Sixty years ago yesterday, Orson Welles shocked thousands of people on the East Coast when he broadcast "The War of the Worlds." The national broadcast took place on Halloween night, 1938.
Welles adapted H.G. Wells' novel of the same name in which New Jersey is invaded by hostile Martians. It was a clever broadcast, presented as a news story with reporters giving eyewitness reports. If an unsuspecting listener missed the disclaimer at the beginning of the program, he or she might have easily believed (and many did) that an invasion was taking place.
Interestingly enough, over the next 50 years, "The War of the Worlds" was rebroadcast from time to time, sometimes with serious results. For instance, a 1944 broadcast in Chile terrified people and triggered riots in Valparaiso and in 1988 a broadcast panicked listeners in northern Portugal and resulted in a crowd storming a radio station in Quito.
Professor Albert Harrison mentions these incidents in his book, "After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life" (Plenum Trade, $28.95, 1997) as unhappy examples of what humans might do if confronted with aliens.
But not to worry. Harrison and other scientists who have an interest in the search for extraterrestrial (ET) life don't believe that contact, if and when it is made, will come about in such a manner.
"We expect that any ETs we detect will be technologically advanced relative to ourselves," said Harrison. A passive listening search for ET life has been ongoing for more than 30 years through monitoring radio waves.
The fact that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration organized a group known as SETI, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, shows how seriously the concept is being taken. Several contact scenarios have been suggested by these scientists. The scenarios involve very low degrees of immediacy or the face to face contact of humans to aliens.
Rather, a radio wave transmission of some sort is likely to be the first contact, says Harrison. That transmission is likely to be in some sort of code that will take years to unravel, if it can be unraveled at all. It's likely that the message will have traveled a great distance and that the framers of it will be long gone by the time it arrives on Earth. Since there's not likely to be any immediacy associated with first contact, there's also not likely to be any threat to the man on the street and ordinary life will go on.
Nonetheless, Harrison is one of the scientists who believes that some sort of an international plan should be put in place now to prepare for contact that will come someday.
He belongs to myriad organizations that are studying and preparing for first contact: United Scientists in Space is made up of a group of lawyers who want to create a legal framework to do business in space; National Institute for Discovery Science consists of a group of scientists who look at issues ranging from nuclear physics to ghost-busting, and Contact: Cultures of the Imagination, is made up of scientists, artists and science fiction writers all of whom have a keen interest in finding out what exists Out There.
Harrison suggests that scientists, particularly those involved in SETI, have to carefully distance themselves from UFO enthusiasts.
Harrison devotes a full chapter in his book tracing the history and common characteristics of UFO sightings since 1947. He gives them a fair hearing, but comes down on the side of the skeptics.
"After countless sightings and abduction reports, nobody has produced an artifact of undeniable extraterrestrial origin. Nobody has taken a universally accepted photograph of a UFO and nobody seems to have inside knowledge that could come only from creatures smarter than we are. Most UFO reports are compatible with mundane explanation," Harrison concludes.
The mantra is: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."
Harrison didn't begin his career in psychology with an interest in things extraterrestrial. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in social psychology and has been teaching at UC Davis for 32 years. About 10 years ago, he said, his interests in people's attitudes toward things both novel and familiar led him to explore people's attitudes toward extraterrestrial beings.
"It has opened up a whole new area of friends and interests," he said. He is now working on a second book about the human side of space flight, which promises to be as interesting as "After Contact."
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