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On the Enigma of Arrival

The death of V.S. Naipaul (1932-2018), that cross-grained and all too combative man who saw so unflinchingly into the post-colonial lands from which he drew his heritage, invariably brings to mind his strangest novel, The Enigma of Arrival (Vintage Books, 1987). Temporarily settled into a cottage in Wiltshire in rural England, the author looks back on his career in search of a renewal as cyclic as the seasons. Landscape inspires creativity in this deeply visualized microcosm, even as Naipaul broods over the painting that gives the book its title.

The novel is an odd, self-indulgent work, one I completed more out of a sense of duty (I was reviewing it for a newspaper) than enthusiasm. Yet its introspective imagery keeps resonating. Naipaul was obsessed with the sub-story of the painting, showing the arrival of a visitor at a strange port city and implying a subsequent journey that would in some way parallel his own career.

The work of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), ‘The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon’ is a canvas showing this surreal cityscape, a world fitting into Naipaul’s autobiographical meditation with its characters disembarked in a place suggestive of antiquity under a brooding Levantine sky.

A classical scene, Mediterranean, ancient-Roman — or so I saw it [writes Naipaul]. A wharf; in the background, beyond walls and gateways (like cutouts), there is the top of the mast of an antique vessel; on an otherwise deserted street in the foreground there are two figures, both muffled, one perhaps the person who has arrived, the other perhaps a native of the port. The scene is of desolation and mystery…

Which gets us to interstellar flight and other, more exotic arrivals. I’ve always believed that if we ever do discover hard evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization, that experience will not translate into trade opportunities or galactic encyclopedias but mysteries that leave us in some ways more baffled about the nature of intelligence than ever before. I draw a distinction here between ‘contact’ and ‘encounter,’ which are entirely different things, and wonder what this kind of arrival would look like to humans finding evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Here I’ll invoke the splendid novel Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1971). Alien artifacts appear at various places on Earth, so-called ‘zones of visitation’ filled with bizarre items, many of them dangerous, and inexplicable happenings. Unseen themselves, the aliens are glimpsed only through what they leave behind in our region of spacetime before moving on. Protagonist “Red” Schuhart is a ‘stalker,’ one who defies the danger to enter the alien zones in search of artifacts. What happens in a Zone can never be predicted.

He had never experienced anything like this before outside the Zone. And it had happened in the Zone only two or three times. It was as though he were in a different world. A million odors cascaded in on him at once—sharp, sweet, metallic, gentle, dangerous ones, as crude as cobblestones, as delicate and complex as watch mechanisms, as huge as a house and as tiny as a dust particle. The air became hard, it developed edges, surfaces, and corners, like space was filled with huge, stiff balloons, slippery pyramids, gigantic prickly crystals, and he had to push his way through it all, making his way in a dream through a junk store stuffed with ancient ugly furniture … It lasted a second. He opened his eyes, and everything was gone. It hadn’t been a different world—it was this world turning a new, unknown side to him. This side was revealed to him for a second and then disappeared, before he had time to figure it out.

Ursula Le Guin was quick to note the connection between the Strugatskys and the work of Stanislaw Lem, the great Polish novelist whose Solaris (1961) is widely admired and twice filmed. Here too, coping with a planet-wide ocean with its own kind of sentience, the human characters come up hard against their own preconceptions and the failure of their paradigms to understand an alien presence. Lem chided what he called ‘the myth of our cognitive universalism,’ a myth the Strugatsky’s equally exploit in the ravishingly strange Roadside Picnic. Like Naipaul, Lem has his own obsession with arrivals.

“We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos… We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us – that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence – then we don’t like it anymore.”

Is an arrival always a wakening of self-knowledge? Here I might also mention Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973), in which an alien starship passes through the Solar System, an approach that reminded many Centauri Dreams readers of the recent appearance of ‘Oumuamua. A survey vessel despatched to study the object called Rama discovers geometric structures and a ‘cylindrical sea,’ along with an atmosphere that turns out to be breathable. But Rama will not tarry. After a gravitational slingshot maneuver, it departs the Solar System for the Magellanics.

It is an arrival wrapped in mystery but, as Clarke goes on, “at least we have answered one ancient question. We are not alone. The stars will never again be the same to us.”

Could anything ever be the same? In tales like these, we confront the unknowable in disturbing ways, conflicted by our inability to establish the kind of contact that would explain and enlarge our own existence. No one can know what an actual alien contact might involve, but I suspect that dealing with an entirely separate lifeform deriving from an evolution under wholly different skies will prove to be as enigmatic as anything written by the Strugatskys, Lem or Clarke.

