First encounter…final contact?

October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment


“Historians will tell you that first contact between industrial civilizations and indigenous people does not go well.”

This comment was made in an interview with BBC News by David Brin, notable science fiction writer and opponent of a plan proposed at a meeting of the American Association for Advancing Science to seriously pursue contact of extraterrestrial life. The leader of this project and director of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) institute, Dr. Seth Shostak, believes that there may be life beyond the Milky Way, and that there’s a respectable chance that it’s friendly. If intelligent life had wanted to destroy us, he says, they would have certainly done so by now. While Dr. Shostak is eager to hear from aliens and inform them of our culture, others are quite hesitant and believe the ramifications of such communications might be disastrous. Brin believes that, at the very least, a preliminary risk assessment is necessary; sending messages into space without conducting such an assessment beforehand only displays our “arrogance.”

This made me wonder, would aliens think that humans are arrogant or selfish? If they understood the history of our civilizations, would they consider us to be benevolent at all? We have not been very kind to our own species; many believe we will lead ourselves to our own demises simply by our self- serving nature. This is why I find it difficult to believe that humans would ever be able to happily trade information or technology with an alien species for mutual benefit if any contact was ever to be made. No, it’s not as simple as that. We, as a species, seem to taint most of what we touch—whether it be land, air, animal, or sea. Shostak made it clear that he expects the destruction and violence to come from the extraterrestrials, that it would be their intention to eliminate us first. I disagree; it’s not the aliens we have to worry about. Even if we allow ourselves to believe that our noble purpose is only to learn and discover more about the cosmos, we are an inherently ambitious and power-hungry race. Brin’s comment about “civilizations” versus “indigenous people” demonstrates our self-centered tendencies and our desire to control, colonize, and own. Even though I doubt we would take it to that extreme, this mindset is certainly not a solid basis upon which to form a functioning friendship or partnership. So while Brin definitely has reason to be concerned about the fate of future human generations in the wake of extraterrestrial communication, I think the aliens have just as much to worry about on their end. Though Dr. Shostak thinks ET life that knows of our existence may not want to “obliterate” our planet, we haven’t met them yet to extend the same hospitality.


The Arecibo Message (below) was broadcast from the Arecibo Observatory (above) in 1974. This telescope has been used by the SETI program to search for alien life and technology.


This is not the first time scientists have attempted to contact alien life; in 1974, the Arecibo Message was sent into deep space in an attempt to relay information about humankind to potential intelligent life. With programs like the one proposed by the SETI institute, we can rest assured that contact attempts will continue to be made. Even though this program may not seem to be addressing an urgent need of mankind, I guess it can’t hurt to be prepared. What remains to be seen, however, is whether our first meeting with space life will be our final encounter intelligence ever simply because of human nature.

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-Bushra Rahman


Tiny Aliens

October 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

Water. Over 60% of our bodies consist of it. Without it, we can barely survive for a week. And under certain conditions, that number decreases drastically.

In space, water is potential. Water signifies the possibility of life. Even if it does not necessarily support life on its own, it gives us hope that we may be able to venture out to some distant place and survive there. So the prospect of water in space is exciting. No wonder we spend so much time looking for it.

Cassini-Huygens, a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, was launched in 1997. It made its way to Saturn, arriving there and establishing orbit in 2004. In 2005 it made its first flyby of Enceladus, the sixth largest moon of Saturn. The images captured intrigued scientists. Enceladus shot up to one of the solar system bodies of greatest interest. What scientists saw, or they thought they saw (there was a lot of background noise) were icy plumes coming up from the southern pole of the moon. The question was: is it water?

Subsequent flybys yielded information that allowed scientists to announce strong evidence for a regional sea in 2014. In September 2015 new gravity data turned this regional sea into a global ocean. Scientists believe that Enceladus’s wobble as it orbits Saturn can only be accounted for by the presence of a such a body of water.

