At the end of media interviews on UFOs or extraterrestrial life, a fun little question that I’m sometimes asked is something along the lines of “If you could ask an alien one thing, what would you ask?” It’s actually quite an interesting concept, so I thought that in my column this month, I’d throw out a few possibilities.
The initial temptation would probably be to head for the ‘big questions’ - some vague, others specific. Vague ones would doubtless include “What is the meaning of life?” while examples of specific ones might be “Is there a God?” or “Does consciousness survive death?”
We might choose to ask something about the extraterrestrials themselves and about the cosmos more generally, seeking knowledge about their world and about other civilizations; a sort of “What’s out there?” question. This would be particularly interesting if it could teach us something useful and relevant to our own situation, so good questions might include “What existential threats did you face and how did you overcome them?” (Or the more self-focused “What’s the biggest current threat to Planet Earth?), or “What political structures are best for ensuring a just, tolerant, happy and prosperous society?”
Inevitably, the questions would move towards a wish list aimed at solving problems we face: “How do you cure cancer and other diseases?”, “How can we best feed the world and eliminate poverty?”, “How can we deal with global warming?” and “Is there a safe way to generate clean, safe and renewable energy, sufficient for our needs?”
Another category of questions relates to science and technology, to big questions that would also have huge practical implications. Examples here include “Can a machine ever become self-aware?”, “How did life begin?” and “Is time travel possible?”
Physicists would doubtless ask for the ‘Theory of Everything’ – a unified theory that combines general relativity with quantum mechanics and successfully explains the true nature of the Universe. This should – theoretically – answer a whole host of other questions such as “How did the Universe begin?”, “Are there other Universes?” and “What is the ultimate fate of the Universe?”
An alternative strategy would be based on the assumption that extraterrestrials would have studied us carefully and might have knowledge and insights about our history and about humanity itself. We might ask “What is the most interesting characteristic of human beings and our society, when compared to other intelligent lifeforms?”, “What do you regard as our greatest achievements?” or “How does the human race measure up morally, compared to other civilizations?” We could even zero in on interesting mysteries or historical questions such as “Does Bigfoot exist?”, “Who was Jack the Ripper?”, “What crashed at Roswell?”, “Was there a conspiracy to kill JFK?” or “What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?”
Finally, there are the ‘trick questions’, such as “What’s the smartest question we could ask you?”, “What haven’t we asked, that you think we should ask?” or “What easy thing aren’t we doing, as a society, that we could most productively do?” These are questions that might take us somewhere interesting, but where we wouldn’t have thought to go, ourselves.
In all of this we should remember three things. Firstly, what we’re told is not necessarily going to be true. Humans sometimes lie and we shouldn’t assume that extraterrestrials don’t. Consider the statements from contactees, abductees and experiencers. Even if one accepts these at face value and assumes that they’re not bogus, is there a single, verifiable fact there? Have these messages told us anything that we didn’t already know? Stan Romanek’s equations might fit the bill – if they check out – but this sort of material is rare in ufology. Most ‘messages’ from aliens are clichéd reflections of current cultural concerns. In the Fifties and Sixties, we were being warned of the dangers of nuclear war. More recently, extraterrestrial warnings have focused on climate change and ecology. The logical deduction, of course, is that these messages come not from aliens, but from us.
Secondly, it’s a reasonable assumption that perceptions will vary both among individuals from a particular extraterrestrial civilizations, and between different alien civilizations. A poor inhabitant of Zeta Reticuli 2, Planet 4, will doubtless tell you a different story than his/her/its rich counterpart. The people from Tau Ceti may hate the people from Epsilon Eridani. Other tensions and prejudices may come into play, such as those that might stem from differences between biological and post-biological (i.e. machine intelligence) lifeforms. An immortal thinking machine may answer our questions in a different way than our fellow biologicals – and we shouldn’t assume that those most like us will give us the best answers.
The third and final thing that we should bear in mind is that we should be wary of being given all the answers, gratis. Civilizations are probably like individuals, in that they’ll be smarter and more mature if they have to work out and solve problems themselves, as opposed to being handed everything on a plate. That said, it’s one thing to decline a cancer cure and say that we’ll figure it out by ourselves, thank you very much, but quite another thing if such a cure would save a critically ill loved one. Setting aside the moral philosophy, the point remains, if humanity is ever offered an ‘encyclopedia galactica’, we should probably think carefully before accepting. Perhaps the old saying is true: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”
Nick Pope is a former employee of the UK Ministry of Defense. From 1991 to 1994 he ran the British Government's UFO project and has recently been involved in a five-year program to declassify and release the entire archive of these UFO files. Nick Pope held a number of other fascinating posts in the course of his 21-year government career, which culminated in his serving as an acting Deputy Director in the Directorate of Defense Security. He now works as a broadcaster and journalist, covering subjects including space, fringe science, defense and intelligence.