February 14, 2015

Should we fear "first contact"?

A Facebook friend posted this article:

Scientists fear ‘first contact’ with aliens because indigenous people usually lose

By Travis GettysSETI director Seth Shostak argued that earthlings must do more than listen for other life forms.

“Some of us at the institute are interested in ‘active SETI,’ not just listening but broadcasting something to some nearby stars, because maybe there is some chance that if you wake somebody up you’ll get a response,” Shostak said.

Shostak and other “active SETI” advocates want to send repeated signals from the world’s largest radio transmitter in Puerto Rico toward hundreds of stars within about 82 light-years of Earth.

However, he admits that some scientists—including physicist Stephen Hawking—oppose “active SETI” as potentially dangerous.

David Brin, the scientist and science fiction writer, argued during the conference against active attempts to contact alien life forms.

“Historians will tell you that first contact between industrial civilizations and indigenous people does not go well,” he told the BBC.
He added this note: "A reasonable concern, Rob?" My response:

Yes and no.

On the no side, it's likely that FTL travel isn't possible. The cost of sending slow-moving generation ships would be prohibitive, as would the cost of conquering the earth. Every solar system probably has enough minerals to satisfy any race without traveling to another system.

On the yes side, even exchanging messages with an alien race would be hugely disruptive. But the disruption might be good rather than bad. It could sweep away old religions, provide answers for climate change and overpopulation, etc.

If you ignore the whole genocide thing, both sides benefited from Europe's contact with the Indians. It could be like that: setting off a new renaissance for the human race. Old-school priests and politicians wouldn't like it, but who cares about them?

To boil it down to the key questions: 1) Does distance make physical contact impossible? 2) Without the possibility of physical contact, would the cultural interaction be good or bad?"The cost of sending slow-moving generation ships would be prohibitive, as would the cost of conquering the earth."

All they would have to send is one really big bomb.
The same issues arise:

1) Why do it?

2) How many resources would it take to build a planet-killing bomb?

3) Even if you've perfected the technology for, say, black-hole or antimatter bombs, is your engineering so good that you can develop automated spaceships that won't break down for hundreds or thousands of years of travel?

4) What kind of culture would go for the "gratification" of destroying another civilization centuries in the future in a cataclysm they can't observe or verify?

Yes, it's possible a planet of insane religious cultists would do anything to destroy a potential rival. Heck, we'd probably do that ourselves if aliens declared that God/Jehovah/Allah didn't exist. But such a planet is likely to destroy itself first--as we're doing a good job of proving.

Overall, I'd say the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The potential gains outweigh the minuscule risks. So I vote for continuing.

The alien bomb scenario

Someone's probably written this story already, but it could be good. Alien race receives our radio and TV transmissions, decides we're heathen monsters, and sends a bomb to kill us. Eighty years later, we receive their reply:

"Eighty years ago we launched a black-hole bomb to destroy your monstrous planet. At near-light speed, it'll arrive in 20 years. Prepare to die!"

The earth has 20 years to get its act together and devise a way to stop the killer bomb. I leave you to plot the rest of the story as an exercise.

Oh, and the kicker: When the "bomb" arrives, it's a hoax. The aliens' latest transmission says:

"A global threat to your planet was the only way to shake you out of your parochial thinking. The only way to unify your planet despite its religious and cultural differences. We learned this from bitter experience.

"Now join us in a confederation of peaceful planets that have overcome their dark impulses and achieved enlightenment. Welcome!"

Good story, eh?Yes I might make the delay more than 20 years. And I'm not sure I'd make the bomb a fake either. It's a test, to see if the inhabitants can cooperate peacefully AND see if they're intelligent enough to solve the problem. Fail on either count and BOOM.Yes, the period could be 50 or 100 years or more. That would make it even more of an epic--the type I doubt I could write well.

And yes, making the bomb real but the intent good might be even more of a twist. "If you couldn't have stopped the bomb, it means you're the kind of race that would've threatened us eventually. As we know from bitter experience, again."

So what's your answer to the question of whether this is a reasonable concern?I think you answered it pretty well. The potential good outweighs the potential bad. I also agree with the comment (I think it was in the article) that anyone advanced enough to be a threat would probably already be aware of us.Another problem...solved!

Who knows aliens better: Stephen Hawking or us? Answer: We do!

For more on the subject, see Why Are Most Aliens White? and Missing Aliens in Star Trek.

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