Monday, May 10, 2010

The Advent of Alien Contact

This is a fairly long piece so I'm trying a new trick using jumps. I'm not sure how well it will work. I wrote this for my Aliens: Close Encounters of the Multidisciplinary Kind class this past semester.

Every year there are hundreds of sightings of Aliens or UFOs in America alone. Many people also claim to have been abducted by these extraterrestrials. Many scientists and researchers have looked into the reports, primarily to determine how accurate and likely they were. However, some researchers looked for an explanation as to why people would create these unlikely scenarios. Such research will be examined as well as several more speculative elements. Science fiction authors have been creating fictional first contact scenarios for several decades. Researchers at SETI and other institutions have considered the real variables and have come across some information that is not often used in first contact scenarios. Following the examination of the fictional first contact stories, various more realistic first contact scenarios will be explored, using information from SETI. Finally, the visual portrayal of alien life forms will be extracted from movies, television and video games, and analyzed. Using the common perceptions, knowledge of evolution and speculation from SETI a description of various extraterrestrial races will be extracted.

Since the beginning of human flight around the early twentieth century, more people have looked up and seen things that they cannot explain. Scientists, along side the viewers, have done their best to find substantial evidence in support of these extraordinary claims. The first sightings were lone individuals making claims, but later, as they were either ignored or their reports not believed because of insufficient evidence, other reports came in, with much greater substance (Denzler 2001). There were unexplained radar blips, often times in conjunction with sightings from one or more groups of people. On some occasions there were connected reports of physical markings left on the ground- either crop circles or what were called landing pad imprints. In June 1959, Father William B. Gill saw several alien craft in New Zealand. Several days later they returned, Father Gill invited several friends out and after an waving at each other, a total of thirty-seven respectable people agreed that they had seen, and waved to, extraterrestrials (Denzler, 2001) In addition to these sightings of aliens, there are many claims of abductions. The abduction that is generally accepted to be the first big case is that of Barney and Betty Hill, of New Hampshire. They could not recall the actual events when asked, but under hypnosis they managed to tell similar stories. The stories had contained key details that many abduction tales afterward included. These primary details are a time lapse, and then usage of hypnotic regression later brings out memories of physical examination, conversation with the aliens and sometimes a tour of the vessel. Other abductees recalled being forced into intercourse with either aliens or other humans (Denzler, 2001). However, even with all of these reports, there is as yet, no solid proof for the existence of extraterrestrials.

If there is no proof for extraterrestrial life visiting Earth, then how is it possible that these witnesses have seen them? Many psychologists have analyzed the reports and the witnesses to try and determine the truth. A 1993 study looked at previous examinations and derived two primary hypotheses from that research:“The first hypothesis suggests that UFO reporters are psychologically or psycho-socially disturbed and that UFO reports are symptomatic of personal frustration, unhappiness, or psychopathology. The second hypothesis holds that UFO reporters are fantasy-prone individuals who, under conditions of strong expectation and reduced reality testing, confuse their vivid imaginings with external happenings.(Spanos, Cross, Dickson & DuBreuil 1993)”The first hypothesis is supported by the stories of abductees. In their stories they often talk about issues that they may have, either consciously or unconsciously. These are either very personal issues or global problems. The aliens often have a physical examination as part of their routine abduction plan. This comes in part from humanities obsessive need to know, and we think it carries over to aliens as well. Additionally people are often concerned about their health and well-being, these aliens can tell them if anything is wrong. The global problems are also addressed by the aliens in conversation. Popular topics of alien discourse include nuclear weapons, the AIDS pandemic, the economic depression and global warming. Most of the time, the aliens reassure the victim that they will not get worse. Susan Clancy, a well known alien psychologist, has studied the abductees and found that most of them are normal people who have had unexplained experiences (Clancy, 2005). Some had had traumatic experiences, one of a pair of brothers had had severe mental trauma due to a construction accident. Later, under hypnosis he 'recalled' his abduction. Later his brother, also under hypnosis recalled being abducted as well. Neither had previously considered alien abduction nor had other traumatic events in their lives. The conclusions of her research led to the statement that abductees were most often explaining somethings they didn't understand- such as sleep-paralysis or waking dreams (Clancy, 2005).

