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.”


Intelligent life in the universe? Phone home, dammit!

June 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Read Professor Robert Scherrer’s animated discussion of whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe:

In Silence and Solitude

November 15, 2012 § 3 Comments

Silence. And darkness.

They say that space is a vacuum, an absence of light. An absence of sound. An absence of life.

They say that nothing is out there, that a man could go crazy. They say that the silence kills sanity. They say that once you go, you never come back.


Day 1: And so, my journey begins. I am skeptical. What can possibly be out here, in this loneliness? What can there be to see, in this empty blackness, devoid of all emotion?

Day 2: This is a very important mission, they said. I have trained many years for to become a deep space explorer, yet this is the first assignment they give me? To find extraterrestrial life? I don’t even believe it exists.

Day 3: I don’t know why I am still writing in this journal. Nothing new has happened. Nothing new ever happens. When they sent me on this journey, they explained that it would be boring and lonely. I came prepared. I have always been a loner. This is nothing different.

Day 15: Still nothing. Yet I still continue to write in this journal. It’s the only thing that keeps me company out here in this desolate wasteland.

Day 27: Controls are running smoothly. All radar systems detect nothing. I truly am alone out here. I have too much time to think. Too much quiet. I don’t want to think anymore, to feel. All I feel is the pervasive loneliness. I thought I could handle this.

Day 45: I am suddenly and inexplicably reminded of the director’s parting words to me. He gripped me by my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Son, don’t get tricked by manatees.” I realized that he meant for me not to be fooled into thinking things were signs of alien life when they really weren’t. I can see how easy it would be to do so, out here. After so much isolation, a man could go crazy. It’s certainly plausible.

Day 204: Not much to say. I eat and sleep as I normally do, but out of routine and necessity rather than desire. I have nothing to look forward to. There is nothing out here. I sometimes regret even coming on this mission. It seems as if I am slowly losing my mental facilities. Even planets are starting to look like alien spaceships, though I know that they are much too large. I even forgot about this journal until I found it while cleaning around my rest compartment.

Day 400: The ship’s calculations tell me that this is the four hundredth day of my journey, my quest to find alien life. Happy anniversary to me. I have not found anything. Space is barren. There is no life. There is no one but me. I am no one. I have no reason to live. I have failed in my quest.

Day 405: Finally, I believe I have sighted an alien spaceship! I am headed in its direction. It is rather asymmetrical and globular, with a few bulges here and there. I am setting my engines to take me there to meet it. What will they look like? How will they communicate? For the first time in over a year, I have felt true excitement. Finally, finally, there is life. There is intelligence. I will have someone to talk to.

**On November 16, 2550, the one-man spaceship Zephyr blew up. Scientists are puzzled at the circumstances of this unfortunate accident. It seems as if the astronaut set his ship on a course toward a nearby asteroid but miscalculated and collided head-on.


Yiran Zhang

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…


Celebrity Jeopardy

November 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

They managed to get something wrong in every case. Apparently they’d picked up some media signal, bounced off satellites into the mirky expanse of space,  because they had all assumed the appearance of Earth celebrities. Their leader walked down the gangplank which had descended from their ship. He appeared–it took me an instant to place the face–to have assumed the physical form of Dennis Kucinich. When he, or it rather, spoke its voice rang out in a deep basso far different from that of the Ohio representative.

“Salutations Groundling.” The alien registered my stare and looked down about itself. Puzzled, it reached its Kucinich hand down to its lapel and fiddled with an American flag pin. After a moment the alien looked up hopefully. It had turned the flag pin upside down. I felt sorry for it so I nodded in encouragement and the alien resumed. “As I am sure you recognize, I have assumed the form of the ultimate and supreme ruler of your race.” The alien gestured broadly, presenting himself. “As you know, we have met with Lord Kucinich. He has informed us of his stature on this rock, and we wish to parlay with him.”

“I’m sorry,” I had to tell it, “But you’ve been tricked.” In my jacket I had a fat cigar, a relic of times long past. I began to thumb a lighter. “This, this fellow… He never ruled much or anything.” I waited for the shock to sink into to his face but my words didn’t seem to register. “Kucinich–he was alive here many, many years ago. He was committed. He, er, he got locked up.” I pantomimed turning a key, stared straight ahead, tossed the key. The alien looked back at his ship, a rather puny affair. Only four engines, basic looking thrusters, tiny, laughable weapons. Behind him stood his mangy gang, all bearing the semblances of twenty first century celebrities. There was a Muggsy Bogues, a Madonna, Scott Baio, Michael Douglas. A Tom Cruise flickered holographically and an instant later his skin was purple. Only Kucinich remained constant. “I’m sorry, my friend. I don’t know what Denny told you, how you met him then, how your got back here.” I exhaled at length and brought my cigar to my mouth, and coaxed a flame from the lighter. “The thing is, you’ve overstayed your welcome already.” With a few deft draws I had the cigar lit up. I turned my back to Kucinich and faced the legions behind me. A thousand men, a thousand mechs, dozens of cannons leveled down towards the ship. This great arena of firepower for one pathetic ship. I smiled and gave the order. “Fire ‘em up, Boys.”


-Will Tarnell

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