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Michaud’s Contact with Alien Civilizations

I’m glad to see Universe Today‘s review of Michael Michaud’s new book Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials (Springer, 2006), since I haven’t gotten to it yet despite a promise early in the year. Those hoping for a thorough analysis of the Drake Equation are in luck, since Michaud evidently tweaks every parameter to see what happens as a result. Many of the issues raised here are things we’ve kicked around on Centauri Dreams, as is apparent in this excerpt from the review:

Are we alone; does the universe revolve around our species; and, is everything in existence for the use of humans? As well, should humans be trying to contact aliens; with what urgency should we start populating outer space; and, how should we react to alien contact? As an example, what would we do if it came to our attention tomorrow that aliens were colonizing Mars? These questions about our actions, our purpose and ourselves serve hopefully, to make the reader delve a little deeper into their own existence.

Interesting question with regard to Mars, and one I’ve heard raised about interstellar nano-probes that might be considered a threat by any species becoming aware of their entry into an exoplanetary system. Clearly, issues of philosophy are engaged by any species contact scenario, with the problem that our only historical references all involve human behaviors that are inevitably generalized to predict how aliens will act. As I’m behind in my reading (a major understatement), I’d appreciate any thoughts from readers on what Michaud has to say.

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  • Edg Duveyoung June 12, 2007, 10:04

    I reviewed this book here previously…can’t find it right now, so I’ll post it again here:

    I just now finished Contact With Alien Civilizations — Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials by Michael A.G. Michaud. This book was suggested here in response to my request for something that does for today’s knowledge that Sagan and Shklovskii’s Intelligent Life in the Universe did for us “back when.”

    I’m sorry to report that the book has a fatal flaw — a lack of stance. I am not exaggerating when I say that virtually every page in this book ceaselessly over-utilizes certain words and phrases, e.g. “might have,” “might not,” “likely to be,” “on the other hand,” “possibly,” “it is unknown but perhaps.” The result is this very dull compendium of possibilities — each one of which is paired with its conceptual opposite such that the reader is left without any hope of choosing one over the other — even on an intuitive basis. With Sagan and Shklovskii, I felt that I came away knowing more, having better hunches about reality, and Michaud’s book left me asking “Where’s the beef?” This book tastes like cardboard.

    Certainly the book covers all the major bases, certainly Michaud quotes endlessly the various conjectures of famous minds in astronomy, and certainly Michaud honors the thoughts of science fiction writers, but I just felt it was a hard long slog to read the book. Michaud never tells us what he’d put his money on, and it turns out that that was what I wanted most from him. I so wanted this book to be another Sagan and Shklovskii epiphanous moment.

    Oh, the delicious, the tasty, the hot off the grill details are all there in the 80 pages of bibliography at the end of the book, but he just doesn’t bring “the juice” of all that scholarship to his book. I would have to read what he read in order to get the “same hit” that I got from Sagan and Shklovskii.

    So, I don’t recommend this book despite the fact that it covers the concepts.


  • ljk June 12, 2007, 12:05

    The link to the first article on the book here:


  • Administrator June 12, 2007, 13:43

    Thanks for these thoughts, Edg, much appreciated. I’m still planning to get to this one soon, but keeping up with papers has been absorbing all my time recently. More on Michaud’s topics soon, though, along with another new title by Giancarlo Genta — Lonely Minds in the Universe: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — that covers some of the same ground.

  • Athena June 12, 2007, 15:01

    From the Amazon blurbs, Genta’s book sounds more interesting than Michaud’s. After all, there is so much “on one hand… on the other hand…” that a reader can take.

    As for our thoughts regarding the friendliness or hostility of alien civilizations, I think they have much more to do with the cultural mood than anything intrinsic astrobiological observations. In the Sagan era, the US was looking forward and outward. Now it’s watching its navel and YouTube. Not the best climate for exploration.

  • ljk June 12, 2007, 16:09

    There is also David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets:


    And Dennis Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos.

