Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 9.11

WARNING! Today’s Inquisition is an intense two-parter that let’s you be both visionary and sci-fi author. It requires reason and imagination. If you are not prepared to employ both to the point where women want to be you and men want to have your children, please help yourself to a cookie and perhaps some whiskey until your creative juices are flowing unfettered.

In the book Contact, Carl Sagan speculates, within the context of the story, what an initial contact with an alien intelligence would be like; the timing, the logistics, the methods of communication, etc.

What is your best imagined scenario for how initial contact would happen, if at all, and what is your most inventive and reasonable speculation about the nature of extraterrestrial life, given the impact of evolution within what could be billions of different environments?

Again, this Inquisition is imagination-intensive, but still driven by reason and the laws of the universe as we understand them today. Feel free to answer in broad, general strokes, or with a specific fictional scenario, if you wish. Feel free also to build on other commenters’ ideas, if they strike a spark.

And have fun with it.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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53 Comments

  1. I think the most realistic scenario is something a little bit like the beginning of “Rendezvous with Rama” by AC Clarke.

    Rama was a big, honking piece of machinery with a lot to explore in an adventure-like fashion. I think it is going to be more like Voyager. It’ll be something coming at us at super-high speed from a long way off broadcasting a lot of EMF, it’ll come in, take a spin around the sun and shoot back out. With very little shot at capturing it, listening and recording is the best we’re going to get.

    Then we’ll fight about what it means, whether it was divine, and which human populations should go to war over its implications.

  2. A few hundred years from now cultures will have mixed enough and the population will be high enough that as one people we decide to colonize a new world. Many physical, intellectual, and psychological tests will be performed to choose the best candidates. There will be a brief controversy over a reality video program choosing candidates based on yodeling talent.

    Scientists will have found a habitable world a couple of hundred light years away. The problem is that we’ve only developed the technology to travel at 1/2 the speed of light. So we build a combination sleeper / generation ship. For 10 years we gather the knowledge and resources of the entire solar system to build the giant colony ship. Despite the sci-fi fans’ best efforts the ship will not be called “Enterprise”. Due to a PZ-Meyers-esque crashed poll, the ship will inexplicably be named “Bob”.

    Several generations will come and go on the ship. As they travel between the stars these families will maintain the thousands of sleepers and perform astronomy experiments from the prospective outside our solar system. Launching probes, satellites and telescopes of all varieties. There will also be a brief civil war over “Fasten then zip” or “Zip then fasten”.

    After several hundred years The great hope of expanding humanity’s reach in the known universe arrives at Earth Mark II…only to find that someone else got there first. With a collective sigh they turn the ship back to Earth.

    The End

  3. If I was introducing myself to an unknown planet, I’d try to make a reasonable estimate of their ability to hurt me from a distance then work from beyond that limit.

    Here’s how I would communicate (I think this is a pretty unique idea, but I’m sure you folks will blow holes in it). I would pick a convenient star and position a solar-sail-type shutter system on a straight line between me and my eventual pen-pals. I’d then flicker the star with the shutter system (a-la-automated-eclipse) with introductory information.

    I figure the shutter wouldn’t have to be very large (on advanced space faring civilization scale) since the objective star would be a distant point-source (I wouldn’t choose my pen-pal’s own sun, for example).

    If they noticed my chatter and realize I must be fairly close, then came up with a way to return my call… (take a breath) …they would probably be biologically similar. At least recognizable from both perspectives as self-aware biology of some sort.

    I’m betting if we’re drastically different, our communication would likely be just as dissimilar so the whole conversation would never get going.

  4. To answer the second part first: It’s an utter crapshoot, probably. I mean, I don’t know enough biochemistry to know exactly which molecules/compounds have properties similar to life as we know it, which ones bond with which, which ones lead us towards replication, etc. Nor do I know which elements are more common on rocky worlds (as opposed to gas giants), which would seem to be the most likely place for some form of larger-than-microbial life to occur.

    But I’d guess that you’d find proto life making use of whatever’s around in much the same way that life on Earth has done. The things I think would be likely would be bilateral symmetry and segmentation, both of which Dawkins talks about in The Blind Watchmaker in regards to the evolution of evolvability. (In otherwords, those traits that “simplify” form, making efficient use of resources, and also allow for errors of duplication).

    What that end result would be is pretty tough to imagine. If we’re assuming the eventual evolution of intelligence as a prerequisite for the contact mentioned in the question’s first part, then we can confine things to complex, self-aware creatures with bilateral symmetry…probably those whose visual sense is strongest.

    But for extraterrestrial life in general we’re looking at at least as varied a flora and fauna as we’ve got here…coloration being driven by the color of the nearest star’s light filtered through whatever gasses make up each world’s atmosphere. And, given enough time, almost anything is possible, especially since it seems that once life takes hold, almost all niches will be filled.

