What to Expect in Case of First Contact
What would you do if you met an alien?
Who gets to talk to them first?
- UN prepares for 'first contact' with alien life - Science - News - The Independent
The vexed issue of who should speak to an alien from another planet that demands "Take me to your leader" might soon be resolved.
A popular idea in fiction
Stories of first contact with extraterrestrials have been part of science fiction ever since War of the Worlds. The concept has even received scrutiny from serious scientists and even world leaders. What will an alien be like? Will they be friends or enemies? And perhaps most importantly how should we proceed when we meet them?
What would do we expect to meet?
There's really no way to guess what an alien might look like. Just consider the wide variety of appearance of organisms here on Earth. Now imagine the variety of creatures that might evolve to suit conditions unlike those on our world. If we had some idea of the environment an alien evolved in and it's ancestors ecological niche we might make some educated guesses. This presupposes that an alien we meet will be the product of natural evolution. If aliens have genetically engineered themselves significantly, uplifted other species, uploaded their minds into A.I., or are themselves electronic entities, they might look like anything. One thing most scientists who consider the concept do agree on is that intelligent minds will require a lot of energy. Since some of the most readily concentrated biological energy sources come in the form of meat, many assume this means other intelligent life will be descended from predators. Like all assumptions about aliens this is by no means certain. Fruits and nuts also concentrate a great deal of biological energy. Contrary to claims that “It doesn't take much brains to sneak up on a head of lettuce,” development of intelligence, like any evolutionary arms race puts more pressure on the prey. After all the predator who comes in second only misses a meal, while the prey loses it all. Whatever the aliens form or diet it's early ancestors likely won't have been apex predators. While we humans may be at the top of the food chain now, thanks to our technology, our early ancestors were prey to much more dangerous creatures. One could make a case that it was our need to make up physical deficiencies at self defense and as predators that put selective pressure on our ancestors to evolve intelligence. It's not unreasonable to assume that an alien with similar capacity for abstract reasoning will have undergone similar selective pressure at some point in it's evolutionary history. This means that it might be safe to assume that an alien (that evolved naturally) won't have the most developed natural weapons or defenses in it's native biosphere.
What's on your mind
An author with some interesting takes on first contact
How will they think?
Even harder to predict than an aliens biology is it's psychology. Just look at the range of cultural behaviors that do (and have existed) among our own species. When one species can produce everything from pacifists who would rather die than fight to religions that practiced daily human sacrifice how can you guess alien behavior? One thing we probably can expect is (unless we meet a hive mind) an alien species will have as much individual personality variation as we do. No matter how much conformity a culture demands there will always be a few oddballs. Something we cannot expect however is their technological sophistication to have any correlation to their capacity for civility and benevolence. A race capable of interstellar travel might be savage conquerors and one with stone tools might be compassionate and generous, or vice verse. Fortunately for anyone wanting to communicate with an alien no mater how bizarre their psychology may be they will have to work with the same universal constants we do. No matter where you go in the universe 2+2=4 and π describes the ratio of a circles radius to its diameter. The trick will be figuring out what symbols the aliens might use to describe the concepts. With a species that has not yet developed these concepts communication might be more difficult. One might assume that one could just point to something and whatever sounds the alien makes must be it's word for that thing. This assumes the aliens communicate by sound at all or perceives sound the same way we do. H. Beam Piper's short story “Naudsonce” explored the difficulty of communicating with a race that perceived sound by means different than us and in Little Fuzzy he explored a species whose language was inaudible without special equipment. Here on Earth bees communicate by dance and many species communicate through scent and pheromones. If aliens don't communicate in writing we may find that we can't even perceive or reproduce their language. Meeting aliens may be the easy part.
How could we find them right now?
A means of first contact that we are pursuing right now is via detection of alien communications. Our own civilization has been broadcasting radio signals for over a century. Theoretically any alien species that could detect radio within a hundred light years could pick up our transmissions. This fact has led scientists to create the S.E.T.I. (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program to “listen” for alien radio signals. The problem is that the time we've been able to transmit (or detect) radio waves is a drop in the bucket to all of human history let alone the history of the universe. An alien civilization as close as Alpha Centauri might be centuries away from developing radio. Aliens might also have developed a means of communication that makes radio waves look like smoke signals. A system we will take millennium to duplicate. Some critics of S.E.T.I. point out that even if an alien race uses radio our current search techniques won't detect modern broadband signaling techniques. In the unlikely event that we do detect radio signals from an intelligent alien race the only impact it will have is to tell us that we are not alone in the universe. A round trip message to the closest star would take eight years. With that kind of communication lag just learning to communicate could take centuries. Given interstellar distances it's more likely that an alien radio signal would be detected from so far away that two way communication could never be established within a human lifetime.
