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The Day After Contact: Forecasting Reactions to Extraterrestrial Life

Albert A. Harrison, Ph.D. and Colm A. Kelleher, Ph.D., NIDS

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: There have been few attempts to gauge the consequences to our society of unambiguous evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence on Earth or in our solar system.

June, 1999

Powerful converging forces encourage widespread belief in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Some of these forces, such as science fiction books and movies, are rooted in imagination and fantasy. It is a rare evening that one cannot find a television play or "docu-drama" about alien life. Some of these forces are highly personal. Each year, thousands of people report viewing UFOs that they cannot easily dismiss as a misidentification of natural phenomena or as hoaxes. True, after fifty years we still await good explanations of many of these reports, but for some of the people involved their experience is compelling, profound, and in their minds suggestive of contact with extraterrestrial life. Finally, widespread belief in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life is fostered by recent developments in science.

Starting with Copernicus' revelation that the Earth revolved around the sun (rather than the other way around) scientists have made a succession of discoveries that, creationist views to the contrary, Earth does not hold a special position in the Universe. Radio astronomers and others who engage in the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) believe that there are billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, and that many of these stars have planets. Some of these planets, we suspect, are suitable for life. The same basic processes of physics and chemistry that gave rise to life and intelligence here operate throughout the Universe, and will have given rise to life again and again. Of the civilizations that evolve elsewhere in the Universe, many will work their way through their technological adolescence and survive to overlap ours in time. These civilizations are likely to be numerous and incredibly old, perhaps as much as a billion years older than our own. Certainly there is no "smoking gun" but circumstantial evidence (such as the discovery of more and more planets) is strong enough to justify expensive, time-consuming searches. Even as the improvements of optical telescopes encouraged the search for life on neighboring planets during the 19th Century, the evolution of the radio telescope and information processing technology encourage our search for evidence of life outside of our solar system in the 20th Century.

Astronomers and other scientists have developed strong and compelling arguments that the first irrefutable confirmation of "ET" will occur at a great distance. This could consist of discovering energy use patterns indicative of an advanced civilization or, as dramatically illustrated in the movie Contact, intercepting radio waves that are of intelligent and extraterrestrial origin. Australian astronomer Ray Norris estimates that, if the rationale underlying the microwave radio search is correct, then there is a reasonable (50-50) chance of detecting ET in the next decade or two. Under the standard radio detection scenario, apart from heralding the presence of another civilization in the Universe, the first intercept is not likely to be very informative. Either there will be little or nothing to decipher (as may be the case if we intercept a navigation beacon), or, because of their advanced nature, we will not be able to understand any information that is superimposed on the carrier wave. If their transmission is understandable, then we expect that their civilization will be so far away as to preclude meaningful communication. Immense distance and time will separate us from ET, and, under these conditions, the risk of harm from ET seems minimal.

Scientists involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence usually steer clear of more direct contact scenarios. Part of the reason for this is based on a rationale that radio and other remote detection strategies offer the most promising and economical search strategies. Another part of the reason for this is a conviction that interstellar travel is so expensive and technologically demanding that even very advanced civilizations are likely to be trapped in their own solar system. An additional part of the reason for this is a desire not to be confused with people who claim alien visitations and abductions. Scientists who developed the rationale for extraterrestrial intelligence fought an up-hill battle to establish SETI as legitimate and scientific. To establish themselves, they had to overcome the "giggle factor," that is peer and public ridicule that so often discourages creative, unorthodox thinking. Intellectual integrity, survival within the academic and scientific communities, and successful competition for journal space and research funds require the highest levels of vigilance accompanied by deliberate efforts to remain aloof from untrained observers, mistaken witnesses, charlatans and hoaxers.

At the same time that we should insist on critical attitudes and high standards of proof we should remain open to different contact scenarios. In the forty years since the radiotelescope search was initiated there have been major changes in our own technology. In the 1950s, for example, robot probes were imagined as huge lumbering affairs. Yet, in the past half century, tremendous strides in electronics, material science, and other areas has enabled us to develop compact, sophisticated and relatively low cost interplanetary probes. With continued advances it should become feasible to send tiny probes on interstellar missions. Perhaps other civilizations already have embarked on this path. Given our lack of knowledge about the range of life forms and civilizations in our galaxy, it is prudent to remain open to many possibilities.

Could there be starships that move passengers from one solar system to another as quickly and comfortably as those that we see in science fiction movies? This would require capabilities that we are not sure that we can develop: beating (if not exceeding) the speed of light and manipulating spacetime continua. One requirement is capitalizing on energy that is available within the vacuum of space itself. This does not mean simply scooping up fuel on the run, as in the case of a ramjet. It means looking at physics in new ways, trying to harness the power of gravity and other force fields, such as might be contained in random electromagnetic oscillations. An alternative to going faster is finding short cuts. This is the idea behind "space warps" and "wormholes." These are, in essence, tunnels outside of our universe, perhaps through some hyperdimensional space, that connect locations that we consider highly separated from one another. By passing through one of these tunnels it might be possible to take a short cut to a place galaxies away. Wormholes might be naturally occurring, perhaps within the voids between interstellar or intergalactic matter. Or, through the use of exotic matter and the proper application of force field technology it might be possible to construct them. This is the idea behind the "Stargate" in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and the contraption built in the movie Contact so that the heroine, played by Jodie Foster, could instantly travel several light years to interact (of sorts) with ET. As we consider such possibilities we move from science to speculation, perhaps into a realm that is neither imagination nor science but a gray zone of "imagined science." Could our more advanced counterparts or we flit almost effortlessly from one part of the Universe to another? We really don't know, but it is conceivable that a civilization a billion years older than our own will have made some progress with this.