    In some worlds you have lakes made of liquid versions of elements which are gaseous on ours, and I’m sure you’d find “fish” analogues there. You’d find burrowing or tunneling creatures, perhaps in greater abundance on worlds with larger surface temperature swings than earth.

    There might be worlds where “plants” never evolved past the bacterial or microscopic phase, and where “animal” life might largely be bacteriophages and “carnivores” who eat bacteriophages. Again…anything is, in essence, possible.

    Fascinating question, Sam. Gonna give part one a little thought and answer that soon(ish).

  5. @Al:
    You’re pretty close. The passengers & crew of the colony ship “Bob” turned back because the aliens that got there first wanted to read us their poetry about homeopathy.

    A drip of this to cure me of that!
    Said the dapper homeopat
    Tap on a book,
    and look:
    It absorbeth the memory
    (I stick to that story),
    Now you are one with the egg!

  6. OK. Here’s one scenario I’ve been thinking about lately that dovetails with Part One.:

    A sufficiently advanced alien race might understand the sorts of extremophiles that could survive trips in space, and sort of genetically engineer extremophile “messenger” bacteria to seed throughout the universe.

    They’d be relatively harmless (At least to the race that made them!) but their genetic makeup would bear a sort of “signature” or coded message (perhaps using primes) that would reveal them as unlikely to occur naturally.

    One of our spacecraft goes up and chances to pass through a conglomeration of these bacteria (perhaps by landing on a planet or moon that has been seeded, perhaps some other way).

    When we recover the craft, we check it out and see that it has these bacteria all over it. We examine them, see the message, and recognize it to be the product of some intelligence that is not ours.

    We may not be able to reply in kind, we may not be able to comprehend any more detail than the whole “unlikely to be natural” thing, but I’d say that counts as contact to be sure. To my mind, first contact is almost INEVITABLY one way due to both the extreme distances involved and the likely gap in technological progress between the two worlds…so this seems as likely a way as any.

  7. I think the first question is: do they find us, or do we find them? I think the second scenario is more likely, mostly because it allows the aliens to be anything, while the first scenario requires them to be technologically advanced.

    Now, if we ever go exploring outside our Solar System, chances are we’ll be sending unmanned probes, for the same reasons we’ve always had: cheaper, faster, safer, can go on years-long missions… If I’m not mistaken, the main inconvenient for this is that we need technology that can provide a high thrust for a long time, so the probe can reach relativistic speeds and arrive to its intended destination within a reasonable time frame (say, years or decades instead of centuries or millennia). The destination, by the way, will most likely be some nearby star where evidence for Earth-like planets has already been detected. Why Earth-like? Because that’s the only kind of planet we know for sure can sustain life, so that would be the safer bet.

    That’s how I think it’s most likely to happen.

  8. Thanks, @Sam.

    It has the additional benefit of being fairly private (only those in the shadow see the signal).

    While private on a solar system scale, I would still be broadcasting to the whole planet (more or less), so I would avoid all of those political-boundary concerns. I’d find out from the reply if the planet was mature enough organize a single reply, or were still in the bickering stage of evolution.

    I also like that it takes few resources and little energy. You work the shutter, the star provides the carrier signal for free.

  9. Part one:
    Making the assumption that an extraterestrial species that had come all the way out here to visit us would have spent a great deal of time observing us before making contact (and also that they didn’t want to just eat us or something) they would know that our species would probably self destruct if they just landed on the white house lawn and said hi. I think the most logical method of contact would be to make a connection through one of our robotic exploration systems. Imagine the guys at JPL getting an image download from the Spirit rover showing a group of aliens holding up a hello sign and waving.

  10. People of Earth,

    Have you ever had problems with pesky pollution? Is your air a little thicker in your lungs than you would like? Are your ocean’s a bit more black than you would like? Is the last tree a little limp?

    Well then do we have a deal for you. It’s an air scrubber, a water washer and a plant perker. It will clean your atmospher to a visability of 3 miles, your water to a clarity of 2 feet and will replant devestated forests and crop lands. Now how much would you pay for this little baby?
    $3 trillion, $4 trillion maybe even, dare I say it $10 trillion dollars?

    WELL, put your money down because if you act fast you can restore your shattered environment and save the lives of the hundreds of thousands of your remaining race. FOR ONLY 2$ tillion dollars (per person).

    AND IF YOU ORDER NOW. WE WILL THROW IN ABSOLUTLY FREE OF CHARGE A COMPLIMENTARY DEMUTIFICATION DEVICE. That’s right. Clean up your sperm and ova and no more three eyed blood drinking offspring.

    All of this can be yours but you MUST ACT NOW.

    Please beam orders to:
    Wrecked Planet Restoration
    Orion Nebula
    Spiral Arm
    Milky Way Galaxay 01110011010110
    MC/Discover and Pay Pal Accepted.

