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Reconsidering “First Contact”

By Taylor Marvin

Staying on the subject of aliens, what would a human first contact with an intelligent alien species be like? Science fiction typically presents two possibilities: violent confrontation, or cooperation that benefits humanity — think human’s first contact with the Vulcans in Star Trek, whose good example led to the banishment of human violence and poverty. In any case first contact is nearly always assumed to have a unprecedented effect on the human experience.

However, both these scenarios assume direct contact, and communication, between us and the aliens.  This is unlikely. Instead, human “encounters” with aliens are much more likely to be discoveries of distance evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations.

How would humans react to such a discovery? I’m not convinced the results would be especially dramatic. Let’s imagine that next week astronomers detect a discarded debris shield from an alien spaceship by pure chance zipping through our solar system. If this shield is similar to the one utilized on the proposed Project Daedalus fusion interstellar probe, it would be a 50 ton beryllium disk — not a particularly informative artifact, even if we could examine it in detail. Assuming the shield(s) traveled independently just in front of the alien spacecraft — Project Daedalus does not use this scheme, but increasing the distance between a shield and the main body of a spacecraft could increase protection from interstellar debris — the shield would continue on its path after the spaceship decelerated, and would spend only a short time in the solar system before continuing on its way.

The Project Daedalus spacecraft, compared to a Saturn V rocket. Note the meteor shield. Image via Icarus Interstellar.

My point is that while encountering such a shield would be absolute proof of an intelligent alien civilization, it would tell us next to nothing about who created it. All we would know is that sometime in the last 9 billion years an interstellar alien civilization did exist, and that they utilized spacecraft roughly similar to those proposed by humans — that’s it. What effect would this knowledge have on humanity?

Of course it’s impossible to tell, but I suspect not much. Knowing that someone else is — or, more likely, was — out there would challenge humanity’s understanding of its place in the cosmos, but probably would not dramatically alter human culture. In contrast to Star Trek’s wide-eyed optimism, humans’ propensity for conflict would likely continue. Beyond that, who knows?

Exploring the repercussions of such a fleeting encounter could make a great premise for a short story.

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