Arrival as Threat?

In that vein, I recently ran across an essay by astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, sent on by several readers who knew how often we’ve discussed Breakthrough Starshot in these pages. What Siegel does is to reverse the story. He wonders how the recipients of an arrival from Earth would react, and speculates that if we’re not careful, we may send entirely the wrong signal.

Breakthrough Starshot, after all, envisions pushing a fleet of small sails carrying payloads of a gram or so to a nearby stellar system. Right now the obvious target is Proxima Centauri, where we know we have a planet in the habitable zone, but we may find equally promising possibilities around Centauri A or B. The goal here is not contact but simply the opportunity to perform flybys of an interesting planet and return data and imagery, and Siegel is quick to note that sails boosted to 20 percent of lightspeed have no deceleration mechanism available to them.

The problem: A ‘cone of uncertainty’ exists for any trajectory that will take us close enough to the planet to retrieve good data, an aiming problem requiring unprecedented levels of precision. Thus the possibility that we could be entering an inhabited stellar system and colliding with a living world cannot be ruled out. Siegel notes the invariable relationship between kinetic energy and speed: Double the speed and you get four times the energy. Even our tiny 1-gram spacecraft moving at 60,000 km/sec, says Siegel, will hit with the force of a 1 tonne asteroid moving at 60 km/sec, which in effect means we could cause a Chelyabinsk-like event, or more than one.

If you were an alien on this world that got struck by these relativistic masses, what would you conclude? You’d know that these were too massive and too fast-moving to be created naturally; they were made by an intelligent civilization. You’d know that you were being intentionally targeted; space is too vast for these to strike you by random chance. And — worst of all — you’d assume this civilization had a malicious intent. No benevolent aliens would launch something so recklessly and carelessly given the damage it would cause. If we’re smart enough to send a spacecraft across the galaxy to another star, surely we can be wise enough to reckon the disastrous consequences of doing so.

What an arrival this would be. And yet, in order to study nearby worlds, we have yet to come up with a plan remotely as feasible as the admittedly longshot Breakthrough Starshot. Are there ways we can minimize this risk or eliminate it altogether while still finding a way to begin interstellar explorations? Because we do need to consider how we are perceived when we probe into the utterly unknown, and if the odds seem long that there is a civilization on Proxima b or that we might inadvertently hit the planet we are studying, they are still not zero.

The enigma of arrival is magnified and transformed when we are arriving at a place we are seeing for the first time, just as our arrival at Pluto/Charon opened up two worlds while posing new mysteries about the surfaces we flew past. Naipaul referred to de Chirico’s scene as the depiction of ‘a dangerous classical city,’ one in which the newcomer sought orientation and meaning. How much more enigmatic might our own arrival be if perceived by other intelligences? Should the need for ‘exoplanetary protection’ join our other mission parameters?

[Addendum]: Be sure to look at Avi Loeb’s spirited response to Siegel in Why Humanity Probably Won’t Accidentally Start An Interstellar War With An Alien Civilization. More on this tomorrow.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John walker August 16, 2018, 15:03

    Haven’t read much science fiction, but I do remember the three stories you site having read them as a kid. They are a very welcome counterpoint to the groaningly anthropomorphic works that populate our tv and cinemas and to a large degree define the infantile constructs which most people seem to imagine and even wish eti will be like. Sigh.

    Ethan Siegels thoughts on misinterpretation I have not read. But at least in the Breakthrough Starshot/Proxima context, your description of his concern seems very much at odds with math and logic. On the math side, the chances of a collision with any body on this route is extremely small. And on the logic(actually math part 2)side, if, yes if, a civilisation were located there, for them to be simultaneously capable of detecting the probe, yet also unable to conclude its benign design(intent), suggests that they occupy a position on a technological development scale that in a terrestrial context(arbitrary comparison) may last perhaps 100 years. A little earlier, no detection. A little later no threat evaluation. Catching a civilization at exactly that point in their history is also highly unlikely.

    • Paul Gilster August 16, 2018, 16:28

      I’ve just added as an addendum to the original text a link to Avi Loeb’s response to Siegel:


      Well worth reading, as are all Loeb’s op-eds.

    • Ron S. August 16, 2018, 17:41

      “chances of a collision”

      That isn’t what Siegal says. He describes a spacecraft directed towards an exoplanet for the purpose of exploration. If the trajectory is a close observational pass there is indeed a significant risk of collision (and loss of the spacecraft).

