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Would Contact by E.T.'s Save Us or Destroy Us? – Paper Causes Web Stir

 A recent “scenario analysis” paper — originally thought to be from NASA — considers various scenarios centering on contact with Extra-Terrestrial beings and how said ETs might view us, help us, or deal with us.

War of the WoWar of the Worlds, 1927 reprint in Amazing Stories.rlds psoter
War of the Worlds, 1927 reprint in Amazing Stories.

A certain paper entitled ‘Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis’ has been making the rounds and causing a bit of a hullabaloo this past week. The “controversy” stems from an erroneous attribution of the paper to NASA (originally by the UK’s  Guardian, now retracted), when in fact, the paper — a “thought experiment” — is only co-authored by an intern at NASA’s Planetary Science Division; NASA did not commission nor official “approve” of the paper.

Regardless, the paper is newsworthy for what it is willing to consider, which is the fate of humanity post first contact…or even, without a formal first contact (like, “Hey, we found you! or, “We come in peace!”). By this it is meant that a first contact might be the last contact; we might be viewed as a threat to other alien civilizations.

The authors (Baum, Haqq-Misra, and Domagal-Goldman, the latter being the NASA intern) consider what an advanced alien species — monitoring us remotely — might conclude (and act upon) after detecting changes in the Earth’s atmosphere. Such changes, such as a build-up of greenhouse gases, could be detected through spectral analysis of the Earth, much as human astronomers and astrophysicist make deductions about habitable planets based upon spectral analysis (i.e., spectral lines indicating presence of certain gases).

Earth lights from space
A composite picture of Earth at night, created with data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) Operational Linescan System (OLS). Human civilization is detectable from space.

Optimists or idealists may prefer to believe that the aliens would recognize the signs of a hothouse planet in-the-making, realize that we were in trouble, and come and save us (somehow, as in Starman). Pessimists may be compelled to believe the opposite: that, having so imperiled our own planet, we would then have to move out to other planets — spreading our wasteful/destructive ways as we go — and destroy us before we could do so (like we kill invasive weeds before they spread all over our nice lawns).

Quoting from the paper’s abstract:

“Contact [with Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, ETI] could occur through a broad range of scenarios that have varying consequences for humanity. However, many discussions of this question assume that contact will follow a particular scenario that derives from the hopes and fears of the author. In this paper, we analyze a broad range of contact scenarios in terms of whether contact with ETI would benefit or harm humanity.”

Starting with discussions of the famed Fermi Paradox*, the challenge of interstellar communication, the putative advanced nature of ETIs, the motives of ETIs (selfishness, universalism), and the possible heterogeneity (diversity) of ETIs, the authors then proceed to consider four general, ETI contact scenarios:

Arecibo message
A graphical representation of the Arecibo message – Humanity's first attempt to use radio waves to actively communicate its existence to alien civilizations

1]contact that is beneficial to humanity,

2]contact that has a neutral impact on us,

3]contact that is intentionally harmful to us,

4]contact that is unintentionally harmful to us.

In the first scenario, “benefit” could result from simple detection (without actual contact) of an ETI as this would prove that we were not alone in the galaxy (and perhaps create a unified human identity). Additionally, there is the possibility of any given ETI being cooperative (in regards to our goals) or uncooperative (our goals may not be viewed as necessary or “good” to an ETI; we might see the error of our ways, etc.)

In the second scenario, any ETIs that exist “out there” could remain invisible to us (perhaps by choice) indefinitely, or, they may in fact be noticeable to us (and we to them), but remain “indifferent to us”.

In the third scenario (the most troubling), the ETIs are of one of two kinds: selfish or universalist. In the former case, much like the Vogons in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we would either be deemed a nuisance/obstacle (selfish), and eliminated, or, be deemed a threat to others (universalist), and eliminated (or perhaps just “caged in”).

Finally, in the fourth scenario (which sounds like a movie title), contact with ETIs proves hazardous — either through being a physical hazard (alien germs anyone?), or, perhaps an informational hazard (you think you’re suffering from info over-load now, just wait until the ETIs download their data files into our computers!).

