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If you’ve ever wondered about what first contact with extraterrestrials would look like, you’re not alone. Hollywood has fantasized about first contact/invasion since its inception with classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T. (1982). Some more recent attempts at imagining aliens include Independence Day (1996) and Arrival (2016).
If you’re skeptical about aliens in general, it’s helpful to remember words from astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact:
“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
Avi Loeb, the chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department, seems to agree. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Loeb lays out what he thinks of as the expanding human picture of how big the world (and the universe) around us really is.
“If you think about the history of humans, the perspective has changed as we have evolved — from a single individual to a family, a tribe, a country, and finally we even found other continents with people living there,” he told Der Spiegel. “If we were now to find other beings beyond planet Earth, this would be the biggest step ever.”
With human beings from the past to the present having a constantly expanding idea of the borders of our reality, it makes sense that what we think of as the borders now are not. Unfortunately, Loeb’s biggest focus is on getting people to imagine that there is an “other,” but has scant details on what that “other” might be.
“I can’t tell you what this moment will look like,” he said. “But it will be shocking. Because we are biased by our own experiences. We imagine other beings to be similar to us. But maybe they are radically different.”
Loeb is saying that there is a good chance that aliens will appear as the green and bug-eyed strangers with large antennas we have become familiar with … or that they could look like something we barely recognize. However, one of his most fascinating ideas is that aliens may very well attempt to contact us in unfamiliar ways, meaning that it could have happened already.
In a 2017 Ted Talk, Loeb discusses how difficult it is to see what’s going on with another planet from the great distances in space.
“We should invest funds in building better observatories and searching for a wide variety of artificial signals. And these signals need not be just communication, radio signals. They could be artifacts on the surface of a planet.”
It’s not clear whether Loeb is referring to objects on the surface of other planets or things on the surface of the Earth that left for us to figure out (as some think about Stonehenge and other architectural marvels). Though it’s impossible to speculate, the truth is that the objective, physical presence of aliens on planet Earth would likely throw the entire planet into utter chaos.
Such an event could baffle politicians, destroy the economy, and incite panic over whether or not these beings are dangerous. It could also destabilize major world religions with thorny questions of whether or not the aliens are a part of God’s plan or even part of His creation.
Christianity, for example, teaches that humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation, so we would have to wonder where extraterrestrials fit into that plan. Further, maybe aliens don’t die, and if they don’t, how could they go to heaven or hell? Lastly, were they created? Do they have a concept of not being and then being? Some theologians, like Ted Peters, Professor Emeritus in Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, have been very open about incorporating aliens into the divine narrative, but their presence on Earth would undoubtedly produce the most contentious arguments yet.
Regardless of what would or could happen, it’s fair to say that Loeb is correct when he posits that first contact would one of the most extraordinary events in human history, and even though we don’t have all the facts yet, we do know that, should it happen, it will be shocking.