Ready for Contact

Humans have searched for extraterrestrial life for more than a century. What will we do when we find it?

Movies, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and conspiracy theorists insist we are not alone. (Everett Collection)
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People would likely fall into two camps. Catastrophists, as one of the camps is called, might well predict the end of humanity as we know it, or at least the end of our current culture. In 2010 Stephen Hawking said that making contact with aliens would be "a little too risky" and compared the event to Columbus arriving in the New World, "which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans." But millenarian enthusiasts anticipate revelations of rapture: how to cure cancer, solve the energy crisis or win world peace. And if aliens did manage to come to Earth, says Tarter, an admitted enthusiast, "they would likely have outgrown the aggressiveness that has served us so well."

As for a supersecretive government agency or powerful corporation keeping a discovery of alien life a secret, Davies thinks that's unlikely. "I think there's a big misconception in the public that somehow this is all a cloak-and-dagger operation, and it's not," he says. "People are quite open about what they are doing."

Sarah Zielinski is an assistant editor at Smithsonian. She writes the "Surprising Science" blog on

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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