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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Earth B4 Contact

B.C.  For a historian, the first letters we learn, the elementary letters that create a fixed point on our ever-present timelines.  Things happen before and things happen after those imposing, yet simple letters: people born and die; wars start and sometimes finish; movements rise up, fade away and are frequently resurrected by new generations.  But unlike those traditional fixed letters that really reveal more about us – our religious beliefs and cultural stories - than about the true nature and flow of time itself, the simple letters B.C. now denote a new impending threshold: the historical period that we are living in right now before the discovery, confirmation and official, public recognition of and interaction with non-terrestrial life-forms.  Earth, B.C.  Before.  Contact.

Who are we – this people of Earth – who as yet have no experience of the Others who may (probably? most likely? definitely? inevitably?) share this Universe with us? What will we bring to the encounter? Yes, our fears, shaded by many clashing hues of divine dogma as well as our all-too-human prejudices based on silly notions of superiority and childish games of one-upmanship.  These show us at our worst and betray the smallness of mind of a species still groping for adolescent identity.  But in the silence between all the clatter of politics, religion and profit, there is a sense of hope and of wonderment.  There is the truly awe-full experience of looking up at the stars and asking, “If only?” and, for the first time, believing it could really be true.  There is the very real experience of remembering men and women who danced on the moon, lived amongst the stars, skydived through the blistering atmosphere and created machines that echo our human voices light years away – and knowing that if we could do these wondrous things, so, too, could Others. 

We are on the threshold of a world that accepts the reality of hundreds (thousands? millions?) of habitable exoplanets as mundane fact, that seriously appreciates and even participates in organized, scientific searches for non-terrestrial communication, and that is tenuously redefining, or perhaps more accurately, refining definitions of what it means to be alive, to be aware, to be intelligent and to be human.  We are a people Before Contact: hopeful, cynical, compassionate, cruel, wise and ever so foolish, but in the midst of it all, frightfully and excitingly aware that the experience of Contact can come any day – and it will change us . . . forever. 

Nothing will be the same again.  Neither our values nor our prejudices.  Neither our politics nor our religions.  Neither our schools, nor our homes, nor our relationships with those we hold most dear.  Some of us will be frightened and cling to what is familiar, rallying around comforting beliefs and rituals. Others of us will become emboldened by new entrepreneurial opportunities yet unimaginable (non-Earth medicine, tourism, resource extraction, and so many more).  Still others will become cynical and disbelieve the eyes and ears of others, and perhaps even their own, and fall back on hardened prejudices.  But others of us – and I truly hope it is the majority of us, from all nooks and crannies of this “pale blue dot” we call home – will become amazed and awestruck.  Like little children playing in the vastness of a beach brimming with zillions grains of sand, we will have stepped out into the vastness of a Universe (or perhaps a Multiverse?) full of wonder and possibility.  Yes, there will be danger.  Yes, there will be fears.  We would be utter fools to not be afraid.  But we would be even bigger fools to hold back or run away.  Humans, no . . . Earthlings, are made of stronger stuff than that!  Contact will be terrifying and it may not be immediately successful, however success is defined.  And we must all realize that our first Contact will most likely be with a fungus, or a microorganism or a bacterium.  But once LIFE is discovered off-planet Earth, our life here on Earth will never be the same again. Everything . . . and I means EVERYTHING will change.  And are we even remotely ready for that, we the people, the species, the organisms living on planet Earth Before Contact? I don’t think so, do you?

B4 Contact muses about who we are now, in this slice of time – however thin or stretched – before our First Contact with non-terrestrial, non-Earthly life.  It will comment on politics, religion, economics, culture, ethics, education and more  – whatever stories are in the news, on people’s minds, or trending in the culture – to see what they say about us as a people on the brink.  We are living in a watershed era.  These are the eras that historians love to analyze, but this time, I won’t be doing it from the safe distance of a hundred, five hundred or one thousand years.  With the realization that we are made of stars, there are no safe distances from the Universe any longer.  With probes and missions dotting the solar system and inching beyond, we know what we all hope comes next.  We are a people preparing for the next fixed point in Earth history.  We are living on Earth B4 Contact.