How aliens will actually make first contact with humanity, a scientist explains
The head scientist in the international Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence committee explains how Earth's introduction to extraterrestrials would most likely unfold.
The year is 2063 and brilliant scientist Zefram Cochrane has just carried out the first successful test flight of a ‘warp engine’, unlocking the seemingly impossible possibilities of faster-than-light travel.
The warp signature is detected by a nearby Vulcan ship, the crew of which determine that humanity has finally matured enough for first contact. And that – in the universe of Star Trek – is how we become aware of the existence of aliens.
“I don’t think you could rule out such a scenario,” says Prof Michael Garrett, director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics and the current chair of the International Academy of Astronautics Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (IAA SETI) Permanent Committee.
“Any alien civilisation is likely to be significantly more advanced than we are. They could be cloaked.”
According to Garrett, our knowledge of intelligent alien life is more likely to come from an observatory receiving an extraterrestrial signal rather than the sudden arrival of a ship.
In that scenario, organisations signed up to SETI have their own first contact protocol.
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“The first step is verification of the signal by an independent observatory,” says Garrett, who explains that the discovery should be kept secret until wider verification takes place.
The discoverer’s government, and eventually the United Nations, should then be informed, with the news of the contact announced to the public soon after. That is, at least, how it is meant to go.
“Whether the protocol would actually be adopted, I have some doubts,” says Garrett.
“If the signal is information-rich, for example, I think that has much larger consequences than a signal that just points towards there being an intelligent civilisation somewhere out there.
"It will have a value that will become understood by governments very quickly. On some level, scientists have to protect themselves.
"What is written in the protocols may not be what happens in practice.”
Depending on the nature of the alien signal, or whether we would even be able to understand or translate it, there is also the question of whether we would respond.
“It is very difficult to stop people transmitting signals into space,” says Garrett. “And if you had a really advanced civilisation out there, it might not take a lot to transmit a signal that they could detect.
"You will no doubt have small groups of enthusiasts and amateurs that would send signals. But what entitles any group, individual or country to send out messages on behalf of the whole planet?
"That’s where the United Nations’ involvement is important, although currently the UN does not have a view on this.”
In Star Trek, the revelation that we are not alone, that intelligent life exists beyond the stars, leads to a profound change in how the human race sees itself.
It becomes more enlightened, more unified and ultimately more motivated by exploration than war or greed. Whether we would react in the same way remains to be seen, however.
“I think a lot depends on distance,” says Garrett. “If the aliens are within the Solar System, then I think people will be worried. But if they’re on the other side of the Galaxy, I think people would be excited by that.
"Some religious organisations may need to change their doctrines, but most religions are pretty good at accommodating things as they arise.
"I would like to think that if we find another civilisation out there, that it would accelerate our own political maturity, ethics and morality.
"But that’s the beauty of Star Trek – it gives us something to aspire to.”
About our expert, Prof Michael Garrett
Michael Garrett is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Manchester and a visiting professor at the University of Leiden. He is also director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics and the current chair of the International Academy of Astronautics Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (IAA SETI) Permanent Committee.
His research interests include the study of the distant universe via high-resolution radio observations.
Stephen Kelly is a freelance culture and science journalist. He oversees BBC Science Focus's Popcorn Science feature, where every month we get an expert to weigh in on the plausibility of a newly released TV show or film. Beyond BBC Science Focus, he has written for such publications as The Guardian, The Telegraph, The I, BBC Culture, Wired, Total Film, Radio Times and Entertainment Weekly. He is a big fan of Studio Ghibli movies, the apparent football team Tottenham Hotspur and writing short biographies in the third person.
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