Monday, August 23, 2010

The Scientific Community Responds to First Contact

In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn stresses that crisis is the “essential tension” in research science. Anomaly is part of the process and the response by scientists is often to make modifications to a paradigm to eliminate the conflicts. So, how would science respond to a series of anomalies, or more so, a series of scientific revolutions?

If human society meets an extraterrestrial civilization there will be a great deal of interest in what they know of science, and the technology they have developed from that science. Will they be willing to share? Who knows? But I do suggest that we may want to be very careful about what we ask for and what information we receive.

Kuhn makes the argument that human science works in a very specific way and whether it be the actions of everyday “normal science” or in crisis mode, the actions are predictable and part of the overall scientific process that has allowed humans to develop.

What happens to normal science if we have radical new technological and scientific ideas simply provided to us? It is a question that is wide ranging, because the answers could impact not only the foundation of our scientific system, but also the economy. It’s not just the academic community doing research; corporations and businesses are on the front line of applied technology research.

It starts with training. Any sort of information about extraterrestrial science would have a huge impact on the academic community. Universities would need to respond quickly to the new science. Professors in certain fields would have to blow up old curriculum and find a way to integrate that new knowledge into the old paradigms. Kuhn points out that academic fields are notoriously slow to respond to change. People have built careers on the old paradigms and a shift could test those careers. On the positive side academia fights to make sure students have a solid educational foundation and understanding. Blowing up curriculum could mean teaching with less depth of knowledge. Of course extraterrestrial science could call much of that foundation into question. The real impact would of course depend on what the information holds: does it support what we have learned about our world? Does it add new layers of understanding? Does it change everything with a few radical new ideas?

It seems likely that the business world will watch First Contact developments closely and respond to new information. It could be a big business gold rush if there is enough information provided to develop new technology and thus new products. Will corporations turn the entire research and development effort towards these new technologies? It seems quite possible that any technological information would be beyond our understanding at first. Even so, once the academic world has had a chance to digest the new ideas it seems likely that big business will be literally busting at the seams to make use of such knowledge. What will this do for the economy? There could be periods of economic chaos if too much information is released. It could lead to companies abandoning research that is quite important for humanity. Drug companies could stop research on new antibiotics (they are already doing this) and chase entirely new areas of interest. Does this mean we won’t need antibiotics? Many of the problems humanity currently faces are likely to still be problems After First Contact. If the business community runs amok chasing new riches what will happen to our economic foundation?

Are we prepared for such challenges? It would seem not. The only way to respond is to have guidelines. Who will be in charge of diplomacy during First Contact? Should they have the ability to filter what information we receive and how that information is disseminated? What groups and associations could help lead the effort in each particular field? You would imagine physics, chemistry, biology, electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, and aeronautics could all be affected. Can we develop a “new normal science”? Can we find a way to effectively integrate alien knowledge into our scientific system as a human can integrate a pacemaker or titanium joint into the body? Or will we experience a chaotic world of constant scientific revolution?

The good news is that in a SETI based First Contact scenario we may have plenty of time to decide how to respond. Communication could take decades if not longer. A SETI based First Contact is the most likely form. However, Direct First Contact (an extraterrestrial landing here on Earth) is not out of the question and would provide very little time for response. Doesn’t it make sense to develop some basic guidelines that could be used in any scenario?

There will be basic things we will want to know about an extraterrestrial civilization: where do they come from? How did they get here? What is their biological make-up? Even the answers to these simple questions might provide radical new insights for scientific fields. On the other end of the spectrum they could reveal the nature of dark matter and describe some energy source that we had never even considered. In any of these cases Kuhn’s work will be all the more important. By dissecting how science currently works we can better prepare for the new world that awaits After First Contact.

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