In Preparing for Contact George Michael has given us a tour de force exploration of the thinking, issues, and dilemmas surrounding the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe.
Those familiar with Professor Michael’s other books and articles—on a wide variety of critical topics including politics, nuclear proliferation, science, and terrorism—know that he conducts rigorous research and major scholarly inventories before completing a manuscript. Preparing for Contact clearly represents years of thinking and research on the subject. Michael’s approach is meticulous, objective, and fearless in examining every relevant aspect—historical, current, and futuristic—of the alien civilization question. The book dives into fundamental questions. First, what have been the scientific (or otherwise) endeavors to consider if intelligent life might exist elsewhere in the universe? Second, if we do make contact with an alien civilization, how should we respond, and what might be the larger implications for our civilization?
Preparing for Contact has a logical chapter progression. From early speculation about extraterrestrial life, including Egyptian, Roman, Hindu, and Central American civilizations’ speculations to the recent findings of astrobiology and astronomy, to the UFO phenomenon, and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project, Michael proceeds in systematic fashion. Regarding possible life on Mars, for example, the Swiss author Erich von Däniken’s wildly popular book, Chariots of the Gods, became a US television film. However, its assumptions of alien life on Mars were disproven after successive probes of Mars found only natural structures, not artificial ones. Additional space probes make us confident that we are the only intelligent life in this solar system. But what about farther out in the Milky Way galaxy, among the thousands of exoplanets which are being discovered at a rate of about two a week?
Before delving into the implications of a possible extraterrestrial contact from beyond the Earth’s solar system, Michael notes that our own planet’s civilization is still relatively young in one key criterion, viz., namely our ability to harness energy. We are still largely dependent on planetary sources such as coal, oil and gas, and only recently have sought to capture solar energy. Intriguingly, should Earth encounter an alien civilization, it is likely that the aliens could be technologically far superior to us, with an advanced ability to harness energy concomitant with military superiority as well.
To that end, Michael presents the system of classification of civilizations based on how effectively they harness energy, first developed in 1964 by the Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev: “A Type I civilization can harness all available energy sources on its planet. A Type II civilization harnesses energy directly from the star in its solar system…. Finally, a Type III civilization is able to harness the power not only of its solar star, but also other stars in its galaxy” (p. 52). Based on this classification, the Earth is not yet even a Type I civilization. In Carl Sagan’s calculation we are somewhere around 0.7. Accordingly, from that point of comparative disadvantage, Earth’s signals into outer space looking for an extraterrestrial civilization might be viewed as having the potential for carrying risks as well as rewards.
To the book’s thesis, Dr. Michael then considers the SETI project’s communications and how to detect possible alien civilizations’ signals, and speculates on the implications for us if we, or they, are detected. The central issue involves whether to use passive or active SETI communications (listen v. shout), and if active what we should say (and not say) about our civilization, what technical means of communication to employ, and how to decipher and deal with a possible incoming alien message. Again, assuming that any extraterrestrial civilization we come into contact with could be more technically advanced than we are, it would behoove us to be cautious in the content of outgoing, active, SETI messages.
Since an alien civilization’s contact with us could well have a significant impact on religion, as well as on science, there is concern among some scientists that an extraterrestrial civilization discovering us might not be friendly. As Carl Sagan warned, our relatively young civilization should listen quietly “before shouting into an unknown jungle we don’t understand” (p. 210).
Accordingly, Michael asks, “How should we prepare for the prospect of direct contact with an extraterrestrial civilization?” (p. 210). He outlines some of the risks: If the aliens could warp space or time to get here, possibly bringing enormous energy capabilities with their arrival at Earth, would they also be “well armed or ready for combat” (p. 212), or interested in plunder, or our food supply, or even colonization? Could they also carry with them alien microbes or diseases capable of harming life on Earth? Moreover, such an advanced alien life form might not be organic in nature, but instead might have evolved into a more advanced form of life, possibly a post-biological type, such as artificial intelligence (p. 220).
Dr. Michael concludes his compelling book with what he calls “a race against time.” In short, Earth, with its less than Type I civilization, is vulnerable both from without and from within. For example, we could be hit by a major asteroid as has occurred numerous times in the past. But we also might deplete our planet’s resources with overpopulation, or create a toxic atmosphere, or see worsening religious, resource, or environmental conflicts, even as weapons of mass destruction also spread. In short, the SETI endeavor is mortgaged, and its longevity and possibilities remain dependent on humans finding better ways to get along with each other.
All thinking people—whether scientists or amateurs, secular or religious, policy makers or academics—will find Preparing for Contact to be a highly informative discussion about the possibility of making contact with extraterrestrial life. George Michael’s book is a close encounter of the best kind—thoughtful, serious, and consistently interesting.
About the author
Lawrence E. Grinter is Professor Emeritus, Air War College, and Adjunct Professor, Auburn University where he teaches Asian politics. He was Editor of the Air War College monograph series, the Maxwell Papers, for 11 years. He is a founding member of the Alabama World Affairs Council and continues on their Board. Dr. Grinter is co-editor or author of five published books on Asian and international security affairs, and is author of over 50 scholarly articles and book chapters on related issues. He has made 33 visits to Asia and was stationed in both South Korea and South Vietnam with, or consulting to, the US government. He earned his B.S. at the University of Florida, and his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.