First Contact: An Article By Torn MacAlester

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.

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.

Worldbuilding 4: Articles by Torn MacAlester



Short science fiction by Torn MacAlester

Worldbuilding 3: Articles by Torn MacAlester


Short science fiction by Torn MacAlester

World Building 2: Articles by Torn MacAlester


Short science fiction by Torn MacAlester

Worldbuilding 1: Articles by Torn MacAlester

Short science fiction by Torn MacAlester

The Drake Equation: An Article by Torn MacAlester


A Paradox: A Description of the Fermi Paradox by Torn MacAlester

Short science fiction by Torn MacAlester

Worlds of Science Fiction

I’ve been study­ing the sci­ence behind the worlds of sci­ence fic­tion with the inten­tion of using it for world build­ing. I’ve writ­ten a series of arti­cles intro­duc­ing these sci­ence con­cepts.  My inten­tion as a sci­ence fic­tion writer was to build a set­ting where at first glance par­al­leled the real uni­verse. Con­se­quent­ly, I tried to use the results from SETI (Search for Extrater­res­tri­al Intel­li­gence) and relat­ed search­es to brack­et the extent and tech­nol­o­gy of alien civ­i­liza­tions that appear in my stories.

The worlds of sci­ence fic­tion are intro­duced in the arti­cle: World Build­ing for Sci­ence Fic­tion.

My approach mir­rors some of the dis­cus­sion pre­sent­ed in this Screen Craft arti­cle by Ken Miyam­a­to from 2021:  THE CRAFT AND RULES OF WORLDBUILDING IN SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY.  I start from a real world present approach by ask­ing: what does sci­ence tell me about X?  X in this case is alien civilizations.

As some addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion, it might be use­ful to look at the SETI Insti­tute web site: SETI Insti­tute

Anoth­er arti­cle reports about some lim­its estab­lished my astro­physics stud­ies: Forbes Arti­cle

The Fermi Paradox

The Fer­mi Para­dox is an impor­tant ques­tion for worlds of sci­ence fic­tion, pro­vid­ing esti­mates of the expan­sion of a civ­i­liza­tion. I have con­tin­ued the arti­cles with this on specif­i­cal­ly on this ques­tion: It Starts With A Para­dox.

Sci­ence­Time has pro­duced an inter­est­ing video about the Fer­mi Paradox.

The Kardashev Scale

The Kar­da­shev Scale is a mea­sure­ment for worlds of sci­ence fic­tion, pro­vid­ing esti­mates of tech­no­log­i­cal progress. I have con­tin­ued the arti­cles with this on specif­i­cal­ly on this mea­sure: It’s All About Pow­er.

InsaneCu­rios­i­ty has pro­duced an inter­est­ing video about the Kar­da­shev Scale.

Drake Equation

The Drake equa­tion is the foun­da­tion for worlds of sci­ence fic­tion, pro­vid­ing esti­mates of alien civ­i­liza­tions. I have con­tin­ued the arti­cles with this on specif­i­cal­ly on this equa­tion: The Drake Equation

Andrzej Dud­nik has pro­duced a nice video that pro­vides a nice sum­ma­ry of the Drake Equation.


World Building for Science Fiction

Image by Snap­wire on pex­els

Part 1 — Introduction

I want­ed to share some insight into the world build­ing process that I am using in my sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries. First off, most would call my sci­ence fic­tion as ‘Hard’ sci­ence fic­tion because of my use of sci­en­tif­ic rig­or when devel­op­ing my sto­ries. For myself, it’s part of the rea­son for sto­ry­telling. The sit­u­a­tions I like to con­sid­er an inter­est­ing sci­ence or engi­neer­ing prob­lem as part of my sto­ry. As part of that effort, I try to keep the sci­ence as cor­rect as possible.

The ques­tion that every sci­ence fic­tion author faces at some point is how to han­dle aliens with­in the sto­ries. Their exis­tence con­sid­ered and the impli­ca­tions eval­u­at­ed. To eval­u­ate the exis­tence and impli­ca­tions, I rely on three con­cepts used by astronomers to dis­cuss alien life. They are: The Drake equa­tion, the Kar­da­shev scale, and the Fer­mi para­dox (DKF). The DKF con­cepts imply a lot for world build­ing in sci­ence fic­tion. They relate to the num­ber of civ­i­liza­tions, their tech­nol­o­gy, and the con­se­quences for the first emer­gent civ­i­liza­tion. It turns out that these three have inter­play with each other.