    Not for sale where restricted by law.
    an equal opportunity employer.
    Corporation of Delaware.

  11. I have no imagination today and I’m in a funk so I’m going with a swift end of the world as we know it scenario.

    Well if “they” get here first I imagine big wasp like creatures with a strong exoskeleton that is impervious to radiation and most chemicals. They’d have a hive intellect like in ‘Enders Game’ and most humans would be left laying around with their heads bitten off and the rest of humanity captured for use as a food breading colony.

    Just seems that the energy and resources to make interstellar space travel possibly would require an insect like dedication to non stop work, an unthinking sacrifice to the common goal and a massive combined intellect. WE ARE DOOMED!!!!!

  12. Whatever aliens might end up being, I’m sure they’ll look a lot more realistic than the stuff on TV. Take the Borg for instance. They’ve got all this nanotechnology and still manage to look like car-wreck zombies with a leather fetish. Sheesh. I mean, if I had nanotech at my disposal, I’d at least have a decent tan.

  13. Big-brained ETs will send robots out to explore the galaxy for them. Sophisticated, self-repairing (i.e. immortal) robots who will arrive quietly, decode all our languages by monitoring our communications for a few minutes, alter their forms into acceptably humanoid shape, and mingle among us for years unnoticed, learning everything about life on earth. Then they’ll transmit this information to their home civilization and move on in their knowledge-gathering quest, and we’ll never even know they were here.

    Come to think of it, this may have already happened.

  14. @James Fox: Ideally, yes. I would think that decent nanotech would result in a species of people that looked like supermodels (or the alien equivalent) who are perfectly healthy, disease-free, intelligent and emotionally stable. Golf and sex will likely be two of the primary pastimes. Of course, golf courses will need to be made more difficult to compensate for their near-perfect golf swing. I’m not even going to speculate on nanotech-enhanced sex.

  15. I think it would most likely go something like this:

    Human: My name is Tom.

    Alien: Qe%! lsb9(-_j lk”{ UF W8e.

    Human: My…name…is…Tom.

    Alien: Qe%!…lsb9(-_j…lk”{ UF…W8e.

    Human: MY…NAME…IS…TOM!!!

    Alien: Qe%!…lsb9(-_j…lk”{ UF…W8e!!!

    [Both look at each other, confused, then shrug and walk away…]

  16. I doubt we’ll be able to ever communicate in an effective manner with a different species. I mean, what are the odds another species will even use language and images to communicate? They could have pheramone language like bees or some form of subtle body language. Weirder stuff than that, too.

    I just picture alien life being so bizzar. Think of Carl Sagan’s “Floaters” from Cosmos. Imagine a planet of those, communicating by low frequency pressure waves in the atmosphere like whalesongs. How would we say “hello?”

  17. imagination-intensive, but still driven by reason

    That’s my problem right there. Based on my understanding of the laws of nature as we know them, it seems likely to me that the galaxy could be swarming with intelligent, technological species, and none of them would ever, ever, ever stumble across another one.

    Remember that as we look out across space, we’re also looking back in time. Suppose that SETI picked up an unmistakably intelligent signal from a star 50,000 light years away. That means that the signal was sent 50,000 years ago. It’s not even there anymore, and the senders of the signal, if they still exist, are as far removed from their ancestors as we are from the beginning of fully human consciousness. We’re all just ships passing in the night. The phenomenal scale of the universe means that not only can’t we reach each other, we can’t even see each other.

    Imagine two very tidy renters on opposite shifts who share the same apartment. Even if you can see evidence that someone’s been there, you’re never in the same place at the same time.

    In other words, it’s not just that we need FTL speed to reach a particular XYZ coordinate in space; we need FTL+time travel in order to reach a particular XYZT coordinate in spacetime. And the same restrictions would apply to our friends 50K LY away.

    And that’s why I maintain that, had the saucer not crashed, the Roswell alien’s message to Earth would have been, “Take me to 79 Wistful Vista. I must warn Mr. McGee not to open the hall closet. It is overfilled, and poorly packed.”

  18. I think we may be able to receive (or transmit) messages using high energy lasers, but as mentioned in a previous post, they will be from thousands, or perhaps millions of years ago. Then we would have to translate them. Hopefully, they will provide some sort of (math based?) Rosetta stone.

    That being said, I am certain the first message received would be, “Hey, what did you guys use for the value of ‘Fi’ in Drake’s Equation?”

  19. I had a dream a couple of weeks ago where these giant space ships landed on Earth and opened up to reveal shopping malls inside. The people of Earth all rushed in to find the best deals on Demutification Devices and other products made with “Space Age Materials.” While the people were enjoying their venti buggalo lattes and nano-technology driven sexcapadedes the doors suddenly shut and the ships rocketed back to the home planet. Turns out (Shock!) they wanted to eat us.

