First Contact

First con­tact is one of the main­stay themes of sci­ence fic­tion. In fact, it would not sur­prise me if it was the most com­mon theme in all sci­ence fic­tion. To the sci­en­tist in me, I’d like to under­stand many of the aspects of first con­tact and fig­ure out what the most like­ly case of con­tact would be. Thus, I under­took this analy­sis to esti­mate what I might do for my world build­ing for my sto­ries. First off, in sci­ence fic­tion, we have cas­es where there are both slow­er than light trav­el and faster than light (FTL) trav­el. So, I will need to make assump­tions about FTL that are not sup­port­ed under our cur­rent under­stand­ings that would allow us to build one. The Alcu­bierre warp dri­ve is a cap­ti­vat­ing the­o­ry root­ed in Ein­stein’s gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty equa­tions. How­ev­er, whether this is pos­si­ble has yet to be deter­mined. Anoth­er solu­tion that is root­ed in gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty is the so-called worm­hole, or Einstein/Rosen Bridge. This is lit­er­al­ly a por­tal to anoth­er point in space­time that remains the­o­ret­i­cal. So, for the FTL cas­es, I will assume either warp dri­ves or worm­holes exist.

Short science fiction by Torn MacAlester

In some respects, this is a direct con­se­quence of the arti­cles I’ve writ­ten about the Fer­mi Para­dox, the Kar­da­shev Scale, and the Drake Equa­tion. The Fer­mi Para­dox is the ques­tion about the lack of evi­dence for alien life as pro­posed by the physi­cist Enri­co Fer­mi in the 1940’s. The Kar­da­shev Scale mea­sures the tech­nol­o­gy lev­el of alien civ­i­liza­tions based on their avail­able pow­er. And the Drake Equa­tion is an esti­ma­tor for the num­ber of alien civ­i­liza­tions present in the galaxy. These three arti­cles help estab­lish a start­ing point for a dis­cus­sion about first con­tact. The Fer­mi Para­dox could mean that alien civ­i­liza­tions are scarce, or human­i­ty is among the ear­li­est to com­mu­ni­cate in the galaxy. The Kar­da­shev scale will help estab­lish detec­tion lim­its in first con­tact sit­u­a­tions. And the Drake Equa­tion will help answer how many civ­i­liza­tions might be out there! For me, wear­ing my sci­en­tist hat, under­stand­ing these num­bers was as impor­tant as putting an alien in a story.

Whether FTL is pos­si­ble or not, the advan­tage goes to the civ­i­liza­tion that hears the oth­er civ­i­liza­tion first. The key thing to remem­ber is that radio sig­nals from any civ­i­liza­tion always move away from that civ­i­liza­tion at the speed of light. The ini­tial radio broad­casts indi­cate the advance­ment of a civ­i­liza­tion’s tech­nol­o­gy. Ear­ly radio exper­i­ments may not have a strong enough sig­nal to be detect­ed over the uni­verse’s back­ground noise. The ionos­phere of the Earth reflects sig­nals back of cer­tain fre­quen­cies. To make an announce­ment, we need a pow­er­ful sig­nal that can pen­e­trate a plan­et’s ionos­phere and be detect­ed above the back­ground noise of the universe.

In the book and movie Con­tact by Carl Sagan, the first pow­er­ful sig­nal detect­ed by aliens is the 1936 Olympic games TV broad­cast from Ger­many. The 1936 Olympic games broad­cast has trav­eled through space for (cur­rent year minus 1936) years. Pri­or to the devel­op­ment of FTL capa­bil­i­ty, the fur­thest reach of human­i­ty will always be behind this announce­ment. To gen­er­al­ize the above to an alien race, we replace 1936 by y0, where y0 is the year of the sig­nif­i­cant broadcast.

There are five dif­fer­ent cas­es in which first con­tact can occur. The first three assume that there is no FTL type of trav­el. The next two occur because of the impli­ca­tions of FTL. In all cas­es, human­i­ty always assumes that they have yet to be con­tact­ed and we place them in the sit­u­a­tion out­lined by the case. Any case can apply to the alien race X by replac­ing human­i­ty with X. Here are the five cases:

I. Human­i­ty detects alien trans­mis­sions or alien artifacts:

      • Con­tact by Carl Sagan starts as a typ­i­cal first con­tact sto­ry of case I, but it soon turns into a case II con­tact. Arthur Clarke’s books Ren­dezvous with Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey include sto­ries about alien arti­facts. Per­haps the dis­cov­ery of the pro­to­mol­e­cule in S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes is a case I contact.

II. Aliens detect human­i­ty and respond to their transmissions:

      • The sto­ry Con­tact is an excel­lent exam­ple of aliens detect­ing the trans­mis­sions of human­i­ty. Their solu­tion for the response is to send humanity’s sig­nal back to us heav­i­ly ampli­fied and an addi­tion­al mes­sage encoded.

III. Aliens detect human­i­ty and visits:

      • This one will go back to some of the ear­li­est sci­ence fic­tion. War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells, is a vio­lent exam­ple of a case III first con­tact. Arthur Clarke’s Child­hoods End has pro­vid­ed anoth­er exam­ple of a case III first con­tact that is more peaceful.

IV. Human­i­ty detects aliens, then vis­its them:

      • Case IV con­tact is well rep­re­sent­ed in the Niven’s and Pournelle’s Mote in God’s Eye.

V. Human­i­ty or aliens are not aware of each other’s exis­tence, and they meet in deep space or on a neu­tral planet:

      • Mur­ry Lein­ster beau­ti­ful­ly described the case V con­tact in his sto­ry First Con­tact that first appeared in Astound­ing Sto­ries in 1945.

My next arti­cles will explore the five cas­es in sci­ence fic­tion and their sci­en­tif­ic aspects, includ­ing how they relate to Fer­mi Para­dox, Kar­da­shev Scale, and Drake Equa­tion. Ulti­mate­ly, after this explo­ration, I’ll under­take a chal­lenge to write a first con­tact sto­ry for each of the five cases.