Many authors have found the prospect of alien life a fascinating subject. Because humans have yet to contact aliens, they create fictional first contact stories. In the video game series, Mass Effect, humans discovered alien technology on Mars and reverse-engineered technology that allowed them to begin to explore the galaxy (Bioware, 2007). They found a galactic civilization that had already evolved. Several other races had found the alien technology and also used it to advance. Humans collaborated with the other races to advance their technology, but humans are still regarded as a lesser class the three primary races that have been using the technology for the longest period of time. In Star Trek: First Contact, when a human manages to design a warp drive, his test run triggers an alien detector and the Vulcan warp to Earth to congratulate him and welcome humanity to the federation (Braga & Moore, 1996). Similarly, in Carl Sagan's Contact- both the novel and the movie, humanity finds plans to build a device, which turns out to transport humans at faster-than-light speeds across the galaxy to find a galactic civilization (Sagan, 1997). However, not all contact is peaceful. In Aliens, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the sole survivor of an alien attack. When the planet where the Aliens were discovered is colonized and later found to be under attack, Ripley returns. The beast-like alien creatures are savage and do their best to destroy any humans they find (Cameron, 1986). In the film Independence Day, alien vessels appear around earth, and without warning, destroy the vast majority of the worlds major population centers. During the movie, an alien is captured and interrogated. The humans learn that these aliens go from planet to planet, destroying anything that could resist them and harvesting the resources before carrying on to the next system (Devlin & Emmerich, 1996). These situations are varied and looking at what others have seen, it is simple to create a flow-chart of alien first contact.

To create the first contact flow-chart, information other than just that of the imagination must be used. The SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) Institute has several articles pertaining to our first contact. An article published in 2008 by Douglas Vakoch concerns itself with and alien's first perception of humanity. A primary point it makes, before entering the meat of the article is that any alien race we encounter is very likely to be hundreds, if not thousands of years ahead of humanity, because it is so astronomically unlikely that two races developed on different planets at the same rate- or even began evolution at approximately the same time. On the matter of the alien's first impressions, it is most likely that the aliens will receive what we sent out- oldest material first. Thus, while we may current send out messages that display our current scientific and cultural achievements, they will begin by receiving older radio and television transmissions (Vakoch, 2008). However, it is important to note that they may not receive everything- or in fact, anything at all. Our cell phones are not constantly intercepting other calls because they are not attuned to the transmissions, it follows that alien technology may either be so advanced that they do not catch it or that they are simply on the wrong channel. Their technology may be tuned, as many Sci-Fi shows like to put it, to MTV all the time, but it is just as likely that they have programs that only pull out relevant data. Nonetheless, it is also highly unlikely that an advanced civilization, like any we are probable to discover will bother to visit planets that have shown no signs of sentience so (assuming that FTL travel is impossible- as per Einstein's theory of Special Relativity) they will have to have at the very least several years of data, and gathering more as the approach Earth. Another SETI article refers to a historian, Steve Dick, who brings up common comparisons of first contact. When most people think of what will happen when we contact aliens, they think of the resulting panic from the War of the Worlds broadcasting or the collision of European and Native American cultures (Vakoch, 2003). However, according to Dick, those are direct contact, face-to-face meetings. Because of special relativity, it is much more likely that we will have a long distance relationship than actual physical contact. Thus, he says, a better comparison would be the communication between the Greeks and the Latin West near the end of the Dark Ages. The Greeks transferred their knowledge by way of Islamic traders, who shared it in Spain. In this analogy, the Greeks would constitute the aliens (more advanced civilization), the traders would be the radio (method of communication) and the Spanish would be the humans (receivers of information). The analogy isn't perfect because the travel time is a few months, not a dozens of years. If the advanced civilization is hostile and we manage to contact them, it will take several years before they can reach Earth, unless they do not respond to our transmissions. A final important consideration in a first contact scenario is the language barrier. Unlike in many movies, everyone will not easily speak the same language (Vakoch, 2005). It is possible that the aliens have translational technology, but more likely than not, we will have to communicate using the 'language of science'. Even with that there are still various issues. There is easily the the problem of misinterpretation as well as potential incompatibility. An image of an outreached hand, waving, may be construed as friendly from a human perspective but it could be a threatening gesture to the aliens. But it is also possible that they lack eyesight and so our messages, that might make sense visually, will not be interpreted correctly.

