TORONTO -- Making contact with intelligent life in outer space will
likely occur sometime during the next century, says a Toronto-based
scholar in an article featured in a recently published American book
of essays surrounding the next millennium.
Few events in the sweep of human history will be as significant and as
far-reaching as contact with intelligent life in outer space, and now
is the time for us to begin to prepare for the social and
physiological impact, says Allen Tough, a retired education professor
from the University of Toronto and an expert in future studies.
Scientists and the public have, in recent years, come to realize there
is the distinct possibility that life on other planets exists, says
Mr. Tough, and the effect of contact on human civilization will be
"We must keep in mind that some of the intelligent life in our galaxy
may be deeply alien to us. Their thinking patterns, knowledge,
emotions, bodies, perception and communication may be even stranger
than our strangest science-fiction images," he writes.
"Some intelligent beings in our universe could turn out to be
silicon-based entities or supercomputers."
Douglas Vakoch, a psychologist with the Search for Extra Terrestrial
Intelligence Institute in Mountainview, California, agrees. The
organization, which has affiliates all over the world, is currently
monitoring radio signals in anticipation of any signals from life in
It is Mr. Vakoch's job to research what the possible social impact
will be on Earth.
"I think it is important to focus on this now, because it would happen
so quickly and in such a short period of time it is better we prepare
for a range of scenarios before the event occurs," he says.
Mr. Vakoch says two of the things that have to be considered when
Earth receives a message are whether to respond right away, and what
to say in return. One thing SETI has agreed on is that if a message
from outer space is discovered, once it is confirmed by scientists
from outside of the organization to authenticate the source, the
message will be made known to the public right away.
"Any message that is sent isn't being sent to one person or one
organization, but to the whole planet, so everyone should be aware of
Mr. Vakoch says that, if contact is made, not only would we learn a
lot about the aliens, but also about ourselves, and we would begin to
develop an Earthly identity.
"Some are afraid we won't feel unique any more, but I think the
opposite will happen and we will realize how unique and special we
really are," he said.
Ken Norwich, a professor of physiology at the University of Toronto
who has done research into the potential sensory systems of life forms
from other planets, isn't as optimistic about contact from outer space
any time soon.
"There is the possibility that we may never find it, even if it is out
there," he says. "Making contact isn't as simple as sending out a
signal and getting a message back."
The subject of UFOs and outer space have become a preoccupation of the
20th century, he says, and it is partially fueled by the turn of the
"If we had lived 500 years ago, we would expect to see dragons or
whatever was current, and right now we are obsessed with UFOs," he
"There is also certain magical attachment to the turn of the
millennium, and we expect something special to happen at that time --
so why not it be someone from outer space?"
This isn't to say that we should stop looking, however, says Mr.
"Science fiction writer Jules Verne talked about submarines long
before we had them, so why not talk about this?" he asks.
"It's like the saying goes: 'If you ain't got a dream, how can that
dream come true?'"
Meanwhile, Mr. Tough says it is important to consider what will happen
to humans as a civilization in the event of contact with another
If the event is negative, it could possibly mean the extinction of
humanity. However, he says this is very unlikely.
"What would probably happen is that any hostile society would wipe
themselves out before they became highly advanced enough to travel to
other planets," he said in an interview from his home in Toronto.
On the positive side, aliens could provide practical information that
could help human civilization survive. They could also provide answers
to some major questions about life and the universe -- because the
chances are the extra-terrestrials would be much older than us, as our
planet is relatively young in comparison to many of the stars that are
in the universe.
"We might gain new insights, understanding and knowledge about major
questions that go far beyond ordinary, practical, day-to-day matters,"
"Topics in a message could include astrophysics, the origin and
evolution of the universe, religious questions and the meaning of
Unlike the movies, in which space crafts land on Earth, Mr. Tough says
he believes contact will probably made by way of a small probe,
possibly the size of a basketball or smaller.
"It could be something that would be lurking around, monitoring our
telecommunications in order to get to know us or our language."
Mr. Tough isn't alone in his beliefs. According to a Maclean's
magazine poll last year, 42 per cent of Canadians expect an
extraterrestrial civilization to be discovered within the next 50
years, and 17 per cent think the aliens will look like humans.
Although she doesn't believe extraterrestrials have a special
interests in visiting earth, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette told
radio listeners in Quebec in July that it is presumptuous for us to
believe we are the only intelligent species in the universe.
There is no lack of alleged UFO sightings in Canada. According to a
recent survey by a "Ufology" research group in Manitoba, there were
194 reports of UFO sightings in 1998, the majority of them in British
Columbia and Ontario.
Some of the sighting descriptions in the study included a truck driver
in Kelowna, B.C., who observed n big, silent, black triangular object
moving slowly over the highway, and three people who witnessed a
V-shaped object that flew over a house in Bancroft, Ont.