There is also (not mentioned in the paper) the Zoo Hypothesis which asserts that ETIs would regard us much like conservationists here regard a biologically rich ecosystem, or rare species; the putative ETI would thus tend to keep us isolated so as to preserve/protect us from interference, or contamination, by other ETIs. It is akin to the Prime Directive espoused by the Federation on Star Trek.

In any event, until the day verifiable first contact happens, it is all so much fascinating speculation. But it is speculation that has a purpose and perhaps great value to us. Again, quoting from the abstract:

“This type of broad analysis can help us prepare for actual contact with ETI even if the details of contact do not fully resemble any specific scenario.”

Well, dear readers, what do you think about future contact with ETIs? I welcome your speculations and scenarios.

* The Fermi Paradox (or Fermi-Hart Paradox) refers to the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations.

The paper ‘Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis’ was published in the (Direct Science) in the June-July 2011 edition of the journal Acta Astronautica.

Images: (War of the Worlds illustration) Frank R. Paul; (Earthlights) NASA; (Arecibo Message) Arne Nordmann (norro) ; CC – By – SA 3.0




5 comments
  1. James

    If ET’s are more advanced, they overcame their selfish, adolescent, suicidal, “Easter Island ” period and progressed. Thus they would have no interest in us. If the ET’s are less advanced than us, then we will be gone, considering our current political, corporate regression, before they know we ever existed.
    So this discussion is obviously a waste of time. Unless we evolve quickly which, unfortunately, rarely happens.

  2. JohnStClair

    This is the conversation concerning the recent crop circle that appeared in China which can be seen on the earthfiles.com website.

    J.  Hello, this is John of Revelations here on Earth.  How may I
    address you, please?
    A.  Yes, John, you may address me as Madam President.
    J.  We are astounded by your beautiful and huge crop circle or
    and land circle.  Amazing – such straight lines and dug into the earth.
    Can you describe what you meant?
    A.  Yes, of course.  We are delighted to make contact with you.
    It is a symbol of friendship to your people on Earth.
    J.  Thank you so very much.  It has generated much interest
    in China and around the world.
    A.  I see you are not in China.
    J.  No, I am on the other side of the Earth in the United States of America.
    A.   How did you get the picture?
    J.  Master Chow took photographs and posted them on the Internet which is
    our global communications system – not mental telepathy!
    A.  You are very capable in mental telepathy.
    J.  Yes, I have contacted 1200 civilizations in the galaxy including 550 Pleiadian
    Federation planets.
    A.  Oh, my, you are the best on your planet.
    J.  Thank you for your kind words, Madam President.
    Is your science adviser and legal/financial officer there with you also?
    A.  Yes, they just came in.
    J.  Please say hello to them also.
    A.  I did.
    J.  Would they like to say something?
    A.  This is the Financial/Legal adviser – hello!
    J.  Hello.
    A.  This is the Scientific adviser.  Hello.
    J.  Pi.
    A.   What is that?
    J.  Hi is hello, and Pi is 3.14159265 which sounds like Hi.
    A.  That is funny.  So when I greet my committee I will say Pi.
    J.  Most amusing!
    A.  We are all laughing.
    J.  Me too.
    What did you do with the dirt that was removed from the circle?
    A.  Yes, we scooped it up and put it on our mothership!
    J.  Is that for your new garden in space?
    A.  That is funny.  No, in a large storage bin.
    J.  Your crop circle is 2000 meters in diameter, so how large is your
    mothership if I may ask?
    A.  Our ship is 5 times that or 10000 meters long and 5000 meters
    wide and 1000 meters high.
    J.  So I take it that you don’t need a planet!
    A.  Ha, ha.  Yes, we are now on our planet.
    J.  We have some lovely purple and yellow flowers and vegetables
    in our garden that you can plant in that soil.
    A.  No, no.  We have plenty of that.
    J.  Does your circle have a meaning we should know about?  It seems
    Oriental for the Chinese.
    A.  Yes, it does.  It means no matter what path you take in life, you
    always come full circle!
    J.  Oh, my!  That is profoundly beautiful.  May I disclose that
    here to others who will be inspired by your comment?
    A.  By all means.
    J.  I am overwhelmed.
    A.  This has been a great conversation and humorous too.  We have to go.
    J.  All right.  Thank you again.  Over and out.
    A.  Over and out.

    End of conversation.

    John St.Clair

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