Taking that information into account, we can begin to construct a first contact scenario. The first step on the flow-chart is whether or not it is a physical contact or radio. If we come in direct physical contact first, it is probably less likely that the aliens will have friendly intentions. While it is possible that they traveled to Earth completely by accident, they are very likely to have picked up our transmissions before entering our solar system. Choosing to ignore them is not a sign of a race interested in negotiation or contact. If their technology is incompatible with ours, and therefore they cannot hear us, it will lead to difficult negotiations as they cannot understand us. If they are a hostile race and they came with the intention of colonization or resource collecting, it is nearly a guarantee that we would not be able to resist at all. Their technology would be hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ahead of ours. While it is possible that they would have a small weakness that they could not predict, their technology levels would likely compensate for it and they would be able to wipe out humanity. If they were not a hostile race, they would be likely able to detect the people of power in the world and they would be able to send representatives. Various agreements would be made across the world and it is likely that technology would begin to advance very rapidly. If first contact was by radio, the results would be likely similar. If the race was hostile, we would have knowledge of their intentions and we would be able to begin to try and create counter-measures, but the technology gap would probably be too wide for us to fill. However, our conversations or if the hostile aliens launch an attack, a friendly race may intercept some information and aid us. If we had enough time we might be able to defend ourselves or at least send some survivors to colonize another location. If we are contacted by radio (or some other transmission) it will likely be discovered by a single person or outpost. If the discoverers work for a major government, that government will probably try to keep the information classified so as to advance their own technology. If it is discovered by a smaller, weaker nation, it is possible that they would have a bidding war for the information. If it is discovered by scientists, unaligned with any nation, they will attempt to confirm their results before going to the press. If the information remains private and is handled by a government or a small number of people in power, technology levels would most likely skyrocket. However, if the existence of aliens becomes public knowledge, there are potentials for disaster. Many people, frightened by the unknown may panic. If handled incorrectly, the knowledge of aliens- even friendly aliens could be devastating to humanity. However, if handled well, the technology levels would probably increase even faster than if the governments had a strong hold on the communication. The results of alien contact are most probably either a technological boost or a total or near total collapse of the human civilization.

If humans do contact aliens- what are the likely to look like? What will they be like? Television shows, movies and video games have shown us all sorts of alien life forms, but with certain biases. In the various Star Trek films, all of the primary sentient races are bipedal humanoids (Devlin & Emmerich, 1996). The Klingons, the Vulcans, the Humans, and the Borg all walk upright, on two legs and have a similar basic anatomy. Similarly, in Star Wars, the vast majority of alien sentient alien species are bipedal humanoids. In Aliens, the alien race is savage and feral- the creatures are vicious and appear to be quadrupedal (Cameron, 1986). In the video game, Star Craft, there are three races. There a the space-faring humans (Terran), there are the Protoss, a highly technologically advanced race, and the beings are again, bipedal and humanoid. Finally, there are the Zerg, a swarm like hive-mind race of pseudo-sentient beasts (Metzen & Phinney 1998). In another video game, Mass Effect, the majority of the sentient species are also bipedal humanoids. Of the three species that are not bipedal, one comes from a high gravity world and is quadrupedal, another comes from a ocean world and is in form similar to that of a jelly fish, except with prehensile tentacles, and the last is a hive minded arthropod (Bioware, 2007). Finally, in real reports of alien contact, the majority of aliens are bipedal- often conforming to the standard bulb-headed, almond eyed, green or gray skinned alien. The huge numbers of bipedal humanoids can be explained away by two factors. The first factor is budget- it would be cheaper for a movie producer to use humans in costume or for animators to use familiar forms- so a large number of such alien species can be ignored. The other factor is familiarity. Having bug-like creatures as the enemy, and humanoid creatures as the protagonist, people are more likely to have a connection to them. Most humans, when they think of an alien now, imagine a bipedal figure, because that is what they are used to.

