5 Things That Would Happen If We Ever Found Intelligent Alien Life

Monday, 26 October 2015 - 1:16PM
Astronomy
Alien Life
Monday, 26 October 2015 - 1:16PM
5 Things That Would Happen If We Ever Found Intelligent Alien Life
The search for extraterrestrial life has been in the public consciousness for decades, but what would happen if we actually succeeded? Later this month, a NASA-funded initiative called the 100-Year Starship Project (100YSS), which is dedicated to achieving interstellar travel within the next century, will hold its annual symposium, which will specifically discuss the aim of finding "Earth 2.0," including what would happen to society if we ever actually found an Earth-like planet with an alien civilization.

Opening quote
"What would happen if we could identify it [as Earth 2.0]? How does that change us?" asked Mae Jemison, a former NASA astronaut and the principal for 100YSS, in a piece for The Atlantic.
Closing quote


Strict protocols would come into play


In 1997, SETI infamously had a false alarm that they found intelligent alien life, which was immediately picked up by the New York Times and blown completely out of proportion. After that incident, SETI created specific protocols for astronomers who believe that they have discovered alien life, in order to ensure that the information is properly verified and disseminated to the public through controlled channels. 

First, the astronomers are supposed to verify to the best of their ability that the signals are not coming from any natural phenomenon, and then have it verified independently by someone outside of SETI. They should then inform astronomers in other nations, as well as the Secretary General of the UN, so the information can be dispersed through scientific and accredited public media outlets.

Someone would ruin the surprise on Twitter


But this is the 21st century, so the astronomers admit that none of these protocols would ultimately be followed. They would try, of course, but in the age of information, it would inevitably leak before it had been verified and released in a controlled manner. Blogs, Twitter, Reddit, and every other unofficial news authority would pick up on the story way earlier than intended. SETI director Seth Shostak said of the premature 1997 NYT leak, "There is no secrecy in SETI," and there is even less privacy now.

Opening quote
"The protocols are as much fiction, in some sense, as the movie portrayals. The story will break in a very messy way," said Shostak. "I don't think there's any way to control the media."
Closing quote


It would break the Internet


And once the news broke, it would spread like wildfire. We would probably all have trouble getting on social media that day, but no one would experience more technical issues than the SETI Institute. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as once the information is verified, SETI very much wants it to be widely known:

Opening quote
"You want that information to be as widespread as possible," said former SETI director Jill Tarter. "If we were to make a discovery at the SETI institute, I don't think there's any way we could keep our website up or our phones working from the onslaught of people trying to get information."
Closing quote


The public reaction would closely mimic the movie Contact


Would the public be open to the discovery of alien life, or would they be fearful of an alien invasion? Paul Ziolo, a professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool and a regular presenter at the 100YSS symposiums, specifically cited the film Contact, which was partially inspired by Tartar's life and career, as a realistic portrayal of the disparate public reactions to such a discovery.

Opening quote
"It's a massive range from paranoia to jubilation to despair," Ziolo said. "For some people, anything from outside is going to threaten power structures. For others, it's the gods they've been waiting for."
Closing quote


We would have a reason to believe in the longevity of human civilization


While the public reactions would vary, scientists would likely be optimistic about confirmed signals from an advanced civilizations, as it would give them more hope for the future of humanity:

Opening quote
"If we succeed at detecting another technological civilization, that success helps tell us that on average, technological civilizations can survive for a long time," said Tartar. "The very act of success [in hearing from another planet] tells us that we can have a long future. I think that's the most amazing impact that contact would have, even if we never figure out how to interpret whatever information we receive."
Closing quote
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