A couple of months ago, an infographic was making its rounds in the Internet titled “Let’s Say (for whatever reason) You’re the First Human Ever to Make Alien Contact”, and I wrote this response almost immediately but neglected to publish it mostly because I wanted to revisit my thoughts at a later date. To wit, it’s certainly a thought-provoking piece and its author raises a number of clever points (peppered with observations). I just can’t shake the feeling that its primary purpose is to provide entertainment and, possibly, elicit conversation. There’s nothing wrong with either circumstance, so I won’t fault the creator, but I certainly advise against taking it seriously. I’m sure it wasn’t exactly intended to be taken seriously but not everyone is likely to catch on. Indeed, it seems from many of the comments that I’ve seen crop up whenever this image makes the rounds, no one has caught on. In other words, it’s full of hot air.
I admit that I really enjoy this sort of thing, and thought games are a fantastic waste of an evening, but I’ll warn you that I have no experience that enables me as an authoritative critic. I just like code, Linux, technology, and building things. I’m neither an astronomer nor a biologist. I’m not a physicist nor am I a mathematician. I enjoy articles written by people much smarter than I, and being a skeptic at heart whenever the masses get riled up about the latest fad, I can’t help myself from examining the subject more closely.
I’ll warn that this article is primarily an opinion piece. There’s no solid information contained within, and it’s even less likely to contain intelligent musings that are my own. Many of the ideas expressed here are just parroted from other sources that have a better handle on the subject (scientific journals, other sites and web personalities, my dad). I can’t credit myself for much more than assembling a handful of disconnected thoughts tangentially related to “first contact.”
So, let’s begin.
First, I want to discuss a little bit about the basic premise of first contact illustrated in the infographic and often repeated in pop culture. It’s wrong. Aliens are not going to make first contact with some random Joe Schmoe on the streets (see below). Instead, they’re much more likely to observe our civilization indirectly, gathering information pertaining to their curiosities, and then–without us ever knowing–they might just leave. That’s right: First contact may have already happened and we’ll never know. Of course, assuming we don’t nuke ourselves back into the stone age or somehow make landfall on a distant star system before our Sun decides to cannibalize its progeny, we might bump into them again. (Hey, remember that planet you came from? We visited you about 200,000 years ago and you didn’t blow yourselves up. I’m proud. Maybe you can make it another 200,000 years?) In this scenario, there’s no point to further discussion. They came, they saw, they left. For most sufficiently advanced civilizations interested in us solely as a celestial curiosity, that’s probably as far as they’ll go (assuming they don’t have proxies). There’s nothing we can provide them apart from satisfying their own scientific curiosity in terms of observing other marginally intelligent life. Well, mostly.
There is one other reason we might make first contact and know it: They need us. I don’t mean they’ll land outside the Whitehouse and start playing sappy love songs, either. If they need us–and I mean really need us–it’s because they’re looking for something. It won’t be oil; hydrocarbons of various grades are moderately common in our own solar system. It won’t be water, because that’s all over the place. It won’t be rock, steel, diamonds, or Russian brides. But it might just be proteins, chlorophyll and other organically-created compounds that aren’t readily available elsewhere. That’s right, they might just be hungry and we’re their next meal. But, I wouldn’t worry myself about this too much. If the aliens are able to reach us here and they want to eat us, there’s nothing we’ll be able to do to stop them outside of giving them a righteous case of heartburn. I know you’ve seen Independence Day. I know you’ve seen other flicks where humans arise victorious in the face of insurmountable odds. I also know you’ve never seen a coup de slaughterhouse, lead by the cattle mutineer, bravely fighting the human tyranny of his people.
Oh, but we’re smarter than cattle, you say. Sure, and I’d bet you’d turn down a trip across the galaxy if the aliens offered it to you with no strings attached (except for the fine print). Think of it this way: The operator of some celestial alien amusement park offers free rides to the first 100 people except that they never return. Maybe that’s the schtick, “Come to Planet Paradise! It’s everything you’ve ever wanted! Stay a while, stay forever!” I’d imagine there’d be droves of people lining up. Limiting travel to the able-bodied would filter out the unfit, disease-ridden subjects rendering (heh…) post-processing just a little bit easier. Bon appétit!
