Why do I waste my time contemplating extraterrestrial First Contact? There is no evidence that intelligent aliens exist. We may not have the proper technology to discover them ourselves. It could be decades, if not centuries, before First Contact occurs, if it ever does at all. Aliens could be so far away in the universe that we may never even know they are there, let alone make contact. Pretty depressing.
My thought is this: why not bet on the long shot? The odds are long; incredibly long in this case, but the importance of the race cannot be understated. Direct Contact with intelligent aliens would change our civilization. Even long-term, far-away contact would change our perspective on the wider universe and our own society. In a way, it’s a reverse payout. If First Contact does occur, instead of there being some big prize for humanity there may be incredible challenges. So, to not bet on the long shot, to not prepare for the long shot, opens us up to danger. The lack of consideration and planning for this subject is a real problem. If First Contact were to happen, human society would not have a response. Hopefully, it will take years for us to transmit back and forth with aliens, due to the distances between star systems. That would provide plenty of time for the inevitable discussion, debate and action to take place. But what if it is Direct First Contact, where aliens visit our solar system to say hello? Such an event would leave us no time for planning and little time to take action.
The big problem with considerations of extraterrestrial First Contact is that everything is speculation. If it’s impossible to define what might happen, how do you prepare for it? I would agree. Trying to plan details for a First Contact response would be a waste of time. Our conjecture would likely be wrong and thus a detailed plan not of much use. However, we could have a general plan that answers a few important questions. First, who will represent Earth if we make First Contact? I’m not talking about one person, but rather a group. Which group will lead contact messaging? While scientists would be the ones setting up the transmission it would seem logical that people who are trained in diplomacy should decide the message, with plenty of input from governments across the planet. Hmmmm… that sounds like the United Nations. Indeed, SETI scientists have tried for many years now to have the United Nations take First Contact seriously. Unfortunately, that has not happened. So, there is a first step that could help in just about any First Contact scenario. Perhaps the United Nations could allow the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to take up the issue and develop some basic protocol.
What would be the reaction to such planning? Undoubtedly there would be snickering in the media, and as UN officials probably fear, ridicule of the UN and its mission. From the UN perspective reputation is everything. And if you’re trying to handle civil war in Syria, prevent starvation in Africa and join nations together in environmental causes, why would you jeopardize your reputation for something that may never occur? It’s a very practical point of view. And in a sense, it’s just another bet. The UN folks are betting that First Contact will not occur and putting their entire wager on our current human challenges.
I get this. I even understand the snickering of the media. We haven’t taken issues of extraterrestrial intelligence seriously in our popular culture. What makes us think that we will take it seriously in the realm of international relations? Action by the UN will take guts and determination. It will take courage and vision.
So, why do I waste my time on what some might call a childish pursuit? Well, I actually agree that it is a childish pursuit. What child doesn’t wonder, at some point or another, about what might be out there in the universe? Those people often grow up to be astrophysicists or science fiction writers. We can’t lose the childish wonder that fuels our passion to discover new things. I’ll keep embracing that wonder as I continue writing for this blog. It’s a high stakes race, if the race is ever run. I’ll keep betting on the long shot and perhaps someday the UN and governments may put down their own small wager as well.
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