Thursday, August 15, 2013

"The Best We Can" - A Story of First Alien Contact - video

"The Best We Can" by Carrie Vaughn

First contact was supposed to change the course of human history. But it turns out, you still have to go to work the next morning.

In the end, the discovery of evidence of extraterrestrial life, and not just life, but intelligence, got hopelessly mucked up because no one wanted to take responsibility for confirming the findings, and no one could decide who ultimately had the authority—the obligation—to do so. We submitted the paper, but peer review held it up for a year. News leaked—NASA announced one of their press conferences, but the press conference ended up being an announcement about a future announcement, which never actually happened and the reporters made a joke of it. Another case of Antarctic meteorites or cold fusion. We went around with our mouths shut waiting for an official announcement while ulcers devoured our guts.

So I wrote a press release. I had Marsh at JPL’s comet group and Salvayan at Columbia vet it for me and released it under the auspices of the JPL Near Earth Objects Program. We could at least start talking about it instead of arguing about whether we were ready to start talking about it. I didn’t know what would happen next. I did it in the spirit of scientific outreach, naturally. The release included that now-famous blurry photo that started the whole thing.

I had an original print of that photo, of UO-1—Unidentified Object One, because it technically wasn’t flying and I was being optimistic that this would be the first of more than one —framed and hanging on the wall over my desk, a stark focal point in my chronically cluttered office. Out of the thousands of asteroids we tracked and photographed, this one caught my eye, because it was symmetrical and had a higher than normal albedo. It flashed, even, like a mirror. Asteroids aren’t symmetrical and aren’t very reflective. But if it wasn’t an asteroid . . . .

We turned as many telescopes on it as we could. Tried to get time on Hubble and failed, because it sounded ridiculous—why waste time looking at something inside the orbit of Jupiter? We did get Arecibo on it. We got pictures from multiple sources, studied them for weeks until we couldn’t argue with them any longer. No one wanted to say it because it was crazy, just thinking it would get you sacked, and I got so frustrated with the whole group sitting there in the conference room after hours on a Friday afternoon, staring at each other with wide eyes and dropped jaws and no one saying anything, that I said it: It’s not natural, and it’s not ours.

UO-1 was approximately 250 meters long, with a fan shape at one end, blurred at the other, as if covered with projections too fine to show up at that resolution. The rest was perfectly straight, a thin stalk holding together blossom and roots, the lines rigid and artificial. The fan shape might be a ram scoop—Angie came up with that idea, and the conjecture stuck, no matter how much I reminded people that we couldn’t decide anything about what it was or what it meant. Not until we knew more.

We—the scientific community, astronomers, philosophers, writers, all of humanity—had spent a lot of time thinking about what would happen if we found definitive proof that intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe. All the scenarios involved these other intelligences talking to us. Reaching out to us. Sending a message we would have to decipher—would be eager to decipher. Hell, we sure wouldn’t be able to talk to them, not stuck on our own collection of rocks like we were. Whether people thought we’d be overrun with sadistic tripods or be invited to join a greater benevolent galactic society, that was always the assumption—we’d know they were there because they’d talk to us.

When that didn’t happen, it was like no one knew what to do next. No one had thought about what would happen if we just found a . . . a thing . . . that happened to be drifting a few million miles out from the moon. It didn’t talk. Not so much as a blinking light. The radiation we detected from it was reflected—whatever propulsion had driven it through space had long since stopped, and inertia carried it now. No one knew how to respond to it. The news that was supposed to change the course of human history . . . didn’t.

We wouldn’t know any more about it until we looked at it up close, until we brought it here, brought it home. And that was where it all fell apart.

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"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

"The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi


i am covertress said...

Carl would have loved your story, Carrie.

Anonymous said...

Love it!