Incontrovertible evidence of the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life may qualify as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of human life. What will be the short-term and long-term effects of discovery on people, institutions, and cultures? This will depend in part on such variables as the way in which ET is detected and our perceptions of ET's abilities and intentions. Several times in the past two centuries large numbers of people believed that intelligent extraterrestrial life had been found. In 1835 the New York Sun ran a series of articles that convinced many readers that a peaceful group of "bat men" frolicked in paradise-like settings on the Moon. Through using the names of real scientists and other tactics the Sun's editors were able to engage and delight a wide readership, at least until a rival newspaper revealed the hoax. In the closing years of the 19th Century, Giovanni Schiaparelli of Italy, Camille Flammarion of France, and Percival Lowell of the United States fostered beliefs in canals on Mars. There, Lowell believed, Martian engineers had developed a water distribution system to try to keep agriculture alive on a dying planet. His audiences' reactions ranged from wonder and awe through skepticism to amused tolerance. The question became one of how to reveal ourselves to the Martian engineers who were trapped on their dying planet, including such schemes as planting huge forests in zigzag patterns, igniting mammoth bonfires and attempting to signal by radio.

The most famous episode occurred on Halloween, 1938, when Nelson Eddy began singing during the popular Chase and Sanborn Hour starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Even as impatient television viewers flip television channels today, radio listeners changed stations in 1938. Thousands of listeners came upon a startling report from an eyewitness in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. A breathless eyewitness reported large tube-like spacecraft had landed. As the broadcast progressed, listeners heard that the tubes were spaceships from Mars; that supremely confident government troops had arrived to control the situation; that Martians emerged from the craft and annihilated the troops; that the Martians were marching on New York City to destroy it, and that other alien spacecraft were landing elsewhere in the United States. What most radio listeners did not realize was that they had tuned to Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre of the Air and that they were listening to a radio play rather than a news broadcast. This play was an adaptation of The War of the Worlds written by British science fiction author H. G. Wells about forty years before.

Orson Welles tried to make this play realistic by presenting it as an unfolding news story based on fast-breaking developments reported from the field. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. In the process of turning their dials from Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, listeners missed the introduction stating that the broadcast was a play. Live news reporting was a recent invention and only a year before audiences had been horrified by a broadcast of the fiery destruction of the dirigible Hindenberg. Listeners were still in the grip of the great economic depression, and gathering war clouds in Europe added to their tension.

Not everyone was fooled, but some people panicked. One man told the New York Times that when he heard the names of real locations and government officials he knew that the broadcast was "real." He then ran out into the street where he found scores of other people scurrying about. Some people packed their prized possessions in their automobiles and sped to the countryside to hide. Upon hearing the commotion outside, guests abandoned a bride and groom at a wedding reception. Some residents of New York City, believing that the aliens were only blocks away, sealed themselves in rooms, nailed the doors shut, and packed wet cloth around the widows as protection against poison gas. A few people became hysterical and one couple dressed in their best clothes and prayed, waiting to die.

Over the next fifty years The War of the Worlds was rebroadcast several times, causing panic and riots in Chile (1944), Ecuador (1949), and, most recently, Portugal (1988). In some cases, lives were lost. After the crowds discovered that they had been deceived, fear turned to anger and unruly crowds stormed the radio stations, in some cases setting them on fire.

At least four times there were strong suspicions that we had detected radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. This occurred in 1965 with the discovery of Quasars, in 1967 with the discovery of pulsars, the Ohio State Big Ear Radio Telescope "WOW" signal in 1977, and in late 1998 when rumors were spread that a radio astronomer in England had intercepted radio signals from another star. Beliefs that contact had occurred were rapidly dispelled. This type of detection scenario, which closely parallels that which we might expect under the SETI paradigm, generated some interest but did not have significant consequences. Of course, in none of these cases was extraterrestrial life actually found, and we can only guess how people would have reacted if they believed that they had some information about the "aliens" themselves.

How will humans handle contact and its aftermath? These may be among the most profound questions that anyone can ask. Years ago, NASA commissioned the Brookings Institute to grapple with such issues, and its report was presented to the 82nd Congress on April 18, 1961. Certain passages from this report are as relevant today as they were almost four decades ago:

"- While the discovery of intelligent life in other parts of the universe is not likely in the immediate future, it could nevertheless happen at any time. Whenever it does occur its consequences for earth attitudes and values may be profound. Hence a long-term research effort, which would aid in preparing for this possibility, could usefully begin with: A continuing determination of emotional and intellectual understanding and attitudes regarding the possibility and consequences of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial life.

- Though intelligent or semi-intelligent life conceivably exists elsewhere in our solar system, if intelligent extraterrestrial life is discovered in the next twenty years, it will probably be by radiotelescope from other solar systems. Evidences of its existence might also be found in artifacts left on the moon or other planets. The consequences for attitudes and values are unpredictable, but would vary profoundly in different cultures and between groups within complex societies; a crucial factor would be the nature of the communication between other beings and us. Whether or not Earth would be inspired to an all-out space effort by such a discovery is moot: societies sure of their own place in the universe have disintegrated when confronted by a superior society, and others have survived even though changed. Clearly, the better we can come to understand the factors involved in responding to such crises the better prepared we may be. "

In spite of these words written nearly 40 years ago, there have been few attempts to gauge the consequences to our society of unambiguous evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence on Earth or in our solar system. The NIDS Roper poll was designed to help address this problem.


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