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First Contact

And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

- Monty Python, Galaxy Song

Russian scientists expect humanity to encounter alien civilisations within the next two decades, a top Russian astronomer said on Monday.

“The genesis of life is as inevitable as the formation of atoms … Life exists on other planets and we will find it within 20 years,” said Andrei Finkelstein, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Applied Astronomy Institute, according to the Interfax news agency.

Riight… Isn’t interfax the scion of TASS?

Speaking at an international forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life, Finkelstein said 10% of the known planets circling suns in the galaxy resemble Earth.

When astronomers talk of “Earth-like planets” they don’t mean quite what you might think they mean. That description covers a multitude of sins. It doesn’t necessarily mean somewhere Captain Kirk can go and snog green-skinned princesses. This is probably as close to “Earth-like” that has been found and it’s very different.

If water can be found there, then so can life, he said, adding that aliens would most likely resemble humans with two arms, two legs and a head.

“They may have different colour skin, but even we have that,” he said.

Or pointed ears or interesting cranial ridges… The short version is the good Professor is just wildly speculating on the basis of way too much Star Trek. There are two big unknowns about alien life. The first is its existence and the second is what it’s like. The second is the really interesting one. I could be very wrong here but I suspect that the discovery of alien life* may well fundamentally challenge our assumptions of what life is. It really could be anything and we don’t know. Certainly the good Prof’s assumption of bilateral symmetry can be little more than guesswork.

Underlying all of this is though is a deeper assumption which is that first contact (the Trek again!) is a big deal. It is utterly predicated upon the idea that an alien “civilization” (a totally anthropocentric term anyway) is commensurable with ours. Carl Sagan said of his gold record to the stars something like, “To send Bach would be boasting” but what if they just didn’t “get it”? In Next Generation you have Worf (a Klingon) who is fond of Shakespeare. In the context of the show the civilizations encountered are probably culturally no different from say the Roman and Chinese Empires two thousand years ago. Physiology is similar (despite Dr McCoy’s grumblings about green blood). They invariably have two sexes and inter-species breeding is possible. Even the (constructed) Klingon language uses concepts such as verbs and nouns ( which might not be in the intellectual armoury of aliens) so whether we get on or fight essentially we have commensurable paradigms. On Earth different cultures may disagree vehemently on many matters but the terms of debate are generally the same and we just take different sides of the fence (the point here is whatever side of the fence you’re on the fence itself intellectually exists). Although I don’t know! Some cultural differences challenge the idea that we are culturally operating within the same paradigm. Things like “honour” killings almost aren’t just deeply wrong but verging on the inexplicable within our terms of reference. So if the mores and tastes (there are tribes in Africa where long, flat, pendulous breasts – to the extent she can fling them over her shoulder when pounding maize are prized – try getting that on Page 3 of The Sun) of our fellow humans can sometimes seem inexplicable yet we are the same species, shaped by the same planet, how much different might the aliens be? On other planets with other species and other twists and turns evolution could have taken** how much more incommensurable could such paradigms be?

But what if pysiologically and therefore metaculturally (all this shaped by the interaction with a very different environment***) we are totally incommensurable. This you might term the “Heaven’s Gate” scenario. After we have got over sending each other binary expansions of pi (or tau) to umpteen places then what? If they have no ears then Bach is not even boasting, if their social structure is so different as not to be understandable in our terms then what sense is there to them in Hamlet? What if they don’t even have the concept of individuality and their (singular, obviously) physiology bears this out. And of course obviously this is a two way street.

What indeed if we had nothing to say to each other because we just couldn’t anymore than I could explain a strongly typed computer language to Timmy, my cat? Our intuitive knowledge of physics comes from chucking spears at things. Their’s might come from something totally different. Oh, I’m not saying it wouldn’t converge on similar results in the higher echelons of science but all of that is purely of extremely abtuse academic interest. What if they have no aesthetics? Every culture on this planet has some. They can be wildly different but at least the concept applies. But what if they don’t? Just think how often you talk about everything from Kylie’s buttocks to Rouen Cathedral in aesthetic terms? Moreover, in the context, note the number of comments here about what is fundamentally an aesthetic issue in mathematics.

I can’t help but feel that first contact might be utterly underwhelming after the initial hype. Lord David of Beckham presents the ambassador from Tau Ceti with an FA-Cup ball and utters the universal greeting, “On me ‘ead son!” and it’s like “whatever?”. The two general scenarios we tend to have are of benign beings who turn-up with the cure for cancer and usher in a Golden Age (StarTrek: First Encounters) or all out war. Both seem to me a bit silly. Assuming they are physiologically very different why would they know anything about cancer any more than we’d know about their dread malady Grlkjk’khy. Even naming that is assuming vocalisation on their part. As to war… Well, if it’s about the usual, “Our planet is dying!” resource quest then I consider that highly unlikely because there is just so much stuff out there.