Most likely, though, they won’t be here in person (unless they like really fresh produce). Instead, it’d be more likely and more efficient to send the interstellar equivalent of a factory ship that harvests, collects, processes, and cans organic materials in a single sweep. Heck, I doubt it’d be a matter of packaging “dolphin-free tuna” or soylent green (remember, it’s people! Well, except in the book…). Instead, we might just encounter giant factory ships that suck up all the organic compounds on a given world, process it into a mostly homogenous slurry, and dispose of anything they don’t want as waste. I’ll bet you’ve never seen a pooping spaceship before, have you?
If you’ve never seen a meat emulsion, I’d highly recommend it so you have a better picture of what I’m talking about. The exception in this case being that it’d be an emulsion of everything evolution has (had?) to offer sloshing about billions of storage tanks at a comfortable -100°C.
Even if they don’t want to eat us, chances are they won’t send a biological emissary (leastwise, one that hasn’t been engineered), and I would find it highly unlikely they’d send a member of their own species–with the notable exception of the “Star Trek Paradox“.
They Sent a Robot Army
One only needs to look outside the periphery of our own planet to catch a glimpse of the most likely sort of first contact: Robotic probes. We’ve sent probes in orbit, to the Moon, to each of the planets (and beyond), and we’re even doing some really amazing science on Mars. If we can do it, there’s no reason more advanced civilizations can’t do it on an interstellar (if not intergalactic) scale. The crux of this argument essentially boils down to first contact being made by cold, heartless probes (again, ignoring bioengineering for a moment) that snap a few pictures and shuttle them back to some central data store for further processing. Then again, such probes might possess a great deal of artificial intelligence and decide we’re not worth it after a few nanoseconds of deliberation.
I can’t say I blame them.
The ironic thing in this case is that, pending a fully robotic canning ship that’s come here for some distant civilization’s next meal, an alien intelligence-gathering probe might be somewhat less hazardous to encounter and a million times more friendly. Well, assuming we could even recognize it as an alien device. For all we know, such probes might be microscopic, or they might even be disguised as a small space rock that happens to be on a really weird trajectory. Bat ‘er up!
They Don’t Want You for Tea
If we can assume for a moment that our poor lost soul who happened to be abducted is aboard an alien vessel, it won’t be for tea. And chances are, our subject won’t make it out alive. If the aliens have taken sufficient interest in poor Mr. Schmoe, it’s probably to examine his biological features further than their highly advanced scanners may be unable to ascertain. Such questions as “At what atmospheric pressure does Mr. Schmoe fail to live at?” or “Can Mr. Schmoe breathe water, sulfur dioxide, cyanide, or any number of substances and at what quantity?” In all likelihood, Mr. Schmoe will just be one poor Schmoe in a sea of Schmoes, all collected randomly to limit statistical outliers, each cataloged from point of discovery to time of death.
This may seem appalling to some, but I want you to take a moment to think about biologists studying a new species for the first time. Biologists first observe, then collect, then dissect. Collected specimens may or may not be returned to the ecosystem from which they were recovered, and even if they were released, they probably wouldn’t have the means of returning home. Likewise, specimens are not always left in one piece. It’s not that biologists want to brutally murder previously unseen organisms as much as it is simply an artifact of science. Sometimes creatures just die because they’re stressed or because they’ve been removed from an environment they’re adapted to and placed inside one they’re not. Besides, sometimes (okay, most times) creatures can’t tolerate being dissected for very long before expiring, and for the most part, complex organisms don’t function particularly well as a disassembled puzzle.
What I’m hinting at here is that no amount of Crazy Glue is going to put Aunt Suzie back together after the Rectoids are done with her. It’s kind of like a human Humpty Dumpty.
