Saturday, August 20, 2011

Breaking News: Media Make Funny Alien Headlines!

It’s been a good week for extraterrestrials in the media. Two big stories made headlines. The first, discussed here last week, was news that the SETI Institute has raised enough funds to re-start work with the Allen Telescope Array. The interesting aspect of the media coverage is just how widespread it has been. Seth Shostak has been highlighting a few of the articles on his facebook page.

My Google search shows more than 500 media hits for the story. Much of that was aided by news that Hollywood star Jodie Foster helped to raise funds and awareness for the problem. She is a SETIStar (I’m one as well) which is just the SETI Institute branding for donors to the project. They even e-mail you a nice certificate. Here’s hoping all of this extra attention can bring in even more donations and keep the Allen Telescope Array up and running for years to come. The SETI Institute seems to be stepping up its development campaign to bring in new donors. It’s a wise move considering the federal budget woes. It seems unlikely that government money for the project will be returning any time soon. It’s up to all of us to make a difference. Visit the website to become a SETIStar.

The other big story came from a paper published in the journal Acta Astronautica by Seth Baum, Jacob Haqq-Misra and Shawn Domagal-Goldman entitled: “Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis." The Penn State and NASA Planetary Science Division paper explores scenarios for extraterrestrial First Contact, organized as a scale of sorts from positive to neutral to negative. On the positive end of things the aliens may want to help us solve our problems and share knowledge. On the negative pole they may want to destroy us because of what we have done to our Earth environment, and what that means for other star systems if we learn how to travel the galaxy. The authors also explore the idea that aliens could intentionally or unintentionally harm us with disease or by providing technology. The authors responded to media interviews saying that while extraterrestrial contact is unlikely, the scenario exploration helps to lay the groundwork for a First Contact response plan.

It’s fascinating to see how the media pick up on things. The article was actually published way back in April. A British paper did a story last week and then through story sharing and competition more than 100 outlets on my Google search list picked up the story. It’s heartening that the media actually paid attention to an academic paper related to First Contact. Of course, the primary focus was on the aggressive scenarios. I love the headlines for this particular story. You can tell a lot about a media outlet from their headlines:

Reuters: Research explores potential outcomes of contact with aliens. Come on Reuters, that isn’t very exciting. Can’t we amp this up a bit?

Fox News Boston: Experts release ET Invasion Scenarios. See, now that’s a bit more interesting.

Times of India: Aliens Could End Global Warming, or Kill Us. Straight to the point. I bet we could put an even better spin on it.

Fox News National: Aliens Could Attack Earth to End Global Warming, NASA Scientist Frets. Wow, much better and we get to slam the federal government and global warming concerns all in one headline. Jackpot!

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