      For a random trajectory there are indeed vastly more ways to miss an exoplanet than hit it.

    • hiro August 17, 2018, 15:08

      This reminds me a certain object passing our planet from below several million miles away. Sadly, we can’t check for sure it’s simply just a darn rock having odd shape. It should be easy for an “almost type I civilization” but we fail “biggly”, sigh….

  • Geoffrey Hillend August 16, 2018, 15:49

    It is very improbably that Proxima B has intelligent life or any life at all. Consequently, we need not worry about ethics provided it does not escape the Centauri system and collide with a exoplanet in another system thousands of years later. It would be nice if a interstellar space craft could be able to slow down and be captured by the solar system it is sent or collide destructively with the systems Sun after a flyby.

    • Joe H. August 30, 2018, 18:31

      There are some interesting studies that show a light sail could use the sunlight from Alpha Centauri A to slow down and then redirect to Proxima Centauri. This would allow a chip size craft to orbit Proxima Centauri and spend much more time looking at planets. However this idea extends the time to reach Proxima Centauri from 25 years to over 80. It also makes the voyage much more complex and difficult.

  • Geoffrey Hillend August 16, 2018, 15:55

    It is also important to know about the space debris problem. What is the probability of damage from high velocity space debris to the spacecraft? If some space debris hits the guidance system and makes it malfunction or not operable, then we have a unguided vehicle. Maybe the right trajectory directly towards the Proxima A might cure that problem through a final destruction of the spacecraft.

    • Ron S. August 16, 2018, 17:42

      “destruction of the spacecraft”

      How? You’d have to make it disappear entirely. Otherwise you would only succeed in converting one projectile into thousands of smaller ones.

      • Mephane August 20, 2018, 2:53

        A trajectory aimed for collision with a star seems like the best option here to destroy the probe, similarly to how Cassini was plunged into Saturn to burn up at the end of the mission.

  • Henry Cate August 16, 2018, 15:59

    Not true :”Siegel is quick to note that sails boosted to 20 percent of lightspeed have no deceleration mechanism available to them.”

    Jeff Greason’s Mag Drag is a deceleration mechanism with low mass penalty.

  • Geoffrey Hillend August 16, 2018, 22:00

    A dead center hit with Promixa A would vaporize it and with Promixa B also or what’s left would hit the surface of Promixa B.

    • Jed August 20, 2018, 19:21

      The probes would have the energy of a 1-ton asteroid at 60 km/s. For comparison, the Chelyabinsk meteor was over 10,000 tons at 19 km/s. About 1000 times the kinetic energy of one of those probes, and all it did was break windows. You need a lot more than that to vaporize a planet, let alone a star.

      • Mark Zambelli August 23, 2018, 9:49

        Exactly. (You beat me to it).

  • Ronald August 17, 2018, 5:26

    I already knew that Paul has a good taste with regard to SF literature: Roadside Picnic, Solaris and Rendezvous with Rama are among my own favorites;
    I could add a few more in this genre, notably by Lem (Eden, His Master’s Voice, The Invincible, Fiasco) and off course Clarke’s Space Odyssey series.

    The overruling theme here is the (near-) impossibility of meaningful communication between truly alien species.

    This is also well pictured in the recent (and I think exceptionally good) SF movie Arrival.

    What we can say beyond reasonable doubt is that all living beings attempt to survive and procreate. And that more intelligent beings will also try to reach and maintain a state of perceived well-being, or ‘happiness’.
    Because of the principle of convergent (or analogous) evolution (similar conditions will result in similar forms and functions), it is likely that this is universally true.

    Giant octopuses have at least canine/feline intelligencer, if not considerably more.
    But what makes an octopus happy? And what are its higher goals?

    The question is to what extent higher intelligence will invariably lead to similar concepts, understanding, morality, emotions, purposes, etc.

  • Alex Tolley August 17, 2018, 11:28

    The issue of being able to understand and communicate with shared views between species was made famous[/] by Nagel with his:
    What Is it Like to Be a Bat

    Nagel considered the bat, a mammal. How much harder to deal with non-mammals. How much more difficult to deal with aliens?

    OTOH, the late John McCarthy, of Lisp and AI fame, argued at a SETI meeting that intelligence would experience convergent evolution, and therefore that communication with intelligent aliens would be easier. But communication is different from being able to experience the qualia of their experience. We can crudely communicate with a number of species, even if it is just our pet cats and dogs. But deeper understanding requires a deeper sharing of others’ experience.