  • Administrator June 12, 2007, 18:29

    I love the Overbye book and reviewed it in the local paper when it first came out. Overbye is a terrific writer. Looking forward to the Grinspoon, as he’s a perceptive and highly original thinker and, of course, deeply involved in his subject.

  • Darnell Clayton June 12, 2007, 20:28

    As for our thoughts regarding the friendliness or hostility of alien civilizations, I think they have much more to do with the cultural mood than anything intrinsic astrobiological observations.

    It also may have to do with the possibility of whether or not we have colonized our own solar system.

    If you were a friendly alien flying through the cosmos, who would you rather deal with? A civilization still bound to the surface of its home planet, or one that has spread across its star system?

    I think the latter would be much more exciting…especially if other Earth’s are more common.

  • Ron S June 12, 2007, 22:35

    We might get some unexpected combinations of friendliness and perspective on rights…

    “Hello! All your base are belong to us. Please accept gift of Galactipedia interface. L8r.”

    I find the issue of property rights interesting in this topic. This is core to the economic and social institutions of our developed nations. We’ve already had to deal with this, somewhat imperfectly, with Antarctica, the high seas, the sea floor and even the Moon. Does humanity own Mars, Ceres and Pluto? Or, perhaps, which humans. Admittedly I feel some proprietary feelings (as one member of humanity) toward the solar system. Would ET see things the same way? Do rovers and satellites around Mars stake our claim? How about Pluto, where we’ve yet to leave any artifacts?

    In another situation, how about when we send a probe to an exoplanet. Even if we make a diligent effort to first ensure it is unoccupied, dropping a probe could rile an ET that, in their view of property rights, is annoying or hostile. We likely would be similarly alarmed at seeing an incoming robot craft take up residence on Mars. How did native Americans feel on first seeing Europeans plant a flag on their beaches?

  • Athena June 12, 2007, 23:06

    Ron asked: How did native Americans feel on first seeing Europeans plant a flag on their beaches?

    For a partial answer to this, read Charles Mann’s 1491. Wonderful book. Native Americans had different views of land ownership, depending on their specific culture. Some considered land unownable. Some held land in common. Some were as hierarchical and territorial as the Europeans.

  • ljk June 25, 2007, 14:40

    Michaud is not sitting on the fence regarding certain aspects
    of SETI, as quoted here:

    “Michael Michaud, a former US diplomat and chairman of the Transmissions from Earth Working Group – a subdivision of the International Astronomical Union’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Study Group established in 2001 – is on the verge of resigning in frustration at the lack of discussion about the problem. He believes it is being confined to a narrow group of scientists who share the same limited astronomical viewpoints and he wants the study group widened beyond its current remit to include planetary scientists, philosophers, historians and so on. He sees it as a problem that affects all of humanity – and one that should be debated as such.”


  • ljk July 9, 2007, 10:35

    Review: Contact with Alien Civilizations

    Considerable thought has been given regarding how to look for
    evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations, but should be be looking
    for it at all? Kenneth Silber reviews a book that explores not just
    how SETI searches are performed, but also the societal implications
    of success.


  • Antonio July 20, 2007, 12:35

    Well, to me, the whole idea of finding an ET signal is a matter of time, regardless of the academic discussion about being appropriate or not. Innovative technologies will allow that some day.

    But that is just half of the equation, and I think we haven’t put much effort in (message) decoding technologies. The worst case scenario would that we (humans) misunderstand a communication from an ET civilization. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t surprise me. And I believe Michaud’s book is a good reference and ask some interesting questions.

    I also have a book from Brian McConnell called Beyond Contact, A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations. Worth a read.

  • ljk August 3, 2007, 11:10

    37th Symposium on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

    Glasgow, Scotland

    30 September – 4 October, 2008


    ISSOL Meeting:

    XV International Conference on the Origin of Life – 24-29 August 2008

    Florence, Italy


  • ljk August 6, 2007, 14:03


    * Greatest Mysteries: Does Alien Life Exist?


    Hardy microbes and new planets make scientists hopeful.

    * Largest Known Exoplanet Discovered


    The largest planet ever discovered theoretically should not even exist,
    scientists say.