In the Star Trek universe (and others), "first contact" refers to the first (introductory) interaction between two civilizations. In the movie "ST: First Contact" it is between the Vulcans and Humans.

Some "real" first contacts of note include Portuguese-Carib, Norse-Newfoundland natives, and Spanish-Inca. The track record is not good (the Norse didn't do too badly, but they still didn't get along at all). Maybe we needed a Prime Directive back then, alas it is too late now. I don't think any more true "first" contacts are possible until the day we meet some fellow travellers somewhere out there.

One can only pray that we are not treated with the same respect and sensitivity we have ourselves displayed.

So, aside from the Vulcans landing in a post-apocalyptic world as depicted in Star Trek, how might “first contact” with a extraterrestrial life happen, what form would it be in, and what might the consquences be?

First of all, I feel I should say that I think it would be highly likely that extraterrestrial life exists. The Universe is so vast that it's difficult to imagine that we are the only ones here. There may well be hundreds, thousands, or even millions of other civilizations out there. But, perhaps, extraterrestrial life is mostly simple single-cell bacteria and the like. Maybe other life exists that isn't "intelligent" - strange new animals perhaps. But still, there must be life out there - even if it's in some form we have never even considered.

Now there is the question of whether humankind will ever find this life. Doing so in such a vast Universe seems just as unlikely as it is likely that there is life out there in the first place. Which is a shame, as finding extraterrestrial life would be quite possibly the greatest discovery ever made. Especially if it is intelligent life.

Imagine that. We find another civilization. How incredible would that be? The things we might discover. That is - if we are even able to communicate. Aside from the vast distance between Earth and a possible alien "homeworld", there is bound to be linguistic differences which may be so irreconcilable that communication may struggle to get beyond a basic "We are here".

However, some method of communication with an equally ingenious race could well be possible, though of course difficult and in no way resembling conversation. Perhaps by the use of some Universal mathematical principles we could communicate and get an idea of each other. Presumably also we would have some common ground insofar as finding the same medium with which to communicate in the first place.

So what would we learn? Who knows! Maybe we would learn something of such profound scientific value, it would change mankind forever. I believe even the knowledge of an extraterrestrial race itself will change humankind forever. I believe such a thing would serve to unite people together in the knowledge that they are not alone in the Universe. No matter who you are or what you believe, the discovery of an alien race will be just as mind-bogglingly astounding.

I don't think it is at all likely that we will discover an alien race by them landing on the lawn of the White House and asking to be taken to our leader. Although, if that did happen, well, it would certainly be interesting to say the least!

Might an alien race be out to harm us? Perhaps. We can safely say they will probably be fantastically different to us in almost every way - including their morals. Maybe they will see no wrong in using humans for some kind of experimentation. Maybe such a race will want to use Earth for their own gain - harvesting its resources. Doubtless, there will be a great deal of mistrust from humans towards a newly discovered race. This is only natural.

But I would hope that an alien race would have the same intentions as ourselves. Discovery. Understanding. Wonder. And friendship.

How should (or could) we send out a beacon telling an intelligent race we are here? The electromagnetic transmissions (such as radio and TV) that we have been sending for the last 100 or so years are already some sort of beacon signalling that we are here. Of course, that beacon has only covered a 100 light year radius in an incredibly large Universe, so the likelihood of an alien hearing is pretty minute. Still, it will do no harm to send out some kind of beacon signal for other civilizations to maybe, just maybe, hear someday.

Of course, an extraterrestrial race will suffer from the same finite means in infinite (or at least, vastly enormous) space as we do. Well - presumably they will. As such, if we detect a signal from them, it will be pretty old - probably sent thousands or millions of years ago. Perhaps even billions. Such a race could have risen and fallen many times in such a timeframe. They might not be there anymore to receive our reply. And even if they are - who's to say they will remember they initiated the conversation in the first place with their long-forgotten signal?

And also - waiting for a reply to the reply would be a long-haul to say the least.

What should we tell an alien race? Perhaps it is better to ask; "what CAN we tell an alien race?" If we sent pictures or videos, how do we know they can even tell how to use such a signal? They might not be able to see the same part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can. They may not even be able to "see". If we send sound, who's to say they can even hear? Perhaps some mathematically based signal would be best. A signal such that if such a race has developed the ability to receive our signal, they would have the mathematical knowledge to recognise what we send. Sending out prime numbers perhaps, or pi.

I for one think it is highly likely there is life out there. However, I think that contacting it, or even finding anything beyond the single-celled life that may be in our solar system is very unlikely. It seems that our best option for finding life more advanced than bacteria is on Jupiter's frozen moon Europa. Many scientists suspect that there may be oceans beneath the icy suface (see: Evidence for Ocean in Europa) where some sort of creatures may reside. I would be all for sending a probe to go investigate!

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