Meeting ET

Civilizations hundreds or thousands or millions of years beyond us should have sciences and technologies so far beyond our present capabilities as to be indistinguishable from magic. It's not that what they do can violate the laws of physics; it's that we will not understand how they are able to use the laws of physics to do what they do.

Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection (1973)

Like Savage (1992), we can design elaborate programmes aimed at the establishment of small, high-tech, self-sufficient human communities, first on Earth, then in interplanetary space and finally throughout the Galaxy. But all such plans hinge upon a major uncertainty: what happens if we establish direct, physical contact with an extraterrestrial (ET) civilisation?

If we look to terrestrial history for guidance, we can only become depressed. When technological equals meet in the same geographical setting - as did the Hebrew refugees from Bronze Age Egypt and the Philistines from the Minoan-Mycenean world about 3,000 years ago - centuries of warfare are the probable result. And when a technologically advanced terrestrial civilization (such as Western Europeans) contacts a less advanced society (such as the American Indians), the less advanced people are at a severe disadvantage.

Astronomers who participate in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have long pondered the ethics of ET contact. Engineers planning star voyages would be well advised to follow the same course. Most of the speculation regarding diplomatic and sociological consequences of ET contact, such as the relevant sections in books by Lemarchand (1992) and McDonaugh (1987), have considered the consequences of radio contact. But what if contact comes through starships (ours or ET's) rather than radio?

In a situation of that type, the expertise of sociologists and other humanists might be of more use than that of the physical scientists. For sociological perspectives regarding ET contact, the reader is urged to consult the work of

Harrison (1997), Schenkel (1999) and Tarter (1996). Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute believes that human-ET contact might be facilitated through the use of interstellar messages communicating spiritual as well as scientific principles (Vakoch, 1999).

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