    “Roadside Picnic” is somewhat analogous to an ant’s experience of a human stepping nearby. A transient, unexplainable intrusive event.
    Despite the message of “Roadside Picnic” and “His Master’s Voice”, I think we will be able to communicate, even if this is mostly managed by advanced AIs. [This might be the latest version of “magic pixie dust”.] We won’t likely be able to understand them, but our technologies will allow mutual communication at some basic level.

    Perhaps more problematic is if we meet alien intelligence on an exoplanet, but that it is non-technological and perhaps at the level of H. erectus, but embodied in a totally alien species, perhaps with different sensory modes.

  • Al Jackson August 17, 2018, 12:33

    An eloquent essay Paul.

    • Paul Gilster August 17, 2018, 13:32

      Thanks, Al! Please keep me posted on your thoughts on WorldCon.

  • DCM August 17, 2018, 16:06

    How will it change us?
    I’m old enough that when I was little the planets were mysterious orbs yielding sparse enough information to telescopes to stimulate fantasies.
    Now I’ve seen transmissions of what’s on the Moon, areas of Mars, some bits of Venus, and overviews of the moons of the gas giants, even Pluto.
    My life isn’t changed much; I don’t work in the field though I find it interesting. I’ve still had to work, look for jobs, pay bills, buy cars, and so forth. Except for knowing a bit about the nearby planets it hasn’t been especially changed.
    I doubt discovering that there’s life on some planet so distant that we couldn’t get there in 50,000 years will change what time’s remaining to me — or affect any great great great great grandchildren I might have. Don’t get me wrong, I’m interested in knowing about it but my life will be much the same as now just as it was after I saw Neil Armstrong’s giant leap….

    • Alex Tolley August 19, 2018, 17:41

      If it was proved a deity had created the universe, wouldn’t that change many people’s lives? For some people, The moon landings did change lives, by changing their goals and occupations, which in turn had ripple effects on the population.

      If we can discover life on a distant world, I have little doubt that it will stimulate all sorts of technologies that in turn will eventually effect the population. If we discover life in the solar system, that will stimulate even faster technology develop.

      • DCM August 20, 2018, 3:41

        In part, at least, my life wasn’t changed because everything found (except on Venus) was exactly what I expected by then. Venus still didn’t change anything except for sparking more “global warming” raving despite our inability to know much about its development.
        I was relieved no life was found so far because we’re free to make use of nearby planets. I’m sure that even if there is absolutely none on Mars there’ll be people who claim there was and we deliberately killed it off.
        At any rate, my life followed the same trajectory of having to work till I could retire it would have anyway.
        Don’t get me wrong: I’m interested in what we’ve learned and fully support even interstellar space exploration, but want us to develop our immediate neighborhood.

      • AlexT August 20, 2018, 3:52

        “…If we discover life in the solar system, that will stimulate even faster technology develop…”
        Can you explain , please, the logical chain that leads to this your conclusion? I cannot connect the things…

        • DCM August 20, 2018, 12:09

          I don’t know just what you mean. Discovering life would certainly advance our knowledge of biology. I never said it wouldn’t. I’m just glad it appears we won’t be killing any off by making use of nearby planets.
          But unless it’s infectious microbes that make their way here I don’t understand how my life, except for knowing about it, will be changed.
          Everybody from the previous century and a few decades before knew there could be life outside the Earth. The possibility was the source of entertainment and higher speculation. Finding out whether or not it’s there, short of an invasion, would really change none of our lives except astronomers’, biologists’, and engineers’.
          I don’t understand what’s wrong with that statement or mine that the seeming lack of near Earth life made no actual difference in my life.
          Is that what you’re getting at? It changed few lives.

          • Alex Tolley August 20, 2018, 13:14

            DCM, you also included that Apollo 11 didn’t change your life. However, you are aware that there was a boom in the 1960s for both aerospace and electronics, the benefits of which are both evident today and do affect your life. Some of that boom was stimulated by the excitement of the race to the Moon that changed the zeitgeist.

            If we find life in the solar system, this will stimulate technologies, including medical ones, that will change your life, assuming you live long enough. If we can only detect proxies for life on exoplanets, that will also stimulate technologies in a number of fields which will “spin-off” benefits for life here, some of which will affect you both directly and indirectly.

            In both examples, “commercial concerns are not applicable” technology development to achieve certain goals takes place, which is later commercialized via reducing costs.

