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If E.T. phones home, will it be safe to answer?

radio telescope used to search for signals from space

August 9, 1996
Web posted at: 5:45 p.m. EDT

By Correspondent Don Knapp

The discovery of what may be signs of ancient life on Mars has piqued scientific interest. It has also sparked fresh debate about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe -- and how meeting up with aliens might affect the Earth.

There is no shortage of theories, even among people who do not watch the skies for a living. Popular culture has created the invading armies of "War of the Worlds" and "Independence Day," the mysterious visitors of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and the wide-eyed innocence of "E.T." and "Starman."

bioastronomy conference in Capri, Italy

If screenwriters have been preoccupied with the prospect of alien contact, scientists and others with an interest in seeking out aliens have been no less busy.

Last month, the Italian island of Capri played host to the fifth International Conference on Bioastronomy. The conference, which drew about 200 participants, was sponsored by such groups as the International Astronomical Union, NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

So if there is life out there, what would it be like if aliens paid a visit to Earth? Some real-life alien hunters paint a bleaker picture than the worst even Hollywood can imagine.

Seth Shostack

"I think all the scenarios that are played out in the movies and books and so forth are probably tremendous understatements of what really would happen," said Seth Shostak, an astronomer for SETI.

Shostak expects that visiting aliens would be far superior to humans, and that human reactions would be "irrelevant." (201K AIFF or WAV sound)

"This is a bit like iguanas on the Galapagos Islands sitting around trying to figure out how to treat the first human visitors," he said. "Should we offer them dead flies, or live flies? Shall we line up the flies in a row? How shall we defend ourselves? All of that is irrelevant."

SETI workshops have hammered out policies to deal with alien contact. In its report, "Social Implications of Detecting an Extraterrestrial Civilization," SETI:

  • cautions against covering up evidence of alien civilizations;
  • recommends consulting other researchers immediately, and disseminating information as widely as possible;
  • states that no response should be sent until the appropriate international consultations have been made.
Bob Russell

For skeptics, proof of intelligent life in space could be unsettling.

Professor Bob Russell of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences believes such proof would reinforce the faith of many Jewish, Islamic and Christian believers. But "for those folks who take scripture literally...this will create problems. And there will be a number of strategies to write off science as being speculative, or wrong, or whatever."

Aliens expected to call, not drop by

Some researchers think contact from outer space may come by way of a radio signal, but an unannounced alien visit is unlikely. The vast distances between worlds would be daunting, even to extraterrestrial explorers.

"To travel between civilizations means you must travel at a substantial fraction of the speed of light," said SETI's Frank Drake. "And what we know is the laws of physics and relativity say that when you try to travel at such speeds, the energies required are really preposterous."

Lionel Johns

Unlikely, these researchers say, but others are willing to consider the possibility.

Lionel Johns of the White House Office of Science and Technology would not rule out eventual face-to-face contact. But, he said, "It would be some years before our technical abilities and scientific understanding would permit us to get together with those folks; physics in part would have to change or our understanding of it would have to change."

Until that change comes, until and unless that contact is made, flights between worlds will remain flights of fancy. And Hollywood's guess is as good as anyone's.

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