“When the first message from an extraterrestrial intelligence arrives, our experience with the current pandemic could help us plan an appropriate reaction,” say some researchers.
Imagine the following scenario: a remote radio telescope detects a repeating signal from a sun-like star a few dozen 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 great enthusiasm, the scientists conclude that the signal is evidence of an intelligence in another part of the universe.
Amid the global joy, confusion and concern, key questions arise about the role of scientists and politicians, the nature of the advice that should be given, and who should be involved in deciding how to respond.
There are few precedents to guide humanity. But today, Peter Hatfield and Leah Trueblood of the University of Oxford say that our experience with the current pandemic is preparing us, at least in some way, for first contact.
The researchers note that the pandemic has many similarities to a first contact event, especially in regards to the participation of scientists, the scrutiny to which they are subjected, and the interaction with politicians.
Of course, there are also many differences, but the researchers say that this unexpected opportunity can help develop some plans for dealing with a “First Contact” in the future.
Hatfield and Trueblood begin by studying a variety of previous efforts to create messages for an extraterrestrial audience.
Some of them were far from democratic or inclusive
One of the earliest examples was the messages transmitted to the Solar System by the Pioneer spacecraft in the 1970s. They took the form of plates attached to the spacecraft.
Hatfield and Trueblood said:
“These messages were essentially developed only by Carl Sagan, Frank Drake and Linda Salzman Sagan over the course of three weeks.”
Some later messages were more inclusive. In 2008, a message transmitted to Gliese 581c, an exoplanet believed to be capable of supporting life, consisted of photos, drawings and text messages collected on a social networking site.
In 2016, the European Space Agency transmitted 3,775 messages from people around the world to the Pole Star.
But these were all speculative efforts. A response to an unmistakable message from another civilization would attract much more world attention. But who should write such a message?
The message to the stars
Hatfield and Trueblood surveyed an entire nation, or at least a representative sample of one. They used a voting agency to ask 2,000 people in the UK the following question with 5 answer options.
Imagine a scenario in which scientists receive an unequivocal message from aliens (extraterrestrial life forms) on a distant planet. Of the following options, what would be your preference in terms of how humanity’s response to this message should be determined?
- Team of scientists … 39%
- By elected representatives … 15%
- For a world referendum … 11%
- For an assembly of randomly selected adult citizens… 11%
- I don’t know … 23%
The results suggest a preference for a science-based answer, at least in the UK. This raises questions about how that answer might work and how the public would receive it.
Probably the most controversial question is whether we should answer
There is no guarantee that an alien civilization will be friendly, it can pose an existential threat to humanity. On the other hand, contact can bring enormous cultural, economic and technological benefits to humanity.
Hatfield and Trueblood conclude from all this that it is essential that whoever ends up managing a first contact event has public legitimacy.
They say, adding that the ideal would be a publicly elected representative who already has experience with science:
One possible way to believe that this could be achieved is for decision making to be carried out by a team of designated scientists from different jurisdictions (rather than nation states) with ample opportunities for consultation.
These types of individuals are few and far between. First Contact will be a great event for humanity, which will unify humanity.