Just two days ago, Cassini made a historic flyby, just 30 miles off the south pole of Enceladus. It’s the probe’s deepest dive into the icy plume. Besides taking some great photographs, the probe collected a droplet of water. That drop is now being analyzed, with scientists interested in finding indication of molecular hydrogen. Such a find would confirm a geothermal energy source on the moon’s surface. The amount of molecular hydrogen detected will reveal the scope of geothermal activity.

So what now? Well, the the collected information will take months to process. A final flyby will occur on December 19th, during which Cassini will measure the amount of heat radiating from the moon’s interior.

While Cassini does not have the capability to detect life, the amount of geothermal activity will provide insights into how habitable the oceans really are. Enceladus may be one of the most likely candidates to host microbial life in the solar system. It would be something akin to certain types of microbial life present on Earth. These life forms feed off of chemical reactions between rocks, as well as radioactive decay.

The life we might find on Enceladus may not be intelligent, but, ladies and gentlemen, this could be first contact.

Confused Vulcan


October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

“Your Majesty, have you had a chance to look through the etiquette handbook that the Kadarowo so kindly sent to us?”

“Hmm..I may have flipped through a couple pages.”

“Your Majesty! We are meeting with the Kadarowoan Prime Minister tomorrow! This is the first time that any species from Mars has agreed to make contact with us. If you offend him, the entire race may just decide to ignore us and do business with the Americans instead!”

“The Americans? Heavens forbid… Alright, just give me some of the key pointers so that I don’t have to read through the entire stupid thing. It’s over five hundred pages long!”

“Very well Your Majesty, we can start with the greeting process first. When meeting a Kadarowo for the first time, you must never look him in the eyes.”

“Well where the hell am I supposed to look?”

“At his seventy-fifth ear Your Majesty, it is considered to be polite.”

“How in the world am I supposed to find his seventy-fifth ear?”

“You count, Your Majesty. Using your eyes.”

“Don’t get snarky with me, Oxford. I will exile you to Russia.”

“My apologies, Your Majesty. Moving on, you greet the Kadarowos by rotating your left foot in a counter-clockwise motion in their direction. When exchanging hellos, you must never speak above a whisper. Their hearing is extremely sensitive because of their three-hundred and twenty nine ears.” “When the Kadarowo has acknowledged your presence, you are allowed to grasp his antennae, located next to the fifty-second ear, as a symbol of shared trust and unity.”

“That sounds…oddly sexual, Oxford.”

“Your Majesty, don’t be ridiculous! This is all common Kadarowoan custom. I am told that their dinner parties last for several days because of the introduction process.”

“All right, let’s just finish this. I have a pizza party to attend to at six o’clock.”

“We may now move on to the sacrificing of the turtle.”

“What the- Why would we sacrifice a freaking turtle?”

“Your Majesty, I see that you have not looked through the handbook at all. The Kadarowos believe that every introduction to someone new is considered to be a blessing from their Goddess, Shakira.”

“Shakira? Isn’t that the sing-”

“The name is merely a coincidence, Your Majesty. They thank Shakira by sacrificing in her name her least favorite animal, the turtle.” “After we sacrifice the turtle, we must paint it’s shell with the colors of the Kadarowoan flag: Cerulean, Razzmatazz, Pewter, and Yellow.”

“I don’t even know what a Razzmatazz is, Oxford.”

“After we have painted the turtle, we may move on to the process of ‘The Fire Dance.'”

“Okay Oxford, you know what? This is ridiculous! We don’t need those Kadarowos and their stupid customs; they’re too different from us. Also, it’s 6:10. There’s probably no cheese pizza left. I have to go, Oxford. ”

“Your Majesty! But the Prime Minister-”

“Goodbye Oxford!”

“Hello Mr. President, this is Oxford. Yes, as we expected, the King believed the “Kadarowoan customs” and has run away. You are now free to continue negotiations with the Kadarowoan people. I expect the money we discussed to be deposited into my bank account by the end of this week.” “It was a pleasure working with you, sir.”


