Hey, Vsauce. Michael here.
But what could be out there?
The likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence has been the subject of an equation and the current lack of any communication with aliens the subject of a paradox.
But here’s a different question. If we were to hear from intelligent life beyond earth, what would really happen next?
Well, no government has ever officially adopted a post-detection policy. And when asked how they would deal with
a confirmed message from extraterrestrial intelligence, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs simply said that their job does not
include any issues regarding the question you pose. So are we unprepared? Would chaos ensue? These things are unlikely but the way we prepare for, and anticipate our
species encountering one from beyond earth, is important and illuminating even though improbable.
Historically, we have acted as though alien life exists.
Back contamination is a concern that a
man-made object returning from space could carry with it undiscovered alien
life forms, especially viruses and bacteria that could wipeout life on earth.
This was a serious concern dealt by serious people when we first sent humans to the Moon.
When Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin
returned from the lunar surface, they didn’t immediately hugged their
families and join a public parade. Instead, they were sealed up in
biological isolation garments and flown to a quarantine facility to be locked
away for three weeks, in Houston, Texas. By Apollo 15 the practice was
discontinued but forward contamination has also been a real concern. When NASA sent the
Galileo spacecraft to serve a Jupiter and its moons, it got amazing data but there was a problem.
It had never been sterilized.
Because life, even liquid water, could exist on these moons, NASA made the decision to
avoid contaminating an alien biosphere and the mission was over,
steered Galileo into Jupiter, where it burned up and was destroyed, along with any Earth life possibly. on board.
So protocols and decisions have been officially made in the past under the assumption that aliens might exist. When it comes to actually hearing from aliens, receiving a message from
technologically advanced life forms, capable of sending us say, a radio signal, groups like SETI, the search for extraterrestrial
intelligence, are other ones actively listening. They have an ear to the sky.
And they are prepared. The SETI committee of the
International Academy of Astronautics created a declaration of principles
concerning activities following the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence. No government has officially adopted
any of its recommendations, but if something were to happen,
it would likely be the first place authorities went.
It’s one of the only handbooks they’d have. Seth Shostack explained the
philosophy in atmosphere at SETI, predicting that because verifying a signal is slow, and the media are fast, you will be media
blasted about a possible detection days before the people who find it are
certain it’s for real. In the midst of rampant media speculation, elation and panic on the part of the public, the most likely string of official events, after the discovery of a message from
extraterrestrial life, would follow SETI recommendations.
First of all, the individual or team who discovered the message would continue to assess the credibility of the message and alert all parties to SETI’s declaration.
Next, once they were certain the message was
real, the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams would be alerted, so as to inform observers all over the world. They would also inform the secretary-general of the United Nations, because article 11 of the treaty on principles governing
the activities of states in the exploration and use of outer space,
including the Moon and other bodies says they should.
The first official news we got, the public, would likely be in terms of the Rio Scale.
First presented to the International Astronautical Congress, the Rio Scale measures the significance of consequences of
evidence of extraterrestrial life, making it a likely tool to be used,
because it neatly manages public reaction. There’s a great online
calculator you can play with to see how the Rio scale works.
It takes into account the credibility of the message on a scale from believed extraterrestrial origin to hoax, how repeatable the observation is, what type of message it is, for instance,
is it uninterpretable or clearly for us and how far away it is. Is it extra galactic or near enough that
we could respond and hear back within the length of a human lifetime.
Seth Shostak and Ivan Almar applied the Rio scale to fictional and historical events. It’s a great way to get a feel for
how the Rio scale will affect vocabulary authorities use when reporting on an extraterrestrial message.
They considered the Moon monolith, discovered in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a 6 on the Rio scale – noteworthy. In the movie Independence Day,
the initial unidentified signal would be about 4 to 8, moderate too far-reaching. Once the message is confirmed to be no
further than the Moon and moving, it would be an automatic 10, extraordinary. In real life, the Martian Face, discovered in 1976, was a 2 – low. Until high resolution
images from 2001 revealed it was nothing, just a thing that looked funny
under the right conditions and was immediately downgraded to zero, no significance.
So if we were to receive a message from extraterrestrial intelligence,
those things in those words would likely be used.
But who would be in charge? Although she denies ever being selected
or prepared for such a role, Mazlan Othman, the director at the
United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is a pretty good candidate.
As is Paul Davies, the chairman of SETI’s post
detection task force. Were it to be necessary, both of those
people are in positions to become ambassadors for earth-alien relations.
So what do we say back? Well, if we want to show that we are
intelligent, perhaps we should send back a string of information representing Pi or the Fibonacci sequence.
Or maybe we shouldn’t say anything at all. Stephen Hawking warned, quote, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America,
which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”
And professor Simon Conway Morris, a Cambridge University palaeontologist has said that if the cosmic phone rings, we shouldn’t pick it up. Observations like that are at the core of the importance of
this video’s question. We can learn a lot by looking, not just at how we prepare for
a space message, but how we imagine actual contact with aliens going.
Anthropologist Katherine Denny frequently points out that the ways we
imagine a contact with aliens happening often says more about ourselves than it does any hypothetical aliens.
We do this all the time.
When we project our own
modern-day ambitions and fears onto prehistoric people, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá call that “flintstoning.”
So let’s piggyback off of that phrase and label any projection of modern human
behaviors, desires, anxieties onto futuristic, technologically advanced
beings capable of visiting us “jetsonsing.”
Some examples of jetsonsing involve thinking that any aliens out there
trying to contact us might want to hurt us. Maybe that’s
simply because whenever we have met new people, we often enslave them or pity them or take advantage of them.
It’s also possible to think that aliens will be friendly. They’ll want to help us.
The ways we imagine them helping us say a lot about the kind of help we
think we need. There’s a poetic idea that from space Earth looks peaceful.
All of the boundaries we have put up don’t exist, you can’t see them.
But that’s not entirely true.
The old boundary between East and West Germany is still visible from space,
each side using different lightbulbs.
And this is the boundary between Pakistan and India.
You can see from space India flooding the border with lights to
deter smugglers from bringing across weapons and ammunition.
We don’t all get along together here on earth, we are afraid of each other,
we don’t trust each other and the wrinkles and scars that causes are visible from space.
Imagining how aliens would interpret that,
communicate with us and how we would or should respond teaches us a lot about ourselves.
It makes our struggles strange again.
Less ignorable. And that is the entire point of fantasy. G. K. Chesterton said that the
function of the imagination is not to make strange things settle,
so much as to make settled things strange. And as always, thanks for watching.