by The Physics arXiv Blog
from an alien
could help us
plan a suitable response,
Imagine the following scenario:
A remote radio
telescope detects a repeating signal from a sunlike star a few
tens of light years from Earth.
In the next few days,
other radio telescopes repeat and confirm the observation.
The signal has a high information content that cannot be
produced by any known natural process.
With much excitement
and cautious wringing of hands, scientists conclude that the
signal is evidence of an intelligence elsewhere in the universe.
Amid the global
exhilaration, confusion and concern, key questions emerge about,
the role of
scientists and politicians, the nature of the
advice they give and who should be involved in deciding how
There is little in the
way of precedent to guide humanity.
But today, Peter
Hatfield and Leah Trueblood from the University of
Oxford say that our experience with the
COVID-19 'pandemic' is preparing
us, at least in some ways,
for First Contact.
The researchers point out that the 'pandemic' has many
similarities to a First Contact event, particularly with
the involvement of
scientists, the scrutiny they undergo and their interaction
Of course, there are many
differences too, but the researchers say this unexpected opportunity
can help to develop plans for handling a First Contact in future.
Hatfield and Trueblood begin by studying a variety of previous
efforts to create messages for an extraterrestrial audience.
Some of these were far
from democratic or inclusive. One early example was
the messages carried out of the
Solar System by NASA's Pioneer spacecraft in the 1970s.
These took the form of
plaques attached to the spacecraft.
essentially developed just by Carl Sagan, Frank Drake and Linda
Salzman Sagan over three weeks," say Hatfield and Trueblood.
Some later messages have
been more inclusive...
In 2008, a message
Gliese 581c, an
exoplanet thought capable of
hosting life, consisted of photos, drawings and text messages
gathered by a social media website.
In 2016, the European
Space Agency broadcast 3775 messages from people all over the
world, towards the Pole Star.
But these have all been speculative efforts. A reply to a message
unambiguously from another civilization would garner much greater
But who should compose
such a message...?
Message to the
One way to find out is to ask.
So Hatfield and Trueblood
surveyed an entire nation, or at least a representative sample of
They used a polling
agency to ask 2000 people in the UK the following question with 5
choices of answer.
"Imagine a scenario
in which scientists receive an unambiguous message from
extraterrestrials (alien life forms) on a distant planet.
Of the following
options, which would be your preference in terms of how
humanity's response to this message should be determined?
scientists ... 39%
representatives ... 15%
planet-wide referendum ... 11%
citizens' assembly of randomly selected adults ... 11%
The results suggest a
preference for a science-led response, at least in
And that raises
questions about how such a response might work and how it would
be received by the public.
That's why Hatfield and Trueblood say there are lessons to be
learnt from the current 'pandemic'.
"We suggest that
there are some similarities between the COVID-19 crisis
and a First Contact event," they say.
The researchers say that,
both situations are
fundamentally scientific in nature, both have significant
social, economic and political impact, both affect every human
on Earth and both are "external" threats that put humans on the
same side, in contrast to a world war, for example.
Scientists have played a
key role in the response to COVID-19 but have generally played
second fiddle to politicians...
Perhaps a First Contact
event would pan out in the same way...
The alternative, that scientists take lead, was an option for
have at the start of the crisis completely passed over judgment
lockdowns would be imposed
and raised to an independent body," say the researchers.
But how this might have
worked is hard to imagine.
Even in their advisory roles, the scientists involved have been
subjected to an unprecedented level of scrutiny.
The researchers also
point out that while some scientists were acting as advisors to
government, others were setting up alternative sources of advice,
often in conflict with official recommendations.
This has forced the public to confront the uncomfortable reality
scientists do not
always agree and can even be in conflict...
When this happens,
science can become dangerously politicized.
It's not hard to think that a similar set of circumstances will
emerge during a First Contact event.
And that raises questions
about the feasibility of a science-led response...
The most divisive question is likely to be whether to respond at
There is no guarantee
an alien civilization will be
It could represent an
existential threat to humanity.
On the other hand,
contact could bring huge cultural, economic and technological
benefits to humanity.
Hatfield and Trueblood
conclude from all this that it is crucial that whoever ends up
managing a First Contact event must have public legitimacy.
"One possible way we
believe this could be achieved is by having decision making
driven by a team of scientists nominated by different
jurisdictions (rather than nation states) with broad
opportunities for consultation," they say, adding that the ideal
would be a publicly elected representative who already has
experience with science.
Those kinds of
individuals are few and far between.
will be a huge event for humankind, one that unifies humanity in
some ways and divides it in others...
Our response, and the way
it is handled, will influence our future in ways that are hard to
Our experience with COVID-19 should help us plan...