            Some effects are more subtle, and almost philosophical. If we find no evidence of life anywhere, we just may become more concerned about life on Earth which will affect policies and programs that will improve our biosphere which in turn will impact health, especially for those most currently affected by a degraded environment.

            That’s my 2 cents.

            • DCM August 20, 2018, 17:13

              No doubt I benefited from the advances in technology. It just didn’t change what I had to do in the daily course of living. It probably made some things easier but I don’t know that technology would’ve improved, but more slowly. Since I never worked in some of the fields directly affected the course of my life was only marginally, if at all, altered.

              The possibility we’re alone is why I emphasize the need to develop an ability to use nearby planets and to build biospheres in space. We’ll more likely survive if we’re dispersed. The possibility of being the only life or at least the only life we’ll ever know about makes this urgent in my opinion, more so than spending vast sums trying to find or hear from anyone else.

              Besides, we have to be more numerous and powerful than now if we do find them.

              I’m puzzled by the controversy here. I’m all for everything discussed along these lines. I just don’t see my life as much changed from what it would’ve been. Why this seems discouraging or negative to anyone is beyond me.

              • AlexT August 21, 2018, 4:16

                DCM – I fully agree with all your arguments!

              • Alex Tolley August 21, 2018, 12:16

                I am just going to accept that not everyone is affected by discoveries. I personally have found that discoveries change my thinking and therefore have changed my actions. Just the effect of scientific discoveries occurring means that my attention is drawn to those, rather than to other things, which in turn changes my future actions as my brain is being rewired differently. If we lived in a stagnant age with few discoveries, I have little doubt that my life would have been rather different, perhaps with a fatalistic outlook that was prevalent in much earlier ages.

          • Alex Tolley August 20, 2018, 15:58

            DCM, you mentioned that the Moon landings did not affect your life. Maybe not obviously, but the 1960s boom in aerospace and electronics stimulated partly by the race to the Moon did have an effect.

            If we found life in the solar system, that would definitely stimulate biological and medical techniques and applications. Life inferred via proxies on exoplanets might stimulate technologies to better detect and analyze it remotely.

            Typically, non-commercial technologies eventually become commercialized by finding methods to reduce costs, first for industrial applications, then consumer ones.

            There is also a possible philosophical effect too. If we can not detect ET life at all, it may restimulate a greater concern for Earth’s biosphere, much as the backlash against pollution stimulated the 1970s concern for ecology and the environment. That should affect you via policies and laws designed to improve the environment.

            While some effects will have a crude, immediate wallet impact, most will be more subtle in that they change the trajectory of developments and the zeitgeist. You may want to think about how your life has changed over the last half century or so, and how specific events have contributed to those changes. If only James Burke’s Connections had examined more contemporary science and technology.

          • AlexT August 21, 2018, 4:09

            DCM , I supose too that extraterrestrial life discovery will not change alomost nothing in our civilization development, mostly because this possibility was never fully denied by any known to me Earth culture, even religions allow it :-)
            I seams to me, that only science still in doubt :-)
            So I am sure life discovery on the Mars or Ganimed or Enceladus – will not bring acceleration to our technological development.
            In distinguish – the fisrt man’s step on the Moon showed to human being the new horizonts for expantion, but I am not sure that this event changed a lot in our development, since last Appolo landing, almost 50 no human being landed on the Moon – this is the best illustration to my pessimistic point of view on influence of ETL finding event to our development.
            Opposite , I suppose that if the New found ET life will be dangerous to humand being – this fact can deccelerate our technological development in the space exploration/expansion area.

            • DCM August 21, 2018, 12:15

              I find it discouraging we haven’t followed up the Moon landings for the reasons mentioned beaised just wanting to know more.
              Remember most of the people in Europe didn’t find their lives much changed when Spain invaded the Caribbean, then Mexico. (And they largely forgot about the Vikings landing in Canada; Spain then other countries were financed by powerful governments trying to get to China without dealing with Islamic countries. They simply employed intrepid and curious persons.)
              Most of the people here, despite the large migration, result from natural increase of settlers.

              • Alex Tolley August 21, 2018, 13:59

                The Spanish colonization of the New World and the search for gold resulted in inflation in Spain as the economy’s growth did not keep pace with the increased gold supply. Don’t tell me that did not affect the home population.

                • DCM August 21, 2018, 17:04

                  It did but it didn’t change their outlook on such things as religion, government, family….or cosmology. Desperation might’ve changed practices but not permanently.
                  Kinross, a historian whose first name I forget, noted that the huge quantities of gold and silver made European countries far richer and debased the coinage in once powerful countries like Persia and China. A little realized edge the West had.