We can't accurately predict what aliens will look like without knowing the environment from which they came. But we can look at various factors that would cause aliens to develop in certain ways and create images of various ET's in that manner. If the aliens are living in a liquid, such as the air, oceans or gas around a gas giant, they must have a buoyancy system, or some other manner to keep them aloft. This likely means that they will evolve either fins or wings, to propel them as well as a streamlined form that will allow them to move swiftly through their environment. It is also possible that they will have air sacs that allow them to remain at certain levels without exerting effort. If aliens such as these visited Earth, they would have difficulty because our atmosphere would likely not be thick enough to support them, or they would have to be introduced into the ocean, where we would have trouble communicating with them. Another potential significant factor is the gravity. If the aliens lived on a high gravity world, they would be more likely to develop multiple legs to give them greater balance. The would also likely be broader, so as to better distribute their weight. On Earth, it is possible that their muscles would atrophy, but that could be compensate by having them carry around additional mass. A more serious problem would be if the aliens had developed on a low gravity world. They would be more likely to be tall and slender. This would allow them to reach more places, and they can grow taller because of the lesser effect of gravity. This would be a problem if they came to Earth, because they would be stunted by the gravity and even standing would be a difficult experience. Stationing them on the moon would allow them to remain in a lower-gravity environment, but it would impede communication slightly and we would not have a chance to directly work with them. In all of the above scenarios, not only would the aliens not fit in well with our world, but it is probable that their technology would also not be able to withstand the different environment.

Aliens, as a whole, are an enigmatic bunch. The only example of sentient life in the entire universe that we have is humanity. We can hypothesize about alien life, but we cannot know, until we come in contact. When we do, human society will change dramatically and our perceptions of the world will be altered.


Denzler, B. (2001). The Lure of the Edge. (pp. 55-67). Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Spanos, N.P., Cross, P. A., Dickson, K., & DuBreuil, S.C. (1993). Close Encounters: An Examination of UFO Experiences. American Psychological Association, 102 (4), 624-632.

Clancy, S. (2005). Abducted: How people come to believe they were kidnapped by aliens. (pp. 11-29). United States of America: Harvard University Press.

Bioware Corp. (2007). Mass Effect. Microsoft Game Studios.

Braga, B. & Moore, R.D. (1996) Star Trek: First Contact. Paramount Pictures.

Sagan, C., Hart J.V., & Goldenberg, M. (1997) Contact. Warner Brothers.

Cameron, J (1986), Aliens. 20th Century Fox.

Devlin, D. & Emmerich, R. (1996) Independence Day. 20th Century Fox.

Vakoch, Douglas. "SETI Institute - How We Present Ourselves to Aliens." SETI Institute - SETI Institute Homepage. 13 Mar. 2008. 9 May. 2010

Vakoch, Douglas. "SETI Institute - Preparing for Contact: Lessons from the Past." SETI Institute - SETI Institute Homepage. 12 Jun. 2003. 9 May. 2010

Vakoch, Douglas. "SETI Institute - Universal Translator Might be Needed to Understand ET." SETI Institute - SETI Institute Homepage. 27 Jan. 2005. 9 May. 2010

Metzen, C. & Phinney, J. (1998) Star Craft, Blizzard Entertainment.

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