The first of the DKF con­cepts is the Drake Equa­tion, named for Dr Frank Drake who devel­oped it as a talk­ing point for the first sci­en­tif­ic meet­ing on the search for extrater­res­tri­al intel­li­gence in 1961. The equa­tion com­putes an esti­mate of the num­ber of civ­i­liza­tions in the galaxy at a time. It depends on 3 types of terms: astro­phys­i­cal terms, bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion terms, and civ­i­liza­tion tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment terms. We can con­nect the terms to phys­i­cal process­es. These terms were spec­u­la­tive. How­ev­er, recent obser­va­tion­al results, specif­i­cal­ly about Earth-like plan­ets in the life zones of stars, have made the astro­phys­i­cal terms spe­cif­ic and mean­ing­ful. In future arti­cles, I will take each term and illus­trate the cur­rent esti­mates and how a sci­ence fic­tion assump­tion may alter the estimates.

The next DKF con­cept is the Kar­da­shev scale that estab­lish­es the lev­els of civ­i­liza­tion based upon their tech­nol­o­gy, named for the Russ­ian astro­physi­cist Niko­lai Kar­da­shev who pos­tu­lat­ed it in 1964. How­ev­er, the mea­sure of the lev­el depends upon the ener­gy usage of the civ­i­liza­tion. Typ­i­cal­ly, we talk about 3 lev­els: type 1 or plan­e­tary, type 2 or stel­lar, and type 3 or galac­tic. A plan­e­tary civ­i­liza­tion uses a pow­er of 1016 Watts (about the solar ener­gy land­ing on the sur­face of the Earth every sec­ond), a stel­lar civ­i­liza­tion uses the pow­er of 1026 Watts (the pow­er out­put of the sun), and the galac­tic civ­i­liza­tion uses the pow­er of 1036 Watts (the pow­er out­put of the milky way galaxy). We note that type 0 are sub plan­e­tary (1012 Watts the cur­rent lev­el of earth) and we could have a galac­tic clus­ter (Type 4 civ­i­liza­tion). Each of these kinds of civ­i­liza­tion can affect the terms of the Drake equa­tion, as the tech­nolo­gies can affect the envi­ron­ment. Even a class 0 civ­i­liza­tion can affect the envi­ron­ment either to their ben­e­fit or detriment.

The last DKF con­cept, the Fer­mi para­dox, gives a scale of activ­i­ty and the time it takes for their influ­ence to spread over a dis­tance. Enri­co Fer­mi pos­tu­lat­ed the para­dox in 1950 as a way of show­ing that the prob­a­bil­i­ty of extrater­res­tri­al intel­li­gence seemed high though there had been no detec­tion of its exis­tence. It bases the exam­i­na­tion of the prob­a­bil­i­ty of how quick­ly civ­i­liza­tions will come in con­tact with each oth­er, e.g. an expan­sion rate. Sup­pose that a tech­nol­o­gy makes it pos­si­ble to trav­el at 1 tenth of the speed of light, then the galaxy cross­ing time reduces to 1 mil­lion years. The scal­ing gives a trav­el time, then a time nec­es­sary to repli­cate the tech­nol­o­gy and trav­el to 100 bil­lion suns to find the oth­er civ­i­liza­tions. Or by exten­sion for a Type 4 civ­i­liza­tion, the time to explore the observ­able uni­verse. A sub-top­ic of the Fer­mi Para­dox is the galac­tic census—what have we observed and to what dis­tance. How long does an all-sky sur­vey take, and how much infor­ma­tion will they know?

Through these, they tie the whole ques­tion of an alien civ­i­liza­tion to the laws of nature. DKF are a sci­en­tif­ic way of enabling the dis­cus­sion of an alien civ­i­liza­tion in a math­e­mat­i­cal mod­el. Though we will keep the dis­cus­sion as sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly rig­or­ous as pos­si­ble, the rea­son for the arti­cles is for sci­ence fic­tion. We’ll look at past sci­ence fic­tion and impli­ca­tions for sci­ence fic­tion world build­ing for writ­ers and games. My plan is to explain the DKF, so expect mul­ti­ple arti­cles on this sub­ject. In some arti­cles, there will be some equa­tions. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this is unavoid­able. How­ev­er I’ll try to warn the read­er to skip those sec­tions and go to the summary.

Next, we’ll take a look at the Fer­mi para­dox in detail. I expect a rate of about one arti­cle every two to three weeks.