Travel Through Space and Time is Lonely for Everyone (Except Andre 3000)

September 18, 2015 § 1 Comment

It isn’t easy being a protagonist in science-fiction literature about time or space travel; loneliness often seems to be a precondition to their lives.

Sometimes, this loneliness is unavoidable: a solitary ten-year-long spaceship ride will probably make you miss other people, and it’s always difficult to develop a robust social rapport with people thousands of years in the future, with their unrecognizable languages and inexplicable habits. Frequently, however, these lonely types are surrounded by people like them as they hurtle through space and/or time – they feel they way they do because of some distinct characteristic or internal bent, something that sets them apart from the others.

Now, these lonely characters aren’t a distinctive trait of science fiction; fiction writ large is full of lonesome brooding adventurers – Ishmael immediately comes to mind, from what many consider to be the Great American Novel. So don’t take this acknowledgement as a critique or judgment of value. Besides, prose fiction naturally invites a certain degree of internality and solitariness – the very act of reading is about silently constructing an internal world to which someone who is sitting a few feet from you would have no access.

However, science fiction doesn’t just exist as prose literature, so we can look at other artistic forms of science fiction to determine if the genre is actually more lonesome. To my mind, the most obvious alternative form to consider is popular music: not only does a fruitful history of science fiction music exist, the artistic form of music is fundamentally oriented toward communal interaction in way that literature isn’t. Music almost begs to be heard alongside others, which is one of the reasons why many concerts can outdraw even the most popular book reading.

But, upon a quick glance at some of the “classics” of the science fiction musical genre, the sense of loneliness found in the literature is still present. David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” tells the unnerving story of an actual severing of connection between an astronaut and ground control, and, in doing so, actively creates a scene of inescapable solitude, soundtracked by distant instrumentation that reiterates that lonely void. The narrator of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” explicitly talks about missing his wife and kids while on a “long, long” trip to Mars. Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” tells of a time traveler who, because of his inability to communicate with other people, brings about mass-scale destruction.

So, perhaps the genre of science fiction simply invites this solitude – this wouldn’t necessarily be that surprising. Space and time are both inconceivable massive expanses that can’t help but make a person feel somewhat insignificant and alone. Additionally, the core demographic for science fiction is often thought to be primarily composed of socially uncomfortable – regardless of the accuracy of this notion, it has at least been a prevalent stereotype.

However, a notable exception to the loneliness of science fiction music can be found in Outkast’s “Prototype” and its corresponding (and hilarious) music video. The song and its video depict and alien version of Andre 3000, who looks just like the regular ‘Dre 3K except with a terrible blond wig, landing on what seems to be Earth with his crew of shipmates; within minutes, Andre and an earthling woman have seemingly fallen into passionate love. While video is ridiculous and only really enjoyable for its absurd kitschiness, “Prototype” serves as an interesting departure from the loneliness of space travel. Everything in the video is utopian; Andre, his crew, and the Earth woman are existing peacefully and lovingly as a community only moments after arrival, a significant departure from the paranoid loneliness elsewhere seen. This apparent love is the opposite of traditional loneliness.

While extrapolating from a single case is dangerous, I think it is worth pointing out that Outkast is a hip-hop duo, while the previously cited musicians were classic rockers. Arguably, diverse participation in science fiction could allow for such shifts in tone and subject from classical models to new iterations. This theory of a shift from lonely, exceptional protagonists being propelled by diverse participation is further supported by artists such as Janelle Monae, an R&B singer who has produced some fascinating love songs within a science fiction framework.

Therefore, by enabling more diverse participation within the genre, the music of science fiction is perhaps finally being utilized to exhibit an imagination of communal connection across space and time. Whether or not the literature of science fiction has enacted (or should enact) such a broad shift away from loneliness, however, I’ll leave that up for debate.

