Aside public attitudes to extraterrestrial life

The story of ALH84001 indicates how we might react to future reports of extraterrestrial life. When the news about the meteorite broke, UFO

enthusiasts responded predictably38, showing how ready some people are to make the illicit progression: "If there was life, there must have been human intelligence, so there must have been advanced technology". These enthusiasts made the customary references to Martian canals, pyramid-like structures, and the appearance of a giant face on the surface of the Red Planet - all of which are demonstrably the products of imagination. "This discovery is not really a surprise," said the editor of UFO magazine, Graham Birdsall. But he voiced a general excitement at the supposed discovery of life in ALH84001.

However, the news had little effect on the course of world events. Wars were still fought. Politicians and celebrities went on making their accustomed headlines. Leading Christians and atheists made predictable responses to the ALH84001 story. So did others. The ecologist Colin Tudge said, "What is truly urgent is to study - and to preserve - the life that we already have on Earth, much of which is likely to disappear during the next few decades". This was a valid and laudable sentiment, but hardly relevant. Rather amusingly, the Financial Times announced "Discovery sparks hopes of fresh research and more funds", making their priorities clear. Indeed, several commentators drew attention to the timing of the ALH84001 revelation; it was announced while NASA's bid for further space exploration funding was being considered. Supporting NASA, the then President of the USA, Bill Clinton, declared that the discovery was "another vindication of America's space programme"; a curious assertion, since the meteorite had been discovered in Antarctica.

It is often said that contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence would be a momentous event. But would it? On the basis of the ALH84001 precedent, could we expect it to make much difference to us? Or would the world's response be "Very exciting, great story, but for all of us mortals it's business as usual"?

38 UFO sightings occurred in flurries during the 1890s and the 1920s and then in 1947, 1952, 1957 and 1966. They have been interpreted as signifying visits to Earth (why?) by representatives of high-technology alien societies, usually housed on Mars or Venus, both of which are known to be lifeless. Despite the presumption that UFOs are associated with alien life, evolution was not discussed among UFOlogists until the later part of the 20th century. Interestingly, the frequency of UFO sightings over the course of history has been inversely proportional to the number of sightings of will-o'-the-wisps.

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