if the aliens are here, we’re all in big trouble
Apparently, American media decided that a global pandemic, the erosion of democracy and rule of law, helicopters flying on Mars, and new spasm of geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East just weren’t enough and started trying to report on decades of persistent rumors of genuinely weird and mysterious UFOs among military personnel. Oddly enough, none of this is new or even that shocking if you’ve followed these stories over the years. Every once in a while, you’ll have a big enough group of pilots or officers to capture reporters’ attention and make big claims about odd sightings and bizarre lights in the sky, people talk about it, then forget the subject when there’s predictably no follow up in the mainstream press.
Now, it’s important to note that 99.999% of UFO sightings are either misidentified satellites, or natural phenomena, or drones, or yes, top secret military and spy craft tests deliberately cast as possible alien probes from the stars. Interstellar travel is extremely difficult and while it’s more or less a statistical certainty that something in the universe either does or will eventually jump from one solar system to another on a regular basis, the odds of existing at the same time and in the same space with that something are quite literally astronomical. Likewise, alien life would have little incentive to deliberately travel here to interact with us or start wars. They likely don’t even know we exist.
But let’s set practicality aside for a moment and consider that 0.001% of sightings that we can’t explain no matter how hard we try. Strange things that boggle scientists’ minds do happen, as in the case of the Wow! Signal for which the best possible explanation involves alien life in some form. So, for the sake of argument, why don’t we posit that at least a few UFOs do come from an extraterrestrial source and we have absolutely no other explanation for these objects. In an ideal world, one would actually crash and when we analyze what it’s made of, we’ll find that the materials are different from anything that exists on Earth and assembled by a process we don’t understand or have the capacity to replicate.
how would the aliens get here?
If another intelligent species is visiting us, the laws of physics say they would do it in two ways. The first would be with tiny little machines we could easily miss, the kind we’re thinking of trying to launch toward Alpha Centauri. A tiny, CPU-sized craft flying by on a laser-powered solar sail could go much faster than any sizable spaceship and offer a lot of data about extrasolar worlds should it survive the journey. Alien civilizations could launch millions of these tiny craft at stars in which they’re interested and analyze reams of data from repeated flybys in the comfort of their home plants while we’re none the wiser because we’d likely chalk up any anomalous signals these probes emit to calibration errors and system noise.
But if this approach doesn’t work for them over the long term, they’d have to pick option number two. Whether it would be fully automated or require a crew, the end result would be a ship that could dwarf our largest aircraft carriers. Imagine something like the Burj Khalifa on steroids and powered by a cluster of fusion reactors, spinning around its own axis to create gravity, which is very important for long duration space travel. This is probably a bare minimum given the energy requirements for relativistic travel or warp drives, and the improbability of using wormholes for shortcuts during the journey. Craft that big would be almost impossible not to detect since they would shower the solar system in high intensity radiation.
And that’s not all. As sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson observed when writing a novel about the very crappy time the crew of a generation ship would face, you simply can’t put a closed system into the vacuum of space for centuries and expect things not to break down. So, if we or aliens build and launch such monstrously large and complex craft, we’re not going to make it a closed system. It will be constantly resupplied with fresh crew members and resources until it reaches a destination where it can be self-sustaining and turns itself into a long term habitat. This is also something we’d be able to detect, along with the armies of robotic drones these ships will send out as forward observers.
so, you’ve bumped into an alien, now what?
As already mentioned, any alien ship we’re going to encounter in real life would most likely be a machine rather than something crewed since organic life is fragile and robots are cheap. It’s not a question of sentimentality. Extraterrestrial civilizations could very well be monstrous and have an endless supply of slaves doomed to a short and miserable existence as cannon fodder or lab rats. However, throw them in a spaceship that has to explore an alien world years in advance of their main craft and they simply wouldn’t survive unless they’re heavily modified to do so. And if we do ever discover that we’re being watched by extraterrestrial visitors, be they mechanical or cyborgs, we better get our shit together before it gets wrecked on an apocalyptic level.
If someone decided to start shooting at their probes with nukes, lasers, and railguns, our most sophisticated weapons, we would probably do a lot of damage. But what comes next is likely to be a devastating response from a species that routinely generates more energy than we use in a year just to turn slightly right for a better shot. Given what we’ve seen from the global effort to tackle the COVID pandemic, we should be horrified at the notion of alien contact because the way we act today as a civilization means that competent handling of such an important matter is pretty much out of the question, and the public’s reaction would be absolutely unhinged at best, and catastrophic at worst.
Social media would be flooded with doomsday and UFO cults celebrating the arrival of what they see as nothing less than gods from the stars, conspiracy theorists insisting that the aliens aren’t real by actors to force humanity to get along for “the elites’” benefit, and populists trying their best to undermine any effort to coordinate actual policies for moving forward by hijacking meetings to spout their typical narcissistic and jingoistic claptrap instead of actually taking the matter seriously. If you think this is too pessimistic, consider that we’re talking about a species that can’t handle gossip in digital form and treats the idea that someone could be lying to them to make money as an assault on their very souls.
how do we prepare for first contact?
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way and we absolutely have the potential to change it. We won’t need a one world government or some grand plan to turn our world into a fortress against invisible foes. What we’d really need to do is learn how to work together, how to be critical and skeptical thinkers, and how to make long term plans. We have to learn how to ignore our worst citizens, the kind who make a living dividing and scamming us while we pay them to do so, like chickens paying a fox to eat them. And we have to start emphasizing science, math, constant education, and focus on work that brings tangible results while eliminating the countless bullshit jobs that waste our time and money, while draining our mental health today.
Basically, we need a vision of where we want to be as societies and civilizations that aren’t best summed up as “change is scary, let’s go back to how things were,” and actively work towards it while keeping an eye on the sky and constantly improving our technologies. We need to start building spacecraft that could travel vast distances and learn how to defend them because if we start venturing out, we would be insane not to be properly armed in case we meet a less than peaceful alien civilization. As already noted, this is a real possibility, no matter how many UFO cults and believers pitch us a vision of aliens as enlightened sages who see war as a barbaric relic of the past.
In short, if we want to be ready to deal with other intelligent life, we have to work on ourselves, improve our planet, experiment with what we can become as a species, and live our lives with real purpose, not settle for industrialized, humdrum existences that will be forgotten soon after we drop dead. It won’t be easy or quick, and the end result almost certainly won’t be a utopia, but that’s not a realistic or even a desirable goal. (After all, someone’s utopia could be another person’s dystopian nightmare.) But if we want to be around for the long haul and face threats the galaxy can and will one day throw at us, we need to stop seeing each other as enemies or statistics, and act like an actual civilization worth preserving.