This blog occupies a small slice of territory in the consideration of extraterrestrial intelligence. I don’t believe in alien conspiracies or that First Contact has already occurred. I do believe that First Contact is a distinct possibility in the future, in one form or another, and that we should have a sober and wide-reaching conversation about how it would impact humans and our civilization. This isn’t an easy conversation. I alienate (no pun intended) those who believe in extraterrestrial conspiracies. Folks on the other end of the spectrum think that consideration of extraterrestrial intelligence is a silly waste of time. They may very well be right. If there are no alien civilizations out there for us to contact, this is simply an amusing train of thought. However, if we do ever make First Contact our lack of serious consideration and preparation will be a major problem. So, a little proactive conversation on the subject seems worthwhile.
This “giggle factor” in the consideration of extraterrestrial intelligence was brought up by Dr. Mazlan Othman, the astrophysicist who directs the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). She is well acquainted with the “giggle factor”. A few years ago Othman prepared a paper for the Royal Society in London. The Royal Society is one of a few respected scientific bodies to take up the issue of extraterrestrial intelligence (the International Astronomical Union is another key supporter). The media got wind of the Othman paper, which proposed planning in the United Nations for extraterrestrial contact. The media twisted it around and the headline became a United Nations director announces herself to be the primary diplomatic contact for extraterrestrials. The coverage was harsh. Dr. Othman immediately backed away from the insinuations. If you read her paper there is no such proposal, it is merely a call for serious consideration of extraterrestrial contact at the international level.
The media had great fun with the story. A few months later the UN attempted to repair the damage by posting a thoughtful and interesting interview with Othman in the United Nations News Centre. Dr. Othman brings up an interesting point:
“…extraterrestrial life must take root as a scientific discussion. Once it takes root and people throw away the idea of it being frivolous or the work of charlatans, people will start seeing it for what it really is.”
This has been the work of the SETI Institute for many years now. Jill Tarter and Seth Shostak have championed a scientific, research based, approach in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. They have worked hard to make SETI part of the astrophysics community. That means distancing themselves from the conspiracy theorists and UFO buffs. The approach makes sense. But one wonders how long it might take. First Contact may be decades or even hundreds of years off. It could also occur tomorrow. Our lack of serious consideration leaves us ill-prepared to handle such an occurrence. There is not even agreement on what group might lead such a diplomatic effort.
We waste so much time and energy on the frivolous in our society that calling the consideration of extraterrestrial contact a folly is ridiculous. Let us spend one percent of the time, energy and money that we spend talking about Justin Bieber and the Kardashians. That alone would give us a solid foundation to move forward.
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