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What If Humans Made First Contact with Aliens?

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
For many, it's the ultimate in scientific discovery. Science fiction meets reality, when we humans discover an alien species from another planet. But what would actually happen if we found another life form in another world or galaxy? We're not talking 'alien invasion' here, but with planet Earth making the first move... Are there protocols in place? And what's the plan?

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What If Humans Made First Contact With Aliens?

Dating back millennia, humankind has looked to the skies in search of answers. And long before we had any concept of outer space or our place in this big and often intimidating universe, early civilizations were already projecting stories of larger than-life-beings, gods and heroes onto the stars in a bid to make sense of both life on earth, and the wonders of the night sky. In short, we’ve always looked above for some kind of connection.

At the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, theories on heliocentrism - the belief that Earth and other planets revolve around the sun - began to pick up steam. Inspired largely by Nicolaus Copernicus’ groundbreaking work, “Commentariolus”, leaders of science and philosophy started contemplating what else might exist ‘out there’. With the invention of the telescope and a greater understanding that the place which we called home was just one of many celestial bodies, the most daring minds hypothesized that we might not be alone in the universe. As early as 1686, when Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle first published “Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds”, and perhaps even earlier that that, there has been discussion of not only other planets like our own, but of extraterrestrial life. The more we learned about space, the more plausible this once-outlandish concept became.

Indeed, while one may have once asked “do you believe in aliens?” in the same way you might ask if someone believes in ghosts, given the scale of the known universe, the general scientific consensus in the twenty-first century is that it’s nearly impossible for extraterrestrial life to NOT exist. Astronomers are regularly discovering distant planets that fall within the Goldilocks zone, a potentially habitable zone comparable to our own planet’s place relative in distance and proportion to a star. Then there are various examples of lifeforms found on Earth throughout history which have proven capable of living in truly extreme conditions, encouraging us to acknowledge that life could have grown out of very different circumstances and in ways that are completely alien to us. Based on the incredible size of the universe, and taking into account the many possible variables, increasing numbers argue that it’s both foolish and a bit arrogant if we assume that we’re the only intelligent life to have developed. According to some versions of the Drake Equation, which is designed to estimate the number of advanced civilizations there could be, there might be as many as 4,590 alien civilizations - in our galaxy alone.

So if alien life is all but guaranteed… Where are they and when can we expect to make their acquaintance? Well, there’s no easy answer to that question. The estimates vary wildly from “within the next ten years” to sometime “this century”, while more pessimistic experts suggest that we won’t be making first contact for at least another 1,500 years.

Considering the fact that we seemingly have no idea as to when this inevitability will occur, there are some rather pressing questions that we need to address. Like… How is first contact actually going to happen? How are we as a species going to react? And how will the confirmation of extraterrestrial life impact human history?

For decades, we’ve been trying to establish first contact. We first reached out to the cosmos (or more specifically… Venus) in 1962 with a message in Morse code, which communicated the word “MIR”, which can roughly be interpreted as “world”, “peace”, “village” or “community”. Since then, there have been various messages, radio transmissions, and songs transmitted out into the stars, with the SETI project, the “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, largely leading the charge. The general lack of radio response has earned our universe the nickname “The Great Silence”, but we’ve actually picked up a few weak signals and radio sources over the years. Sadly, most of these were dismissed as naturally occuring, or unfortunate glitches.

If and when we receive a response, however, the very first thing we should do… Is proceed with caution. Leading thinker Stephen Hawking, despite showing great enthusiasm for the concept of alien life, also warned that first contact could very well bring with it devastating consequences.The comparison he used was that of colonization in America. Unfortunately, it’s a little too late to unsend the numerous messages that we’ve already broadcast. Humanity has made its presence known, and there’s no going back. And considering how seemingly ill-prepared we are for a first contact scenario, our enthusiasm to shout “Hey there!” into the depths of space may have been a little short-sighted, in retrospect. SETI does have a rough outline for how we should proceed in a first contact scenario: 1) Verify the authenticity of the signal and rule out natural causes, 2) Contact other research institutions for a second opinion as well the nation’s government, 3) Contact the United Nations, 4) Go public and 5) Discuss before responding.

And that’s pretty much all we’ve got. It’s a rough guideline, but one that isn’t actually legally binding. And even if it were, it’s not like it presents us with much guidance on a global scale. Essentially, humanity isn’t especially ready for the prospect of making first contact, which is what makes the question so scarily open-ended. One would hope that the world would rally together, put aside international differences and act as a unified, peaceful planet to make a good impression, but our track record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Chances are that the United Nations would take the lead, but the various world governments would likely want to make independent preparations, and that’s where things could get really messy.

Of course, it’s also important not to get ahead of ourselves. Yes, first contact could trigger an immediate invasion of epic proportions, but first and foremost, there are more local and grounded considerations. For example, we’re sending communications out into regions of space that we have no way of physically reaching. If we did make first contact, it could very well be with an intelligent species that, like us, are capable of sending long-range broadcasts but are incapable of visiting in person. And honestly… that might actually be the best case scenario. While contact with a hyper-advanced civilization could bring us forward leaps and bounds, with the most optimistic futurists hoping that alien tech could solve our energy, resource, and pollution crises, while also drastically advancing earthly medicine and space travel, there’s something to be said for the safety of communicating from afar.

We don’t need to come face to face with aliens for them to change our lives - even the most basic of confirmed first contacts could change human history and force us to re-evaluate our cultural identity. While the default human response to first contact, as depicted in popular media, has usually been one of fear and violence, one 2018 study should give humanity hope that we, as a species, might actually react better than our storytellers would have us believe. Arizona State University Assistant Professor of Psychology Michael Varnum presented his team’s research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas… And generally speaking, they concluded that humans actually responded well when faced with the possibility of alien life.

First, they ran a program analyzing the tone and angle of articles talking about alien life, and found it to be overwhelmingly positive. Next, they did a case study with 500 people to gauge their responses to the discovery of life. Again... Overwhelmingly positive. In the third part, they did a comparative assessment of the human response to the discovery of life on other planets and the ability to create artificial life, and people were much more afraid of the latter.

Another potentially false assumption about making first contact is that it would necessarily be with a civilization of some sort. As we continue to send probes further out into the depths of space, we could very well encounter non-communicative species of life, similar in intelligence to the animals with which we share our world. In this case, first contact would be far more zoological in nature. And while such a discovery would help us to better understand evolution and the possibilities of life in this universe, the social, political and technological ramifications wouldn’t be nearly as substantial. Then again, it’s also quite likely that the first signs of alien life that we encounter will be very simple microbes or single-celled organisms. It might not be as exciting as an interplanetary exchange of knowledge, but it would still serve to prove that life exists beyond earth.

Ultimately, we cannot predict when first contact will occur, or how it will play out for humans. It could very well lead to a utopian future on Earth, or a place for us in some sort of galactic federation of planets. Alternatively, It could see us wiped out in the blink of an eye for our resources, or made into a slave race. First Contact might be the start of a long-distance relationship spanning centuries before either species develops the tech to actually meetup. Or it could be as simple as microbial confirmation that we’re not alone out there. Whenever it happens though… this world will never be the same again.

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