— Lucas Hilliard

Blog 7: Alien Life and Its Characteristics

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Just how foreign and novel could life be in the universe? To me this is not a valid question for two reasons: one, the scientific community has not yet arrived on a clear consensus on what separates life from non-life. Two, to postulate some wild, alternate biochemistry may seem like a legitimate stab at the question, but the very process of seeking answers to this exact question invokes a serious logical fallacy.

What is life? The very term is so often tossed around in all registers of speech, from lay to scientific, that a precise definition is difficult to furnish. That is, when presented with a sample of matter, we as humans can quite confidently point to it and declare it as living or non-living based on our experiences interacting with living organisms. However, we are at a loss when asked to elucidate the exact conditions that must be present – and all must be present in order to meet standards of logical rigor – for life to exist. There are a few obvious ones, such as all living things intake and process energy, as well as reproduce. However there are a few sketchier ones such as a criterion postulated in the late 1970s that all life must reproduce without host organisms. This condition would bar viruses from the sphere of living organisms, and to this day, biologists hotly debate whether viruses and viroids should be considered as living. Of course, the whole debate on viruses is just one issue, but if virus-like organisms were to be found somewhere in the cosmos, would extraterrestrial life exist?

It is possible, however, to avoid the whole mess of assigning criteria for living organisms by simply postulating some alternate biochemistries and then accepting whatever peculiar forms of existence may result. In essence, we’d be creating models here: switching a few parameters (like have silicon take the place of carbon, or hydrogen sulfide as the universal solvent in place of water), observing how the system responds to such changes, and then go about our whole process of assigning criteria. However, such a process involves a fatal flaw in our reasoning: namely, our assuming that life has to follow the chemistry presented here on Earth.

The very act of postulating alternate biochemistries assumes that alien life must follow a set of prescribed rules observable here on Earth: that the diverse combination of and interaction among chemical elements in our known Periodic Table underlies life. As basic a principle this may be, according to logical standards such a statement is not an axiom but an a priori statement. That is, without observing other worlds, we assert that we already know the principles that undergird life. However, it is entirely possible that a novel form of life exists that does not even require organic elements, much less atoms at all. Just look at the alien short story ‘Meat.’ What if aliens were composed of both cyber electronics and organic matter, and the ratio happened to be skewed towards electronics? Would they still be considered living forms? Most of us would say no, but biologists would have a field day, arguing back and forth over the extent to which we can be ‘wires and switches’ and yet still be considered living creatures.

Moreover, as ironic as this may seem, our living our whole lives on planet Earth proves detrimental to any creative efforts in wondering about alien life. The continual observation of organisms that operate to a so-called ‘Earth paradigm’ has permanently etched into our minds the prejudice that the ‘Earth paradigm’ is the preferred model by which life evolves. This is merely a case of classical bias, in which our minds are trapped to reason and think a certain way. There is no evidence whatsoever that the ‘Earth’ paradigm – or to a broader extent, the chemical paradigm – must be preferred.

In the end, though, I guess my arguments are simply beating around the bush. If I were to break standards of rigor and wander into my own fantasies, alien life would not even be contained in discrete organisms. Rather, living organisms would be superseded by living systems, vibrating self-contained environments of matter that behaved a single unit albeit scattered physically throughout some vital medium akin to qi, or the Chinese perception of ‘life force.’ If this sounds strange, it’s supposed so. Welcome to my imagination.

Sean Justin Lee

Comedy Central presents: First Contact

November 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

B7:  What might first contact with the “most alien alien” imaginable look like?  I believe the answer lies approximately at the crossroads of two very different stories our class has explored this semester: Poul Anderson’s Kyrie and Terry Bisson’s They’re Made Out of Meat.

In my mind, Anderson’s Lucifer embodies the most alien creature yet encountered.  He is described as a highly intelligent plasma vortex created by “magnetohydrodynamics.” Or for the average reader, a big, colorful “fireball twenty meters across.”

Bisson’s story turns a critical eye toward mankind — and, one could argue, carbon-based lifeforms in general — positing that our existence, which we perceive to be normal because it is all that we know, is actually entirely ridiculous and improbable.  His humorous take leads to the description of a human as “thinking meat” that can communicate by flapping its meat together and passing air through its meat.