While an advanced civilization undoubtedly has techniques to non-invasively examine living organisms, such scanners may not be able to tell the whole story. Neither is observation fully unlimited in its pursuits. Collectively, a variety of tools could be used to determine our chemical composition, what we eat, how we interact, and (very generally) the environmental conditions we tolerate. An astute civilization could deduce a great deal from direct and indirect observations alone, including metrics like population distribution (the relative lack of settlements in Antarctica would indicate we don’t do well below certain temperatures), farming techniques and subsequent food consumption, and technological achievements. But there are very few substitutes for outright killing an organism to determine its absolute boundaries. And, well, few alternatives beat violating its external boundaries to see how it ticks.
Think of it this way: If we encountered a potentially dangerous but otherwise technologically inferior species that was not like us, what would we do? We may try to avoid provocation through direct assault, but if a few of our scientists got killed, it’s unlikely anyone would feel all that upset if we snagged a handful for experimental purposes. And, of course, by “experimental” I mostly mean “figure out the quickest way to kill these things in case they get out of hand.”
Now, imagine going up against a primitive organism that was dangerous and bred like rabbits. You scoff, but with almost 7 billion people on the planet, “dangerous bipedal apes with rabbit-like reproductive skills and access to weapons of mass destruction” sort of fits the bill. Who knows? Maybe the aliens coming here are a sort of cosmic Orkin man hired to get rid of a human infestation.
The Star Trek Paradox
I have no idea if this is a “thing.” In fact, it probably isn’t, because I doubt anyone outside sociology would be
dumb enough to think this one up. On the other hand, because rule #34 of the Internet applies surprisingly well outside the realm of smut insofar as “if you can think of it, it exists,” this probably is a thing. If it’s not, it is now.
The paradox essentially goes like this: Civilization A has had X decades/centuries/millennia to think up crazy ways to greet less advanced civilizations. They stumble upon evidence of Civilization B. They observe Civilization B. Then, for whatever reason–maybe it’s because B makes some killer pork ribs or because B just discovered the Warp Drive–A decides to make contact. Maybe they remember that one time some four thousand years ago when they collectively thought “It’d be rad if aliens totally landed on our capitol building and started doing a jig.” Maybe it’s a spur of the moment thing. Either way, in spite of their ridiculously advanced technology and capability to annihilate B a million times over without so much as breaking a sweat, they decide to plop down in a vacant parking lot outside a truck stop just to say “Hi.” It doesn’t make much sense, because the backwards Bs are of absolutely now use to the Awesome As.
Now, this isn’t so much a paradox as much as it is a plot device to explain where Vulcans came from and to provide TNG: First Contact with a semi-believable story arc–if you can believe all aliens look exactly like us and have all of the same features. That said, having the technology to silently observe any given civilization from the safety of your own roost hundreds–if not thousands–of light years away only to pop out of the shadows like gleaming targets for a bunch of bucktoothed hillbillies (who undoubted hold a bit of a grudge against aliens anyway since they swear their Uncle Bob was abducted a few years prior and probed in the anus with a phallic metal object) sort of doesn’t make any sense. Paradox or not, it seems a bit like suicide, or perhaps their culture views such vulnerability as a sign of peace.
I can only imagine the end of human civilization beginning with the phrase: “Hey, ya’ll, they isn’t one of us!”
The Star Trek Paradox neatly outlines the implausibility that a civilization would just happen to show up the moment we make a ground breaking discovery–or for any reason, really–just because they happen to think “it’s time.”
First, while we haven’t yet invented a warp drive, the destructive specter of atomic weaponry has existed for more than half a century. One might think that it would be more pertinent to visit a promising civilization before it annihilates itself, thus ushering in an era of peace and prosperity (or speed up the process by provoking our benefactors into doing the dirty work for us). Second, just because a civilization might suddenly be capable of transiting among star systems doesn’t mean it’s any more “ready” than it was previously. It just means that civilization is capable of bringing its bad habits with it even further than before. Going from Earth-bound to the-galaxy-is-our-playground overnight isn’t going to suddenly change our behavior, and if you disagree with that sentiment, I’d like you to ask American natives how that whole European thing worked out for them.
