Recently, a reader asked me, “Is there a particular reason why so many of your books are first contact stories?”
Great question. I’m fascinated by the concept of First Contact with extraterrestrials for a number of reasons…
1. Finding life elsewhere will profoundly change the way we see reality
Regardless of whether the life we find is intelligent, originating from beyond our solar system, or microbial on Mars, on Europa around Jupiter, or on Enceladus in orbit around Saturn, the evidence of life arising independently of Earth will change our perception of ourselves.
For thousands of years we’ve been self-centered. All the world’s religions place Earth at the center of the celestial sphere. Copernicus and Galileo were criticized for suggesting otherwise, but they were right. Religion declares that Earth is special/unique. There can be other worlds, but Earth is the center of creation, or so we’re told. To find life arising spontaneously elsewhere will overturn thousands of years of self-importance.
Is there life in outer space? Undoubtably, as that’s where Earth itself is! Earth floats in space like a cork on the ocean. Our planet is proof life can thrive in deep space.
Is there any other life in space? That’s the question we’re looking to answer. Naysayers dismissing this idea are short sighted—like those in the 1400s that refused to believe an entire continent lay to the west of Europe. As persistent as the belief was that there were only scattered islands and mythical lands, the Americas lay waiting to be discovered. Columbus himself died thinking he’d opened up a route to Asia, never realizing he’d discovered the American continent.
The observable universe contains at least 200 billion galaxies and upwards of 10^24 star systems, more than all the grains of sand in all the deserts and on all the beaches on Earth. Out of these we have conducted a cursory survey of just one (our own). When we look at planets around other stars, we’re staring at mosquitos buzzing past a porch light at a distance of a hundred yards. Our ability to see exoplanets is extraordinary, but doesn’t really tell us too much about them (yet).
We’ve detected 3,475 planets out of an estimated ten trillion planets in our galaxy alone. Our effort so far is like examining a cup of sea water looking for whales. We’ve got a long way to go, but to say there’s no life elsewhere is the height of arrogance and hubris. Given time, the odds are such attitudes will be proven wrong.
2. First Contact will mark a dividing line in history.
There have been dozens of turning points in the development of civilization, from slow burning activities like the invention of agriculture and writing, to fast-acting inventions like Gutenberg’s printing press, Galileo’s telescope, Newton’s mathematics, etc, but none of them have transformed society as much as First Contact will simply because any alien species that can reach out to us will be tens of thousands of years more advanced than us.
Imagine teaching a bronze-age people like the Egyptians or the Babylonians how to build their own iPads, or a Mars Rover, and you get an idea of just how rapidly and radically humanity will change.
3. They’ll provide a counterpoint to our intelligence.
At the moment, we are unmatched on Earth. We can do whatever we want without critique from anyone beyond those that care enough to study cause/effect, but it’s too easy for scientists to be dismissed. I’m sure there will be resistance to change, but having an independent point of reference beyond ourselves will (I hope) allow us to see our own shortcomings more clearly and change accordingly (this is the basis behind the ending to Anomaly).
Think about how our culture has changed from slave-owning days, or from when women couldn’t vote, and consider that we’re still in transition, still moving toward equality. Too often, people exploit each other for monetary gain, for ideological reasons, or out of petty selfishness—all that will be exposed as shallow and immature.
Astronauts commonly refer to the Overview Effect, where just the act of seeing Earth from orbit provides an overwhelming sense of our own personal insignificance in contrast to the sheer importance of life on our planet. Imagine if we could all experience that.
4. First Contact will help us see beyond the moment.
All too often, we’re consumed with our daily affairs and we forget just how astonishing it is to be alive. We’re like an insect crawling through the grass, not seeing the splendor of the garden around us. In reality, life is an astonishing privilege.
Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star stuff.” Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “We are the universe considering itself.” We are quite literally the universe brought to life. When I look at the stars at night, I wonder who’s looking back. Our lives are incredibly short. We’re like mayflies living for a mere five minutes. We should spend that time enriching our understanding and, from that perspective, enriching the lives of others.
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