      • AlexT August 21, 2018, 4:30

        “If it was proved a deity had created the universe…” – this fact could change everything on our planet (new holy wars, inquizition, etc.)

        But when we are talking about the aswer to the question : “is there extraterrestrial life” – we are in very different situation, because only scientists are not confident in ETL existence .

        • Alex Tolley August 21, 2018, 12:05

          Are you saying beings that are deities to us are not living? What I think you mean is that life well below human intelligence levels would not necessarily change public perceptions.

          • AlexT August 21, 2018, 15:48

            In my notes on this topic I talking about non intelligent life finding.
            I suppose also that the finding of intelligent life which has higher than our level , in some conditions , can have influence similar to “deity creation” proves.

          • AlexT August 21, 2018, 16:06

            “Are you saying beings that are deities to us are not living?”
            No, I suppose that belief in deity is very personal issue and cannot have the common meaning for all of us…
            Some of us believe deity is existing and super live, some believe it is only fantasy.

            • ljk August 23, 2018, 9:52

              Remember when NASA announced they thought they found microfossils in a meteorite from Mars in 1996? The human race doesn’t seem to have been terribly affected in a positive direction from it since.

              It will probably take the equivalent of Klaatu and Gort landing their shiny flying saucer on the White House lawn to get the attention of humanity and affect any real collective change of mindsets.

              • Alex Tolley August 23, 2018, 11:27

                Threatening nuclear war with NK might just bring Klaatu & Gort to warn us of the consequences.

                Obviously, people and groups respond to different things depending on their interests and perceptions. It is the more subtle n-th order effects that seem to be ignored, yet will change social trajectories that should be studied. It is almost the reverse of “For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost”, i.e. a butterfly effect that ripples out with positive changes to society.

              • AlexT August 25, 2018, 2:46

                By the way, about “microfossils in 1996”, I am not sure , but it seams to me that for the first time that I read about microfossils finding in meteorite in the book that was published earlier than 1996, I my memory is correct this book about exraterrestrial life had similar photo (with microfossils), but dated by domthing 1980-x years…
                May be it is only interference in my memory :-), but I am pretty sure that first finding of this “fossils” under question was maid significantly earlier than 1996…
                Please correct me someone knows this better.
                But yes , it seams this event did not changed a lot in our life.

  • ljk August 23, 2018, 10:15

    An excellent article, Paul. Your examples highlight which human cultures may be more ready for First Contact/Detection, or at least will be more realistic about how events may actually play out.

    That oft-use quote about how the Universe is under no obligation to behave in ways that support or otherwise comfort/conform to humanity definitely extends to any intelligences out there. Stanislaw Lem’s 1968 novel, His Master’s Voice, portrays this beautifully.

    Contrast this even with Carl Sagan’s Contact, both the 1985 novel and the 1997 film, which presumes ETI will deliberately get our attention with mathematics via radio, then send us blueprints to build a device to meet the aliens in person as the first step in slowly bringing humanity into the Galactic Club.

    Not saying this could not happen, but I can also imagine our species and our world being treated like an ant colony in the middle of a construction site.

    We so desperately want to think we are special in the Grand Scheme of things. This feeling has only been heightened now that science is revealing just how brief and tiny we really are in the Cosmos, whether it has aliens or not.

    • Alex Tolley August 23, 2018, 14:35

      (…)presumes ETI will deliberately get our attention with mathematics via radio, then send us blueprints to build a device to meet the aliens in person as the first step in slowly bringing humanity into the Galactic Club.

      I have to wonder if this isn’t a result of theist religions that posit:
      1. Humans are special and the center of the universe. (we are not ants in a construction site)
      2. There is a creator who cares about us (Advanced ET exists and knows about us)
      3. We can gain the creator’s attention and possible favors if we offer ritual supplication. (we can attract attention and communicate with mathematical protocols and maybe get a direct communication or meeting. The ETI will be interested in us to make this happen.)