So how do these two stories come together?  As somber and poetic as Kyrie is, I imagine mankind’s implied discovery of the plasma vortexes — or the hypothetical discovery of an even more alien race — would bear more resemblance to the incredulous exchange of They’re Made Out of Meat.  Just imagine the pioneering ship’s voyage through the territory of these odd energy clusters, where the human travelers are entirely ignorant of the fact intelligent life is close at hand.  All of a sudden, a crew member (who is telepathic, unbeknownst to him) sparks an illuminating dialogue, which might go something like this:

“Hey, Captain… you know those plasma vortexes we’ve been observing?  Well, this is going to sound absurd, but I think they’re intelligent — er, conscious, maybe?… something along those lines.”

“Come again, Johnson?”

“The balls of energy, sir.  They’re alive.”

“Really? And what, I am curious to hear, causes you to think that?”

“Well, since we emerged from hyperspace, I’ve been getting weird thoughts… things that aren’t mine, like someone else is inside my head.  Strings of images and impressions, if you will, and I just have this gut feeling that they’re coming from the plasma vortexes.”

“Johnson.  I am going to ask you a question, and I don’t want any B.S., understood?”

“Um, yes.  Yes, of course, sir.”

“Do you honestly believe everything you just told me?”

“Yes, sir.  Very strongly, even.”

“Uh-huh… SECURITY!!!!”

Followed by Johnson’s being locked up in the ship’s mental ward.  The fact of the matter is, a hypothetical encounter with such alien life is just too weird to be deliberately characterized as an “encounter” right off the bat.  This street of the bizarre would likely go both ways, as well.  The energy balls would go about for some time confused by the impression of intelligent, squishy things in the moving hunk of metal.

Two races even more different than these two might share the same space for a long period of time without being at all aware of each other’s existence.  Perhaps at some point, one or both races experience the proverbial “Oh sh*t” moment in which they awkwardly become eminently aware of their prior ignorance — it’s made-for-comedy stuff.

First contact with the most alien alien assumes awareness of that creature’s existence, which is by no means certain.  If there is one thing we know about the universe, it’s that there is a lot we don’t know.  So how can we presume that we’d recognize any possible intelligent life when we found it?  There’s a chance that aliens are going about their lives right under our noses, and we haven’t the slightest clue…


How alien can an alien truly be?

November 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

In thinking of the most alien intergalactic creature I can picture, all of the different alien’s I’ve seen in science fiction movies and stories flashed through my mind. From the creature in Alien to the spider-like creature in Tiptree’s “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death,” there have been many attempts to create aliens that frighten or seem truly alien to us humans. However, it’s hard to imagine something that would be extremely alien – if we saw it, would we even recognize it as something we would consider an alien? Or would it have to have some human characteristics or qualities for us to consider it an alien? It could be a gaseous creature on another planet, but invisible to humans – considering it doesn’t have a solid life form, this is probably the most alien of aliens, but we wouldn’t even notice that it was there

So, in thinking of an alien that has some aspect of the human race, the most alien creature that I can envision is one that retains a human shape made of organic molecules, but with frightening and alien differences from the normal human form that we are used to. It’s ‘skin’ is a rubberized crimson red – the alien is not supported by bones but from this malleable and thick skin, thus when it moves it’s more of a blob that has legs reforming every step it makes. It’s able to transform itself into various shapes to squeeze through small spaces, and is extremely fast in its movements. Its head is a translucent red, and you can see its brain and its underlying veins.

The alien is able to produce sounds that are audible to the human ear. In my opinion, if an alien species communicated telepathically or by other means that humans wouldn’t be able to hear or recognize that communication is happening, we wouldn’t be as frightened of the alien because we would think it was not an intelligent species. Overall, the most alien alien that I can conceive is somewhat similar to humans, but has enough differences to be frightening if ever a human encountered it.

-Lexi Zarecky

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