I could be completely wrong since I’m not an alien, but the Star Trek Paradox is something that makes little rational sense and probably has even less bearing on reality.
What if it Happens Anyway?
So, let’s just assume first contact happens anyway either because of the Star Trek Paradox or because these aliens are feeling exceptionally cheeky and get their jollies out of scaring the organic refuse out of lesser species. The question is: Do you need to know math?
The answer: No.
Before I explain why, I’d like to point out that the infographic (linked earlier in this post) has a single, very significant contradiction. First, it suggests the aliens contacting us would possess technology so far beyond anything we can comprehend that we’d be better off doing nothing. Then, it suggests that we would need to resort to demonstrating some capability of math and scientific understanding as if they’re completely oblivious to everything we’ve done. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it; if an alien civilization were to make contact (with good intentions), you can bet they’d observe us to gain a better understanding of our capabilities.
Instead, they’d watch the construction of buildings and roadways, which demonstrates a knowledge of architecture (and by extension trigonometry) and engineering. They’d observe aircraft and satellites, both of which demonstrate aeronautical progress beyond a simple “sticks and stones” society. They’d detect radio emitters peppered across the planet and probably try to decipher it. But perhaps most importantly: Their advanced technology wouldn’t preclude a basic understanding of sociology and behavioral patterns. Indeed, they might try to determine who the leaders were and make contact with them directly. After all, if their civilization were anything like ours, it would behoove them to avoid abducting a random stranger wandering the woods late at night. While such a person would be representative of the general population (and what they know), such a find is mostly useless outside of playing biologist (see above).
Leaders have a certain amount of influence over their tribe. Think about human history and instances where first contact was made between various civilizations. Invariably, the leadership of those making landfall sought out the leadership of whatever natives they encountered. Of course, they mercilessly slaughtered them in most cases–or in the case of the Chinese, abducted the king of Sri Lanka to personal apologize to the emperor for insulting his troops–but generally speaking, enterprising explorers often sought out leadership. There are exceptions, mind you, but fortunately most of those involved sport–like hunting.
To this extent, the old first encounter joke “take me to your leader” and its derivatives might not be so far off. Assuming some backwater hillbilly happens to be the target of our future encounter with aliens, it’s doubtful that he or she will need to be well versed in binary arithmetic or anything else. Considering the absolute shock of encountering a highly advanced race for the first time, it probably wouldn’t matter if the subject of our discussion was a mathematician or not. For something as historic and important as a first encounter that could potentially change the fate of our species, most people would probably have the first reaction of running to the hills.
“Z’katek. You did it again. You scared them off.”
“I know, B’thuk. So much for asking directions to the nearest fueling station.”
Joking aside, if a civilization isn’t bent on destroying us and is genuinely curious about the human species as a whole, I can almost completely guarantee that we will likely never encounter them. Indeed, I suspect that they would be more likely to observe us at a distance, gather whatever it is that suits their curiosity, and then leave. They might take a memento or two, and not the biological sort, so such a circumstance would be punctuated by the mystery of a missing satellite. You can tell quite a bit about a culture’s technology, capabilities, influence, and more by simply snagging a piece of their work. For an advanced society that came here to observe, snagging a satellite might be a perfect sample as it illustrates (roughly) our computing capabilities, communications capabilities, and how we’ve discovered to best align or control objects in microgravity–all of which are important in ascertaining whereabouts on the technology curve human civilization lies.
So no, I don’t think it’s necessary that everyone be well versed in what to do when encountering aliens. Such a discussion is only useful as a thought experiment, nothing more. On the other hand, if the signal to your television suddenly goes blank and no one knows what happened to the satellite (but no doubt there would be some finger pointing at the international level), an alien ship might have just come–and gone–inadvertently ruining your football Sunday dinner party. Unless, of course, they’re here to harvest us, in which case we’re the dinner.