NASA’s invading aliens?

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It’s no secret that part of the wonder of space exploration lies in the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life. Not just little green men either — encountering any kind of life, whether primitive, fungal, or even something unrecognizable, would significantly change how we see our place in the cosmos.

Despite a recent report theorizing some of the possible repercussions of extraterrestrial contact, for now aliens are still exclusive to science fiction. // Photos.com
Helping bring that fact home has been a recent article, “Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis” in the June-July issue of Acta Astronautica, which examines various outcomes of contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). The authors (including NASA-affiliated scientist Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman) write in the abstract: “We analyze a broad range of contact scenarios in terms of whether contact with ETI would benefit or harm humanity. This type of broad analysis can help us prepare for actual contact with ETI even if the details of contact do not fully resemble any specific scenario.” (The full paper, along with a non-technical summary, is available at http://sethbaum.com/ac/2011_ET-Scenarios.html.)

The authors break the possibilities down into three broad types of scenarios: those which ultimately help our species, those which would prove neutral, and those which would hurt us. It’s a good analysis, and a pretty interesting read (especially if you’re a fan of science fiction, as the authors seem to be — Star Trek, War of the Worlds, Independence Day, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and District 9 all appear as references).

Unfortunately, one particular scenario suggested by the authors has suddenly received quite a bit of media scrutiny: the idea that an alien civilization could attack us in order to protect the universe from our destructive tendencies. Many in the media have also incorrectly referred to the study as “a NASA study,” a mistake Domagal-Goldman takes partial credit for and refutes explicitly.

Now that the SETI Institute can restart its search (even if it took some begging), it’s too bad that people are using such an interesting report in such a careless way. The topic is a legitimate, scientific one, and well worth the investigation. What are your thoughts? Is SETI worth the little time and effort it gets? Have you seen any more balanced coverage of this article? Any personal experience with ETI you’d like to share? (Note: This last may not be taken seriously by our readers.)

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