Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Probably not. With 100 billion planets in the known Universe, it’s likely that life exists out there. The conditions needed for carbon based organic life are well known. Moreover, these conditions are not unique to Earth. So, how do we meet up with our fellow life-forms?
There are a few factors that make contact a challenge. The first is proximity, in both time and distance. Even if alien life coincides with us in time, the vastness of space makes linking up improbable. The distances involved are staggering. Communication by current known channels has a limit called the 'speed of light'. Thus, if we did hook up, a delayed conversation would unfold over centuries. If the extraterrestrials advanced to a level that allowed them to reach us, another question arises. Would we even recognise them as a life-form? A sentient ball of gas may go unnoticed. It's not something within our experience. Then, you’ve got the whole issue of communication; interpreting and understanding them. There are no easy answers.
We are currently looking for other life-forms using our human-based technology. It's the only option we've got. Whether this is the right way to search is a mute point. Even so, our adoption of maths as the universal language is logical. Prime numbers present a useful signal because nature doesn't manifest them. In this regard, the movie 'Contact' was spot on.
If we did make contact, what would be the consequences? Governments have been preparing for that eventuality since the 1950s. The U.S. military has a seven steps procedure. You can assume that extraterrestrials will adopt something similar. The first step is covert observations from a distance. Which raises the question are we being watched now?
The second step is covert visitation. This is observation up close, taking an assessment of technological abilities. The key to this part of the process is assessing the level of hostility likely to be encountered. Weapons systems would be of prime interest. Again, you’d want to know if things get nasty what can the other side do.
Moving forward with the third step, covert or open contact is made… close encounters of the third kind. After this, we go through various stages of introduction and communication.
In all this there are tremendous risks for our civilisation. The continued existence of mankind is in jeopardy. A good part of humanity will exhibit shock, others will express elation. A third group will accept it in their stride. Of course, emotions will range across that whole spectrum. But let's recognise we’ve been talking about it for decades. Movies and TV shows have conditioned us to the possibility, so I’m not expecting a complete melt-down.
On top of that emotional outburst, the world's religions will need to reconsider their position. Their underpinning tenets are no longer sustainable. The Gods will see their status eroded, although no doubt the blind faithful will hang on to their dogma. Religions have an uncanny ability to perform mental gymnastics in the face of facts. Able to twist their doctrine to meet new circumstances. Alien contact will cause them some soul searching. Yet, don’t expect them to concede.
A danger comes in the reaction of institutions that feel their status is under threat. For example, the Catholic Church. Seeing its teaching laid to waste, it will be fearful for its future. Then angry. It may mobilise its influence to disrupt acceptance of our true position in the Cosmos. History tells us it is capable of such behaviour. Look at the treatment of Servetus and Galileo. One burned at the stake, the other locked up for life to prevent the spread of scientific facts.
That first contact will have a profound impact on our modern infrastructure. Be ready for the Internet and IT systems to fail. Overwhelmed by an unmanageable surge in usage, it will falter. We’ll be exchanging information, expressing opinions on a scale never seen before. Even minor emergencies, such as plane crashes, can produce similar effects. Moreover, the blackout will fuel fears and apprehension that we are under attack. Demands to destroy the aliens can be expected.
Contact brings other risks. The exchange of diseases is possible. Each side will need to take precautions to protect itself. Assuming the aliens are an organic life-form, all aspects of life on Earth are at risk.
The next troubling aspect, is communication between us and the alien. This takes us into a whole realm of dilemmas. Communication is a complex, nuanced process. Variations in intellectual abilities and comprehension are relevant. Can we even recognise the form of communication? As mentioned above, maths provides a good starting point.
Finally, the ultimate question must be … do they come in peace? Stephen Hawking takes the negative position. He draws parallels with the Europeans first landings in North and South America. That didn't end well for the natives. Not only did diseases have an impact, plundering of resources took place. Those that resisted were wiped out with their culture.
Others take a different view. They posit that advanced technological cultures emerge once cooperation and peaceful coexistence exists. Such a view holds that the advanced nature of the aliens culture equates to their benign nature. That’s assuming that their culture has such qualities as compassion and empathy. What is more, they have an understanding of its application to us.
Before answering that final question, let us contemplate why aliens would come to Earth. The ability to cross vast distances of space, survive the journey to arrive at Earth suggests a life-form far advanced on us. If these extraterrestrials are so clever then why bother with our unremarkable planet? Earth has no unique resources. There is nothing of value here the alien cannot produce or source elsewhere. Yes, we may be of some esoteric interest to an alien academic writing his doctorate. Beyond that, why bother venturing to this distant spiral arm of the Milky Way. You've some 100 billion other planets to pick from. The odds are remote they are coming our way.
In the movie 'Contact' the extraterrestrials have a phased plan of exposure. The protagonist, Ellie Arroway, is put at ease by the extraterrestrial appearing as her father. The venue is a serene tropical beach. She is told they'd be in touch again later. The purpose is to allow humans time to assimilate that first contact. We must deal with a myriad of issues before moving forward. Whether we'd get that sort of lead-in, an incremental introduction, is unknown. Assuming we are dealing with an intelligent extraterrestrial, I’d like to think we would.
Weighing it all up, in my assessment aliens coming here would not be hostile. But, all things considered, we need to have a discussion around how we’d respond. Because if caught off-guard, the consequences for our species could be severe. Beyond that, all we can do is wait for ET to say ‘Hi’ and trust he is congenial chap.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.