Tuesday, April 5, 2011

First Contact

Birth of a Star (NASA photo)

Today on Twitter, the Star Trek community was celebrating First Contact Day. On April 5, 2063, Vulcans will land on Earth and establish their first contact with humans, as portrayed in the 1996 movie, Star Trek: First Contact. Live long and prosper!

The question posed to Trekkers today: What would you say to an extraterrestrial if you encountered one?

Before I go on, I need to state the obvious. Yes, I am a Trekker. I have followed the franchise enthusiastically since the days of the original TV series of the 1960s. Captain Kirk, Mister Spock, and their shipmates are archetypes for the geeks of my generation. After a brief flare-up of excitement in the 1970s with George Lucas’ first Star Wars trilogy, I returned to the Star Trek fold with the Next Generation series of the 1980s-90s, where the storytelling surpassed the original series in many aspects, including the stellar portrayals of Captain Picard and Commander Data.

Yes, I’m a geek and proud of it! My favorite TV show these days is The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon Cooper and his gang revel in their Star Trek geekhood. Blessed are the geek, for they shall inherit the mirth!

But, to get back to the original question: What would I say to an extraterrestrial upon first contact?

(Note: I am not a trained scientist. Any science expressed in the following paragraphs may be fraught with error. End of disclaimer.)

First, I don’t believe an alien encounter will happen in my lifetime – if at all. The distances in the universe are too astronomically vast to allow for convenient interstellar travel. The laws of probability preclude any possibility that life as we know it even exists elsewhere in the universe. We humans exist because of a happy accident of our planet being in the right place at the right time – third rock from the sun, far enough away to cool down for life, but close enough to keep us warm. Of course, theologians say that is not an “accident,” but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The operative term is “life as we know it.” Okay, we carbon-based lifeforms have it made here on Earth, but what rule says that all lifeforms in this infinite universe have to be carbon-based? If we grant that a non-carbon-based lifeform came to Earth, chances are it would not be humanoid, despite what Star Trek and Star Wars say. It would most likely not have four limbs, or a head with a face that has two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth. Therefore, communication with this hypothetical lifeform would be an impossibility. So, forget about having any kind of conversation.

Telepathy? Perhaps. But, again, that implies a commonality of brain synapses and basic concepts. That’s hardly likely. The bottom line is that our extraterrestrial would probably be too repugnant for us humans to even gaze upon it.

We also need to consider the whole idea of how our conjectural ET would even get to our planet. It is pretty well-established that there are no other intelligent beings in our own solar system. So any alien would have to travel from at least the next nearest star, Alpha Centauri, which is “only” 4.37 light years away from us, or 41.5 trillion kilometers. That means it would take our alien “only” 4.37 years to travel to Earth, if it were traveling at the speed of light. And that, my friends, is a physical impossibility, at least for our species. Granted, perhaps an intelligent race far more advanced than ours may have solved the faster-than-light problem. Even so, can you imagine how the stress of such speeds would affect a physical body?

Conversely, if light speed travel was not an option, travel time would go up exponentially. Our interstellar wayfarer would need to spend years, if not decades, getting from its star system to ours. It would need to be blessed with either extraordinary longevity, or travel with a family so that its offspring would carry on the mission after its demise. Or, it would need an excellent suspended animation technology.

Whatever the propulsion method, our wanderer would need to have a pretty darn good reason to endure the stress of space travel and come out all our way.

That brings up another question. Why would an alien race want to encounter the people of Earth? If we think of them as curious and benevolent explorers with a thirst for knowledge, we are assigning too much anthropology to them. We know from our earthly experience that the various lifeforms on this planet are always in search of energy sources – food! If the search for energy is a constant for existence, it would not be too far-fetched to think an extraterrestrial explorer is looking for “food.” Something unspeakably horrible must have happened on its homeworld to drive it all the way to our planet, and I can’t believe it would be just to satisfy intellectual curiosity.

Put it this way: Does the lion have an “intelligent” conversation with a zebra before chomping down on it?

Okay, I am painting the worst-case scenario. Let’s put aside, for a moment, the impossible distances, the species incompatibility, the communication barriers, and the threat of malevolence. Assuming an alien came to Earth and was humanoid enough to allow for some basic communication and understanding, what would I say to it?

I’m not a scientist, but I have studied theology, and it’s the theological possibilities that capture my imagination. I would ask our alien traveler such questions as:

Do you believe in a Supreme Being?
Do you believe you were created?
What is the meaning of your existence?
How does my existence alter your own existential viewpoint?
Will your existence be eventually terminated? If so, what happens to you after death?
Do you believe in another plane of existence that lies beyond your physical reality?

In other words, I would be dying to know if this alien believes in God. If so, how does its idea of God differ or align with mine?

And, has this alien’s God personally intervened in the history of its race. If so, how? Obviously, I am leading up to the whole question of Christ.

Such questions with an alien would surely open up a theological can of worms, but what a conversation that would be! Faith as we know it would either be majestically confirmed, or completely devastated. Am I treading on forbidden ground here?

But this is only conjecture. Given the near-impossibility of a meaningful extraterrestrial encounter, we will never know how such questions would be answered. Meanwhile, I do believe in a God who has personally intervened not only in human history, but also in my own life. That is totally unscientific and unmeasurable. But the existence of God can be reasoned by human intellect. Scripture and revelation confirm and expand upon that reasoning.

I believe my personal experience of grace is proof of God’s existence. My faith community bonds me with others who have had similar encounters with God’s goodness. And, perhaps, it is that spark of divine grace that could inspire an alien traveler to come all the way out here in search of something similar.

As Spock will someday say: “There are always possibilities.”

Note: When I recorded my DOXOLOGY CD a few years ago, I struggled with the album cover. I had composed songs in honor of the Most Holy Trinity, and what image could possibly do justice to the Triune God? By accident (or grace?), I stumbled upon a NASA image on the birth of a star, and I knew I had found my cover.

As Teilhard de Chardin wrote, the universe is singing!


  1. As a Trekkie, too, I am drawn to the triumph of good that usually appears in these stories. And when I ponder the questions you asked the other being, I am anxious to hear the answers. What would I tell the alien? That I am the beloved adopted daughter of "I AM" and welcome to a broken earth where the kingdom has yet to triumph. Then I'd say "beware the feds".

  2. Yep. The universe is singing. I like the Doxology CD, listened to it earlier this week.