So What Happens the Day After We Find Extraterrestrials?

A senior scientist from the SETI project imagines how we’ll react to inarguable evidence of an alien civilization.

As Hollywood depicts it, aliens first make their presence known with giant egg-like objects hanging in the sky, or a massive ship floating above the White House, or a mysterious saucer slowly opening its door on the Capitol Mall. But with the evidence looking more and more like there has to be life out there — very, very far away — a more realistic scenario is that we’ll first learn of alien civilizations through something like SETI that searches the cosmos for radio signals, and not from advanced beings actually showing up here and scaring the bejeezus out of us.


So, let’s say that day has arrived, and we finally detect inarguable evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization. What happens next? The distance will be too great to traverse for the foreseeable future, so it’ll still be just us here, but with a mind-boggling piece of new information. How will we react?

Will we run screaming into the streets? Maybe. But then what? Go back home and make lunch?

Director/Producer Stuart Langfield spoke to Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI project in California, who’s no doubt spent a considerable amount of time pondering this very question. After all, it’s likely to be him, a colleague, or someone like them who’ll have to break the news to the rest of us someday.

And after years of seeming like SETI was just a fun, quirky project, recent discoveries about the likelihood of there being many planets makes searching the stars for radio signals seem far less quixotic and whimsical.

Ah, yes, what cable news will do with the announcement: Panels of experts arguing, offering guesses disguised as insights, ad infinitum. Until some other story steals our fickle attention away. And we’ll get back to our lives.

But we will be changed. We may not think about it every moment, but we’ll all know something new and profound: We’re not alone.

Stress is contagious–but resilience can be too

The way that you think about stress can actually transform the effect that it has on you – and others.

Big Think Edge
  • Stress is contagious, and the higher up in an organization you are the more your stress will be noticed and felt by others.
  • Kelly McGonigal teaches "Reset your mindset to reduce stress" for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

5 short podcasts to boost your creativity and success

These quick bursts of inspiration will brighten your day in 10 minutes or less.

Personal Growth

Podcasts can educate us on a variety of topics, but they don't have to last an hour or more to have an impact on the way you perceive the world. Here are five podcasts that will boost your creativity and well-being in 10 minutes or less.

Keep reading Show less

Philosopher Alan Watts: 'Why modern education is a hoax'

Explore a legendary philosopher's take on how society fails to prepare us for education and progress.

Alan Watts.
Personal Growth
  • Alan Watts was an instrumental figure in the 1960s counterculture revolution.
  • He believed that we put too much of a focus on intangible goals for our educational and professional careers.
  • Watts believed that the whole educational enterprise is a farce compared to how we should be truly living our lives.
Keep reading Show less

Mining the Moon

How can we use the resources that are already on the Moon to make human exploration of the satellite as economical as possible?

The All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE), a prototype heavy-lift utility vehicle to support future human exploration of extraterrestrial surfaces, at right, is parked beside the Habitat Demonstration Unit - Pressurized Excursion Module (HDU-PEM), at left, a concept off-Earth living and work quarters for astronauts stationed on asteroids, the moon or Mars, 15 September 2010. Photo by: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

If you were transported to the Moon this very instant, you would surely and rapidly die. That's because there's no atmosphere, the surface temperature varies from a roasting 130 degrees Celsius (266 F) to a bone-chilling minus 170 C (minus 274 F). If the lack of air or horrific heat or cold don't kill you then micrometeorite bombardment or solar radiation will. By all accounts, the Moon is not a hospitable place to be.

Keep reading Show less