve and dangerous. We need critical thinking in an area of thought that seems, at first blush, quite outlandish.

In any event let’s hope that extraterrestrials just take the 50 winning messages at face value and don’t do any digging to find out what the other 999 people had to say.

Why did they choose fifty messages? Happy birthday scientific extraterrestrial research: Fifty years ago Project Ozma started. It was the first systematic search for electromagnetic communication from extraterrestrial sources. Twenty-five years ago the SETI Institute was founded. Congrats on bringing the search for extraterrestrial life into the realm of science.

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