      • J. Jason Wentworth August 26, 2018, 6:51

        #1 is an often-quoted, but incorrect, assumption about the western monotheistic religions. (Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke also made that error; C. S. Lewis, who was a Christian theologian as well as a science fiction author, wrote extensively about aliens and God.) Judaism, Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Mormon), and–I’m pretty sure–Islam teach that the human race attracted Divine attention for the same reason that a ne’er-do-well child in a family (like in the parable of the prodigal son) does–not because humanity is special and the center of the universe, but because the human race blew it and requires an intervention, and:

        They agree with #2, but for a different reason–the Creator does care about humanity, but in the same “tough love” way that a youth who has gone astray is loved by his or her parents (with patience mingled with frustration). #3 is, unfortunately, unnecessary because the human race has already attracted Divine attention, and not due to positive causes. Also:

        If intelligent extraterrestrial life is discovered, very few if any members of the aforementioned faiths will be troubled (their theologians and clergy certainly won’t be). Even the Reverend Billy Graham expected that such aliens exist, and he said that he wouldn’t preach the Gospel to aliens because if they are fallen like Man (which he thought might not be the case; C. S. Lewis also discussed this), God has provided a different means of Salvation, which is appropriate to them. As well:

        The Qur’an (Koran) even hints at the existence of mortal beings elsewhere. Even the Amish would not be surprised or troubled if intelligent aliens were found (or if they found us); they would say something like, “The Lord is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, so it is no strange thing that He should have given other peoples abodes elsewhere in the starry firmament, that they too might glorify Him.” Members of other faiths and spiritual paths (Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Taoists, animists, pagans, and shamanic peoples) would be surprised if life elsewhere [other mortals, not just spiritual beings] *wasn’t* found.)

        • DCM August 26, 2018, 11:32

          A reason I’m not religious is that instead of seeing us as a natural product of conditions that has become more capable of increasing our own efficiency at survival most religions teach that we’re evil and wrong and need help. Unfortunately that proposed help cannot be proven to exist or not to, resulting in vicious, brutal conflicts.
          I find it really peculiar that people think not being religious is negative and debasing, much as they believe Darwin or Machiavelli want people to fight and kill rather than to become aware of such and try to improve without it.
          In fact, the knowledge so powerful a being as God exists, if so, is quite useless since nobody could possibly influence Him except by sheer coincidence.

  • DCM August 23, 2018, 17:10

    Much ET speculation is religious. I knew some 1950s flying saucer guys as a kid. They were much concerned with enlightenment and ancient wisdom that’s been hidden. Like Adamski they saw aliens as superior humans seeking to bring us the Truth.
    There was much speculation about parting the Red Sea and the Ark of the Covenant as some kind of power supply, supplied by aliens. It was an attempt to explain miracles in modern terms and thus keep religion safe from scientific discrediting.
    It was always people long ago and far away whom aliens taught (“how could anyone long ago stack a bunch of rocks into a pyramid?”) I await evidence aliens told Benjamin Franklin lightening was electricity and how he could prove it….
    Klaatu and Gort did nothing miraculous. They were nothing but imperialists. Just as Western and Asian civilizations sent people to more primitive cultures, showed off their superior weapons and said to follow their rules or be wiped out, those two showed up on Earth. Nothing new, no insights or superior behavior, just more advanced technology and firepower.
    Such things reveal the aliens supposedly zipping about the skies then were figments. They acted like humans and they imparted no wisdom.

  • ljk September 1, 2018, 13:51

    And a child shall lead them…


    Children do have one big advantage of adults: A lack of decades of social programming and conformity. Meeting a species that also was not run through the Human Society machine may work best with an equally unaffected being.

  • ljk September 1, 2018, 15:01

    Is current humanity ready to meet a real ETI? Of course not.

    Is the Universe going to keep ETI off limits from us because we are supposedly so young and cosmically parochial? Very probably not.

    People are not ready for earthquakes and hurricanes, but they happen just the same and the fact that humans are small creatures in their zones does not mean they will be spared.

    While it is not impossible, I find it doubtful that there is a version of Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” out there or that we are under some kind of galactic quarantine until we grow up, however one defines that. Can an alien mind evolved on an alien world determine such things about humanity? Could we do the same for them, especially if they look and act nothing like us?

    It is one thing if a space expedition to an alien world is careful not to interfere or spread disease to the native inhabitants, but how does one determine where an alien species is at on the cultural level?

    Star Trek with its humanoid focus assumed civilizations which did not have warp drive were not ready to join the United Federation of Planets (UFP). But would and should that be the only factor? Sounds rather elitist if you think about it. What about species who are highly evolved biologically but decided they didn’t need to invent either the wheel or warp drive? Then again, such beings may not have any need for the Federation, either.

    The more I read and learn, the more I think Stanislaw Lem was right on the money about humans venturing into and dealing with space. Just the same, we may find ETI some day, or they us, and we may have to deal with whatever they are like and whatever their motives may be. It just may not go according to the Hollywood playbook.

