If you’re a fan of the Geekend, you’ve probably seen quite a lot of movies in which aliens invade the earth. I say "invade" because, with very few exceptions, aliens are depicted in movies as mindless, dangerous creatures out to enslave us. How we depict aliens in movies says a lot about the cultural demons we are fighting. Aliens often stand in for our hopes and fears, much like vampires keep getting recast to both show our fear of the dark and our desire to live forever as awkward teens trying to date for the first time. Mostly, we just watch the aliens blow up Hollywood’s chosen landmark and then watch Will Smith or Harrison Ford save the day. But recently, someone at NASA decided to spend a little time and think about just what an alien contact or invasion scenario might look like by writing a paper on the subject.
The media have responded to this paper with a little tongue-in-cheek commentary and occasionally with mocking for spending money on such a silly project. They particularly saved their jokes for NASA’s suggestion that aliens might invade us to stop us from destroying our planet with global warming. First off, the paper was done in the author's spare time. Second, as silly as it sounds, it is NASA’s job to track potential dangers to America that come from space -- including giant meteors and, yes, alien invasions -- and speculate on what finding E.T. will really be like. And heck, I decided it sounds like a whole lot of fun for us!
NASA breaks down a potential alien contact scenario into three buckets: beneficial, neutral, and harmful. That seems to cover it.
The beneficial scenario usually revolves around the Star Trek “first contact” scenario, in which an enlightened race beams angelically down from the cosmos to save us from our sins. Much of the thinking behind this scenario is that to get to the point where you can travel faster than light, you’ve probably solved a lot of the social ills that have hindered mankind to this point. Under this scenario, we’re usually gifted with the technology to “fix” ourselves and are welcomed into a galactic community. We’ve seen some aspect or another of this scenario in movies like ET, Cocoon, and Star Trek. It is noteworthy that I am unaware of a movie showing happy aliens produced in America in over a decade. Am I missing one?
The neutral scenario is perhaps the most scientifically interesting. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome to orchestrate a successful alien encounter. For starters, you have to learn to communicate faster than we currently can. Traveling at the speed of light, communication from planet to planet is a generational affair. Assuming similar lifecycles, the people who sent the message, “Welcome, we come in peace,” will be dead by the time we sent back the message, “Aiiieee! Who the heck are you people?” Getting your people to actually show up at our doorstep is even harder. And then if they do, what are the chances we’ll understand each other? That we’ll be compatible biologically so that we can even “see” each other. We often wonder, since there are so many planets in the universe, why we haven’t heard from one of them before. It is possible the answer is that they’re there and trying, but they’re so different we just don’t get it.
Of course, then there is the harmful scenario, Hollywood’s favorite. Ever notice how we almost never know the motivation behind the alien attack? We don’t know if they want to enslave us, eat us, or just blow us up for their entertainment. From a social point of view, that makes sense. We want to show heroism without muddling the picture with another side of the story. We did the same thing with cowboy and Indian movies before we realized the racist undertones. NASA has pointed out some interesting reasons why an alien invasion might be harmful without the mindless killing. Of course, there is the disease issue. Biological incompatibility may lead to our very own viruses and bacteria killing each other.
And another very interesting one is that a benevolent alien race might kill us because aliens see us as a threat to the order of the galaxy. They might see our destruction of our own planet, the violence we show to each other, or our impending ability to colonize space in the future as a threat to a peaceful and ordered galactic way of life. In other words, we might make otherwise nice aliens kill us in perceived self-defense. So, the next time you watch Will Smith kick some alien’s butt, remember that alien might just be there to keep us from ruining the universe for everyone else.
OK, so now it is time for the fun part. That’s when you get to post your answers to some questions. Do you believe there is alien life? Will we ever meet face to face? Will they blow us up? What do you think an alien encounter will look like? If you were writing a sci-fi movie, how would you do it? Answer below. It might just turn into a Will Smith movie.