If they come here
If an alien ship comes to our solar system it would make it much easier to communicate with them. Unfortunately it would also leave us vulnerable to alien hostility or potential misunderstanding. One potentially catastrophic misunderstanding might be mistaking an inbound alien vessel for an Earth bound asteroid. Aliens headed this way would after all have the chance to detect our world and adjust course Earthward before we detect them. It might be safe to assume that incoming aliens who don't announce themselves and their intentions are up to no good. They might, however, try to say hello by methods we cannot detect. Under those circumstances, attempts we might make to deflect what we could easily assume is an asteroid threat could lead to a tragic interstellar incident. It might even result in us starting hostilities with a much more advanced race that came with peaceful intent. Not that an alien visitor would necessarily want to come straight to Earth. Alien biology will probably have quite different needs from ours. If they are looking for a place to colonize or terraform they might find Titan quite appealing and look at our world as a toxic cesspool. If we did suffer the misfortune of meeting an alien race with similar environmental needs and hostile intent, humanity might well be doomed. For aliens that can cross interstellar distances diverting an asteroid into earth as big as the one that caused the dinosaurs extinction is probably trivial. They would then be free to modify Earth to suit themselves without billions of human pests getting in the way. Humanities best hope to avoid extinction against alien invaders might be if they need slave labor. Fortunately a technologically advanced race will probably need to educate their slaves somewhat to make them useful. That might grant some future generations the chance to rebel and regain their freedom. Aliens with benevolent intent might potentially be as destructive as hostile ones. Imagine what an equivalent of the purchase of Manhattan might be. We might buy world changing technology that are toys to their creators and make ourselves dependent on them for spare parts or the equivalent of batteries.
Did Star Trek have the right idea?
If we go there
One might assume that if we advance to the point where our descendants are the visitors to an alien civilization the encounter will be less destructive to us. After all by the time we discover another intelligent race we will probably have already found life that's not intelligent and learned to deal with the potential hazards of alien diseases. Just because we might find them first does not necessarily mean they will be less advanced. The universe is a big place. If we and another alien civilization were both roaming the universe we'd have a better chance of meeting on some world one of us had colonized than on either of our home worlds. After all, each of us could have many colonies but only one home world. The odds that we would meet another species at the same technological level as us are infinitesimally small. The one advantage in meeting a more advanced alien on another world has is that it will be harder for a hostile species to exterminate all of us. There is however no reason to assume meeting a more advanced alien is any more probable than meeting a less advanced one. While we might not face destruction at the hands of a less advanced race we would have to be cautious not to be the ones to destroy them. The question is could we make contact with such a species without hurting them? Would the knowledge of a more advanced race risk turning a less advance one into a cargo cult? After all, the less advanced society (if it did not deify the more advanced) would try to copy their technological achievements without having the correct theoretical background. Perhaps “Star Trek” had it right, the only way not to hurt a less advanced species is to avoid contact. Contrary to Trek though there may never be a point of advancement where contact becomes non destructive.
Can it happen without someone getting hurt?
Perhaps there is some ultimate theory of everything that will give us the background to puzzle out any alien technology, no mater how advanced. If so, aliens might teach it to us or we could use it to instruct the less advanced. Even with such a theory, men today trying to understand the workings of a star-ship would probably be as baffled as Newton would be by the technology of the Apollo rockets. Theory is one thing, practical application is something else altogether. For all it's faults S.E.T.I. may be the only way to contact aliens without turning civilization on it's head. As momentous as receiving a signal from 1000 light years away might be it won't expose us to conquest or technological dependence. Unless an alien signal comes from close enough to establish two way communication on a reasonable time scale or translates as, “You are hereby annexed into the Galactic Empire your new Governor and his fleet will arrive in five years. Resistance brings extinction.” It probably won't have much impact on daily life.