We could even be so different we could pass like ships in the night. We could be their masters, their allies, their rivals, their slaves (and vice versa for all of the above) or we could just both be, “Yeah, like whatever”. Neither of us might even recognize each other for what we purport to be (a “civilization”). At which point I must mention another SF cliché. The benign aliens who are put off saving us because we’re not worthy. Think of the movie The Fifth Element where Leeloo reviews the stock footage of war and chaos on Earth and has a crisis as to whether we are worth saving on moral grounds. It’s unbelievably commonplace in SF (and the stock footage of the Third Reich, Pol Pot’s mounds of skulls, naked, napalmed, Vietnamese girls running down roads… must be cheap in every sense) but my point is that that cliché of the higher technological and moral power judging us is a very human cliché. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious it is elevating them to the status of gods which are one of the earliest creations of human culture. The assumption is that essentially their morality is commensurable with ours, just better (more superego, less ego and they passed on the id a while back****). It is one of the standard visions of the other-worldly – the angel (in the case of Leeloo- in the form of a Czech supermodel which I suppose is as good as anything else). There is of course the all conquering and demonic baddies as well. Odd that SF, perhaps more than any other genre, despite warp-drives and ray-guns so often tells much the same tales Ugg told Ogg round the camp fire as the glaciers retreated. The demon and the angel. The worst of us and the best of us cast out as grand opera amidst the stars that Ugg and Ogg stare at whilst digesting the fruits of the hunt.

To put it mathematically the aliens might not be better or worse than us (however that is measured) but rather just orthogonal .

Finkelstein’s institute runs a programme launched in the 1960s at the height of the cold war space race to watch for and beam out radio signals to outer space.

Or could they have just been using their big dishes to watch the Enterprise boldly split infinitives? Funny thing about SETI projects – nobody expects you to actually find anything. The capacity that gives (whilst the funding holds) to – to use a technical term – “bugger about” is staggering.

The article continues with a Richard Hoover of NASA writing in the Journal of Cosmology about alien fossils in meteorites.

Astrophysicists have a saying about cosmologists, “Frequently in error but never in doubt.”

*How very anthropocentric of me! They might discover us!
**Assuming evolution as we know it applies there.
***That is non-linear. We have an atmosphere that supports life as we know it partly because of the life as it was then in the old primordial soup.
****Star Trek Vulcans immediately spring to mind here.


  1. CountingCats says:

    I think my posting below pretty firmly establishes that we have already had first contact.

  2. Chris says:

    Nick, have you read “What Does a Martian Look Like?” by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart?

    It’s a pop science book that explains in clear, simple language (and some funny interstitial short stories) why – given the sheer richness of science and its possibilities for biological forms – its millions-to-one against that we’ll meet Spock. Some intelligent fungus is far more likely (they’re hardier and have been around longer).

  3. johnnyrvf says:

    Just sounds like Finklestein is pushing the NWO propagander, just like the U.N. have created a post for an Alien Liason Officer or some such rubbish. The universe is too incomprehensibly huge, varied and dynamic for the human mind to begin to really relate to and all Finklestein does is show how little his understanding of anything outside of his small world really is.

  4. CountingCats says:

    Johnny, I suspect his understanding is better than presented here, what you are reading is some media studies graduates interpretation of it.

  5. Lord T says:

    I’m not so sure about the 2 arms, 2 legs and a head scenario. Considering that if it wasn’t for a big rock 65M years ago the dinosaurs could still be the dominant species on this planet. Humans relegated to a snack they ate about 1M year ago but, like Marathons, no longer made.

  6. “It doesn’t necessarily mean somewhere Captain Kirk can go and snog green-skinned princesses.”

    Oh, that’s a shame.

  7. View from the Solent says:

    Most likely resemble us? If the clock was wound back 3.5 billion years here, and the whole messy business started again, the chances of us homo sapiens sapiens existing are zero.

    Before he got all shouty, Richard Dawkins wrote some interesting books on evolutionary biology that give you a good idea of just how unlikely we are. If it hadn’t been for the K/T event that froze the dinosaurs, we mammals would probably still be wee shrews trying to avoid giant lizards’ feet.

  8. Kevin B says:

    Panspermia Nick, Panspermia.

    Explains everything. Why aliens have two arms, two legs and a head, (Incidentally, a fair few dinosaurs had two arms, two legs and a head.); why Worf fancies whatsername; why Kardashians have big arses; everything. Even why they’ll be here in a few decades. (Because we’re farther out on the galactic spiral arm thus a bit lower down the tech tree so they’ll get the warp drive first.)

    Course, that’s just soft panspermia where spores drift across the endless deeps of inter galactic space and some land on stony ground and others land on good old Earth. We could go the whole hog like Niven and his protectors and postulate that we were settled from space and then lost contact with home.

