by Jonathan Leake
The Sunday Times
September 26, 2010
WHEN aliens arrive on Earth,
they will no longer have to
who will greet them.
The United Nations, tackling head-on the problem of what to do if an
alien says “take me to your leader”, is poised to designate a
specific individual for the task.
Some would argue that the job should fall to the US president, the
leaders of Russia or the European Union. Others might suggest
the Pope. One thing is certain:
humanity's lack of a leader would not make a good impression.
Instead the UN is set to select an obscure Malaysian astrophysicist
who is head of its little-known Office for Outer Space Affairs
will describe her potential new role next week at a
scientific conference at the
Royal Society's Kavli conference centre
She will tell delegates that the recent discovery of hundreds of
planets around other stars has made the detection of
extraterrestrial life more likely than ever before - and that means
the UN must be ready to co-ordinate humanity's response to any
Such ideas seem like science fiction and call to mind the Hollywood
blockbuster Men in Black, in which a top-secret agency
negotiates with aliens and even lets some take refuge on Earth.
In recent years, however, scientists have become increasingly
concerned about how humanity should respond to discovering aliens.
The Sunday Times has obtained a recording of a talk Ms Othman
gave recently to fellow scientists in which she said:
“The continued search for
extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains
the hope that some day humankind will receive signals from
extraterrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a
coordinated response that takes into account all the
sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made
mechanism for such co-ordination.”
Othman previously ran Malaysia's
national space agency and oversaw the flight of her country's first
As director of UNOOSA, she has developed policies on issues raised
by advances in space technology, such as how humanity should respond
to the discovery of
asteroids and comets found to be on
a collision course with Earth.
The same thinking lies behind her proposals for dealing with the
discovery of alien life. Recently NASA announced that its
Kepler probe had found more than
700 suspected new planets, including up to 140 similar in size to
Kepler had studied only 150,000 stars - a fraction of the 100
billion estimated to lie in the
Milky Way, Earth's galaxy.
Professor Richard Crowther, an expert in space law and
governance at the UK Space Agency and who leads British
delegations to the UN on such matters, said:
“Othman is absolutely the nearest
thing we have to a 'take me to your leader' person.”
However, Professor Crowther thinks
humanity's first encounter with any intelligent aliens is more
likely to be via radio or light signals from a distant planet than
by beings arriving on Earth.
And, he suggests, even if we do
encounter aliens in the flesh, they are more likely to be microbes
than anything intelligent.
“Even a discovery of microbes will
have a huge cultural impact on humanity,” he said. “It would
alter our sense of our place in the universe - and it raises
many important legal and cultural issues that the UN is well
placed to deal with.”
UNOOSA does have some superficial
similarities to the “MiB” agency portrayed in Men in Black.
It has bases in Vienna, Bonn and Beijing and a highly skilled
Mr Othman's first job could be to protect aliens from humanity,
rather than the reverse. Under the
Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which
Ms Othman's office oversees, UN members agree to protect Earth
against contamination by alien species by “sterilising” them. Ms
Othman is understood to want a more tolerant approach.
Her plans to make her department the coordinating body for dealing
with alien encounters will be debated by UN scientific advisory
committees and should eventually reach the body's general assembly.
The UN has tried previously to contact alien life.
two Voyager spacecraft launched in
1977 carried a message from Kurt Waldheim, then secretary-general,
“We step out of our solar system
into the universe seeking only peace and friendship.”
However, scientists are now embarrassed
by Mr. Waldheim's deployment as an interstellar envoy because it
later emerged that he had been an enthusiastic member of
the Nazi party.
Martin Dominik, a St Andrews University astronomer, who
organized the conference, said:
“Any encounter with alien life would
have major consequences and scientists cannot take the political
responsibility, so we need the UN to take the lead.”
Professor Stephen Hawking has
warned humanity would be making a big mistake if it tried
to seek out alien life.
“I imagine they might exist in
massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home
planet,” he said. “The outcome for us would be much as when
Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn
out very well for the native Americans.”