    I thought it was pretty cool of my subconscious to come up with such an ingenious of enslaving the human race, but was dissapointed in its use of the hackneyed “they secretly want to eat us” plotline.

    Oh well, win some lose some.

    And BTW I totally got caught in the trap. I just couldn’t resist the nano-technology sexcapades.

  20. I think that it would go something like the European invasion of North America, but a little more deliberate. They would send there livestock and disease-ridden corpses to our planet to kill us all. Then they would take whatever resources they want.

    Or maybe they would be nice about killing us all by infectious disease – who knows?

  21. I dreamt once about Earth being invaded by an alien species with technology not that far beyond our own; they made use of spacecraft shaped like two thin metal toroids, one large in diameter below the other and with reinforcing struts running between them. Somehow the two connected rings acting in concert could allow it to defy gravity. Suspended from these crafts on cables like paratoopers or the baskets of hot air balloons were cargo containers filled with air and ground assault vehicles. Their air fighters sloerly resembled fighter jets although elongated and pointy everywhere possible, mostly gleaming white with red lining on every moving part. The ground vehicles were tanks with huge spherical tires on short but flexible “arms” so it could more effectively climb over debris. They made limited use of robotic ground drones which were actually more primitive in some ways than ours; Most were simple wheeled cylinders with gun turrets, some were enormous steel cylinders with multiple independent turret segments stacked like a totem pole, with tank treads on moving armatures at the base.

    The aliens themselves were eight feet tall and typically thick in the middle, thought not fat. They constantly wore reflective pressurized helmets contoured roughly to the shape of their heads. I suppose due to vanity and growing up on alien invasion films I dreamt that they were so certain that we would pose no threat that they sent only a small branch of their already stretched thin military to deal with us; as a result we handily beat them, their jets being comparable to ours and their tanks and robots being susceptible for guerilla attacks using RPGs and grenades.

    When we finally busted a tank and pulled the bodies out, the first thing we did was to take off their helmets. They looked more or less like humans, but each with a thick mane of red hair encroaching on the edges of their face, thick mottled skin coloration near the hairline on all sides, Very pale blue eyes, large sharp canines, and stubby claws where their fingernails should be.

    I woke up before my unconscious mind could summon an explanation but I fancy the idea that they were a further evolved strain of humanity from an alternate reality which had embarked upon a campaign of interdimensional conquest, but only of all the parallel earths. I should write a book or something.

  22. @slxpluvs “I think that it would go something like the European invasion of North America, but a little more deliberate. They would send there livestock and disease-ridden corpses to our planet to kill us all. ”

    Ever read David Gerrold’s series about alien invasion by ecolological means, “The War Against the Chtorr?”

    Why use an army when you can just send in your ecology (or a bioengineered nastier version of it with a genetic ‘off’ switch) to do the job? You just move in when it’s all over. No muss, no fuss, no alien corpses to deal with – they were fodder.

  23. @Improbable Bee: Well, if you saw the movie, there was one alien where all you could see was her foot, because of her size that Ford was talking too at one point, I think it was the movie, it may have been the miniseries. Also star wars had aliens of a variety of sizes ranging from the 7+ foot tall wookies to the under 4 foot ewoks and jawas. Star trek’s final series (so far) “Enterprise” featured an intelligent alien race of whales. Mostly I think the limit is partly economics (you’ve got to be able to fit a guy in that suit somehow) and partly a limit of our imagination. It is one of the major reasons Carl Sagan never shows the aliens in Contact (or so I’ve heard).

  24. I might also add that it might be because in an attempt by Science Fiction to be somewhat more realistic than Fantasy, SciFi authors try to avoid the overly fantastical. The universe may be more accurately described by being populated by the creatures in Lotr than those in Star Trek.

  25. Well, some of ST’s problem is/was budgeting and schedules. When you’re under the gun to push episodes out the door, you end up going cheap and fast. One of the few really alien-looking aliens in TOS was the Horta. It looked like an animated pizza to me…

  26. Seriously though…

    Just like there are convergent evolutionary pathways (and the resultant similar-but-different fauna) on evolutionary separate continents, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same held true with intelligence.

    Human-level intelligence evolved (my not-biologist guess) to make it easier to get, store, and eat large quantities of food, which makes it easier to get, have, and enjoy more and more sex and offspring.

    Analogous to how ants evolved to pretty much the same thing on different continents, I bet that intelligence evolves to pretty much the same thing on different worlds with similar conditions.

  27. @killyosaur42: Yeeeeess … that was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. ;) I sort of guessed that it might have to do with the humans playing them. You know what I mean, though … we have trouble envisioning sentient, communicative aliens that aren’t humanoid, insectoid, or … um … lizardoid? Reptilian! I think that’s the word I want.

    Except, of course, for the super-intelligent shade of blue. Huzzah for Douglas Adams! :D

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