Alien diplomacy

The Economist Online

Science and Technology / Babbage


The UN’s secretive alien ambassador

Sep 28th 2010, 16:03 by N.L.

LAST Sunday, it emerged that the UN was set to appoint a Malaysian astrophysicist called Mazlan Othman to lead international efforts to respond to visitors from outer space. As the article in the Sunday Times explained, Dr Othman is the head of the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa). But then an article on the Guardian’s News Blog seemed to pour cold green slime over the whole story. The Guardian reports that Dr Othman said, “it sounds really cool but I have to deny it”. Dr Othman is quoted as saying she is attending a conference next week on how the world deals with “near-Earth objects”.

This cannot be correct unless Unoosa considers aliens to be near-earth objects (like comets and asteroids). The Guardian did not contact the author of the original piece. Yet it is a matter of record that Dr Othman is due to attend a meeting at the Royal Society next Monday about how science and society should respond to aliens. If she turns up to talk about near-Earth objects, she’ll be politely shown to the transporter chamber.

Dr Othman is attending a debate about political issues for the UN that arise from alien life. One of her co-panellists, Frans Von der Dunk, will discuss the role of the UN in representing humanity in “any inter-cosmic ‘discourse’”. The current version of the programme does not say exactly what Dr Othman is there to discuss, but it isn’t a bold voyage into the unknown to wonder whether she will be reprising her words to a similar meeting in January on the consequences of detecting aliens.

In a March version of that talk she wrote, when aliens arrive “we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The United Nations are a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.” It is clear that she is proposing her agency, so why deny it?

So is there going to be an alien ambassador? Well for one thing, distances in space are so vast the chances of anything more than a signal arriving from aliens is fantastically remote. For another, it is more likely that if we discover alien life it will be some form of microbe found under a damp rock on Mars or some pattern in the chemistry of a planet several hundred million years away.

Yet another problem is that there is already another international group competing to manage the issue of alien contact. Run by Paul Davies, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University, the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup operates under the aegis of the International Academy of Astronautics, according to MSNBC.

While the boffins get their tentacles in a twist over who is in charge of alien contact on Earth, the truth of the matter is that it is leaders of big countries like America and China, not the international agencies, who are going to have the final say on what gets said by whom. What is more, if ever there was a story that demonstrated how awful the UN can be at being in charge, it is this. Attempts to reach Dr Othman have failed. Your correspondent will approach Unoosa again tomorrow, this time covered in green face paint and sporting three eyes in the hope of attracting attention.


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