  • ljk September 4, 2018, 9:15
  • ljk September 5, 2018, 9:09

    “Where are they?”: SETI and modern science fiction

    Making contact with extraterrestrial intelligence has long been a theme of science fiction. Vidvuds Beldavs examines how one recent trilogy by a Chinese author explores that topic in a new and compelling way.

    Tuesday, September 4, 2018


    To quote:

    Ultimately, the trilogy embodies a deep optimism that life, love, and compassion can endure in a dark and hostile universe marked by “cosmic sociology” where innumerable intelligent civilizations struggle against each other in a universe with a fixed pie of resources. This is the ultimate win-lose struggle and the laws of physics become the ultimate weapons in the struggle. Stephen Hawking once stated that aliens could be “vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.” That is the logic of The Dark Forest. Liu transcends this, however. Liu also examines the nature of time in a universe where ten-dimensional space can be unfolded into three-dimensional space or can be compressed and where time can flow in multiple paths.

  • ljk September 5, 2018, 9:32

    Does anyone have access to this paper in full? If so can you post the link here? Thank you!

    A profile of humanity: the cultural signature of Earth’s inhabitants beyond the atmosphere

    Paul E. Quast (a1)


    Published online: 15 August 2018


    The eclectic range of artefacts and ‘messages’ we dispatch into the vast expanse of space may become one of the most enduring remnants of our present civilization, but how does his protracted legacy adequately document the plurality of societal values and common, cultural heritage on our heterogeneous world?

    For decades now, this rendition of the egalitarian principle has been explored by the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence community in order to draft theoretical responses to ‘who speaks for Earth?’ for hypothetical extra-terrestrial communication strategies. However, besides the moral, ethical and democratic advancements made by this particular enterprise, there remains little practical exemplars of implementing this garnered knowledge into other experimental elements that could function as mutual emissaries of Earth; physical artefacts that could provide accessible details about our present world for future archaeological observations by our space-faring progeny, potential visiting extrasolar denizens or even for posterity.

    While some initiatives have been founded to investigate this enduring dilemma of humanity over the last half-century, there are very few comparative studies in regards to how these objects, time capsules and transmission events collectively disseminate content about the aggregate of our species and the Earth system it inhabits.

    This catalogue, assembled for extended study as part of the Beyond the Earth foundation, is intended as an initial, dialogic step towards evaluating such a ‘profile of humanity’. This investigation will endeavour to collate all cultural resources that can presently be garnered from spacecraft (non-mission orientated, cultural material that conveys an impression of Earth) and non-terrestrial transmissions (electromagnetic signals that are intentionally aimed off-world to embody humanities’ evolving, philosophical identity) in the expanse beyond our planetary borders in order to cross-analyse how we presently illustrate the diversity of our planet before, subsequently, deducing how we could appropriately depict our collective human civilization [and biosphere] within deep space and cosmic time.


  • ljk September 5, 2018, 9:39


    Willoh S. Weiland

    Saturday 31 May, 2008, 9 pm

    The Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Kings Domain Gardens, Linlithgow Ave, Melbourne



    Yelling at Stars


    Yelling at Stars was Australia’s first inter-stellar message to be transmitted deep into outer space on the closing nights of the 2008 Next Wave Festival at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.

    The transmission was a 40-minute sound, audiovisual and performance work prefaced with an introduction by SBS Television’s World News Australia presenter Anton Enus.

    The live performance was recorded and streamed live to Deep Space Communications Network in Florida, USA, where it was converted into radio waves and transmitted approximately 4 light years into space.

    The performance was supported by a major web-based component, in which the ‘Yelling at Stars’ team lead viewers through the many philosophical and scientific issues involved in interstellar communications. This can be viewed at:


    Read Cynthia Troup’s article in Realtime HERE.


    Yelling at Stars was created as part of Willoh’s Residency and Mentorship with Aphids.

    Aphids Residencies and Mentoring Scheme was established with the support of the Sidney Myer Fund.

    To quote from the linked article:

    “Whether sent out with the Pioneer spacecraft, or as equations via radio waves, the messages really make no attempt to convey the plurality, chaos and poeticism of existence. And because they’re transformed into code, they’re also dominated by issues of translatability. So they seem to magnify problems of representation that I encounter on this planet all the time. And if the human desire to communicate with outer space is based on an authentic desire to share knowledge, then presenting ourselves as a well-adjusted bunch of geniuses won’t start an honest dialogue.”