    Personally, I’m hoping they’ll get here soon, since I’m getting on a bit and if they have got a cure for aging, (and death of course), they’ll need to get their intergalactic warp skates on to do me any good.

  9. johnnyrvf says:

    O.K. I can accept that, but I still think it is naive to assume that life will be like it is on this planet, or rather intelligent life, there are just too many unknowns and perhaps imponderables to be able to make any accurate statement about what form life from other parts of the universe will take.

  10. NickM says:

    Panspermia sounds like a dodgy video my mate Phil got out wen we were in sixth form.

    “We can control the ageing process we have achieved almost complete success in even reversing ageing in silicon based life forms”.
    “What about carbon-based life forms?”
    “Well… We’re only just encountering them – this is our first contact too you know. If you can just turn around and drop you leg-claddings we can make a start and we promise you life eternal in twenty years* if they keep up the funding.”

    *That’s the same twenty years for nuclear fusion and electricity too cheap to meter. Lewis Carroll was definitely onto something with jam. Also Kevin, “Are you paying too much for your car insurance?”

  11. NickM says:

    Your comment reminds me I almost quoted that great post-modern schoolman St Donald of Rumsfeld about “unknown unknowns” as opposed to “known unknowns”. For the record Rumsfeld made perfect sense to me. a known unkown is something you can consider – Saddam has MiG-29s but how many are flyable and how many won’t bugger-off to Iran to Iran at the first Amraam? the unknown unknowns are the cards up the sleeve tht you never dreamed about. Like when that mentalist shot Ronald Reagan. He had been stalking Jodie Foster and thought it would impress the Democrat supporting actress. Yeah, and if I round up Jimmy Carter and put him in a sack with some bricks and drop him in the canal Sarah Palin will give me a blow-job.

    Total nutcases can’t be gamed for. The US Secret Service got off on not spotting that threat to Ronnie because it was so bat-shit insane. And interesting point. Insanity like that isn’t doing random things but following dernged axioms to their logical conclusion. It is a matter of grim amusement to me in the context that Ms Foster is a lesbian anyway.

  12. johnnyrvf says:

    NickM Well put, my point exactly we don’t know enough about life on this planet and woefully little about other planets in the solar system let alone other planets from other solar systems to be able to begin to consider or speculate how and what other life forms are and relate to the universe.

  13. The Apiarist says:

    “more superego, less ego and they passed on the id a while back”

    No id? That’s the mistake the Krell made, as they discovered when they fired up their big machine.

    “My evil self is at that door and I have no power to stop it!”

  14. Roue le Jour says:

    A civilization without instrumentalities? Incredible.

    If there is intelligent life out there, you are more likely to encounter its machines than the boys themselves.

    I’m unconvinced humans are nasty violent bastards, not worth saving. Nasty violent bastard is an emergent behaviour, as evidenced in the entire spectrum of life on Earth. Bash the other bloke and steal his bird, eat his babies, throttle his seedlings etc. etc. The only way you can alter nasty beats nice is with a central planning committee making wise decisions… actually this is starting to sound eerily familiar…

    I thought Rummy was making perfect sense, too. It saddened me to think that when a pol slipped up and said something intelligent to the cameras, he was mocked for it. Bugger all intelligent life down here indeed.

  15. dfwmtx says:

    The aliens have been visiting us already, and their purpose is to fuck with us. Sometimes they come down and mutilate cattle, sometimes they make art in our crop fields. Sometimes they decide to buzz humans in our vehicles to see our reaction (a bit like the guy who speeds past you on the highway, pulls in front of you then breaks sharply to see the swerve). The really nutty ones sometimes kidnap a human, then toss a coin to decide between “probe” and “give human mental illness”. Yep, I said it; “give human mental illness”. The nuttiness of those who’ve been abducted and talk about the world of peace and love and harmony and advanced technology using unicorn farts powering civilization is astounding!
    Otherwise, I don’t think alien civilization has any need for us humans. We have no resources they want, otherwise we’d be invaded or trading with them now.

  16. Peter Crawford says:

    Erm, yes dfwmtx, now eat your rusks.

    The great Polish writer Stanilaw Lem deals with this brilliantly in many of his novels and short stories. The utter inability of truly alien beings to understand the other.
    Check out “The Invincible” and “Solaris”. Wonderful stuff.

    Common theme with S Lem is his grasp of the the fact that we don’t really know our own minds. How could we ever get a grip on alien ones ?

  17. endivior says:

    In the unlikely event the aliens get on our case, I’m holding out for a Japanese bootblack with a secret identity.

  18. Sunfish says:

    Indeed. See previous commentary as to the efficacy of the armaments favored by stimulant-addicted prostitutes against shoeshine boys.

  19. Rob Fisher says:

    If life is common, they’re already here. Why can’t we see them? Any technology sufficiently advanced…

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