In the following video, Steven Vogt of the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of California Observatories and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington join National Science Foundation’s Lisa-Joy Zgorski to announce the discovery of the first exoplanet that has the potential to support life. The exoplanet was found in the star system of Gliese 581. It’s discovery is based on 11 years of observations from the Keck I Telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. A press release by the National Science Foundation announcing the discovery is available here.
On Sept 26, I reported on a breaking story that at an upcoming Royal Society conference, the head of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), Dr Mazlan Othman, was to reveal how the UN was preparing to appoint her to be the First Contact liaison with extraterrestrial life. The story was first reported by Jonathan Leake, the Science Editor for The Sunday Times, and was picked up my multiple international mainstream media sources including the Sunday Telegraph and The Australian. The Guardian newspaper was eventually able to get in touch by email with Othman to confirm Leake’s story and she replied: “It sounds really cool but I have to deny it.” In addition to Othman’s email, when business opened on Monday, Fox News was able to get in touch with Jamshid Gaziyev, a UN spokesperson who described the story as “nonsense.” The question that remains to be answered is why did the Science Editor of a major British newspaper write about the UN appointing a First Contact liaison with extraterrestrials if there was no substance to it?
â€¦ the UN is set to select an obscure Malaysian astrophysicist who is head of its little-known Office for Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa). Mazlan Othman will describe her potential new role next week at a scientific conference at the Royal Society’s Kavli conference centre in Buckinghamshire.
The conference Leake is referring to is titled: “Towards a scientific and societal agenda on extra-terrestrial life” scheduled to take place on October 4-5. The conference webpage says: “With a mix of invited talks and panel debates, we particularly look into the detection of life, the communication with potential extra-terrestrial civilizations, the implications for the future of humanity, and the political processes that are required.” This is what Leake went on to say about what Othman was set to announce at the conference:
She will tell delegates that the recent discovery of hundreds of planets around other stars has made the detection of extraterrestrial life more likely than ever before – and that means the UN must be ready to co-ordinate humanity’s response to any “first contact”.
What was the basis for Leake’s comments about Othman’s upcoming talk? This is what he wrote:
The Sunday Times has obtained a recording of a talk Othman gave recently to fellow scientists in which she said: “The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that some day humankind will receive signals from extraterrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such co-ordination.”
From the recorded talk, it’s safe to conclude that Othman believes that the UN ought to “have in place a coordinated response” to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Leake goes on to write:
As director of Unoosa, she has developed policies on issues raised by advances in space technology, such as how humanity should respond to the discovery of asteroids and comets found to be on a collision course with Earth. The same thinking lies behind her proposals for dealing with the discovery of alien life.
So what proposals is Leake referring to here? He doesn’t explain what these are and how he learned of them, but he nevertheless elaborates on what the UN is planning.
Her plans to make her department the co-ordinating body for dealing with alien encounters will be debated by UN scientific advisory committees and should eventually reach the body’s general assembly.
In contrast, according to Gaziyev, the UN spokesperson, Othman’s forthcoming conference presentation would: “discuss the problems posed by “space debris mitigation, near-Earth objects (asteroids) and the coordination mechanism for the use of space technology in the United Nations system.” That’s surprising given the theme of the conference and the panel Othman was set to appear on: “Extra-terrestrial life and arising political issues for the UN agenda.” It is sensible given the alleged recorded talk by Othman that Leake said the Sunday Times has and he cited, that Othman is at the very least interested in the UN having “in place a coordinated response” to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Is the UN playing damage control on what Othman was likely to discuss at a Royal Society conference addressing exo-political issues confronting the UN with the inevitable discovery of extraterrestrial life?
Of course, we know now that a UN spokesperson dismissed the First Contact ET liaison story as nonsense, as did Othman. So the question is why did Leake publish a story that both Mazlan Othman and the UN would quickly repudiate? Why did he write about Othman’s “proposals for dealing with the discovery of alien life” and her “plans to make her department the co-ordinating body for dealing with alien encounters.” Did he infer, fabricate or was he tipped off concerning these “proposals” and “plans”? Was he acting alone or was he acting on behalf of others in preempting or sabotaging what Othman was planning to say at the upcoming Royal Society conference? There is a lot of mystery behind Leake’s initial report given his very responsible position as the Science Editor for a major UK newspaper.
Whatever the answer to the above questions and unsolved mystery behind Leake’s initial report, one thing is clear, leading scientists from around the world will travel next week to the Royal Society to discuss the political and social consequences of the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Most importantly, Othman will be there to provide insight into the role of the UN in coordinating international responses to the issues being discussed. Perhaps she’ll focus on space rocks hitting the Earth as the UN spokesperson said. Or perhaps she’ll open up and discuss the UN having “in place a coordinated response” to the discovery of extraterrestrial life as Leake suggested. We’ll find out shortly. While the conference is now filled,, I’ve been informed by organizers that sessions will be digitally recorded for audio and video release through the Royal Society website.
The United Nations is set to appoint the head of its Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) as the first official responsible for representing humanity in the case of contact with extraterrestrial life. At an upcoming Royal Society (of London) conference scheduled from October 4-5, Dr Mazlan Othman will explain how the UN plans to implement changes that will result in her being given responsibility as part of her current position as the director of UNOOSA. Othman says the need for such a responsibility is due to the discovery of exoplanets that makes it more likely than ever that humanity will eventually discover extraterrestrial life. She has said that the UN is now actively planning a coordinated response for â€˜First Contactâ€™ .
Othman is a respected figure in the astrophysics and Outer Space Affairs community. She was the first female to graduate with a Ph.D in astrophysics from the University of Otago New Zealand (1981) and became Malaysiaâ€™s first astrophysicist. She was nominated by Kofi Annan to head UNOOSA from 1999 to 2002, before being summoned back to Malaysia to head the Malaysian National Space Agency from 2002-2007. She was responsible for the training and flight of Malaysiaâ€™s first astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, and was re-appointed head of UNOOSA by the current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in 2007. As far as Othmanâ€™s scientific expertise is concerned, Professor Richard Crowther, a space law expert at the United Kingdomâ€™s space agency said: â€œOthman is absolutely the nearest thing we have to a â€˜take me to your leaderâ€™ personâ€.
The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that some day human kind will receive signals from extraterrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.
At the October 4-5 Royal Society conference, Othman will go into detail in the process the UN plans to undertake to appoint her as humanityâ€™s first representative for First Contact. The Conference is titled â€œTowards a scientific and societal agenda on extra-terrestrial life,â€ and its webpage explains the need for political processes to accommodate scientific study of extraterrestrial life:
Even more than the scientific agenda, a corresponding complementary societal agenda needs to be debated. With a mix of invited talks and panel debates, we particularly look into the detection of life, the communication with potential extra-terrestrial civilizations, the implications for the future of humanity, and the political processes that are required.â€
Othman will present at a panel discussion titled: â€œExtra-terrestrial life and arising political issues for the UN agenda.”
Othmanâ€™s position shows that the United Nations is closely monitoring scientific developments concerning the discovery of exoplanets and the growing likelihood that life can be found throughout the universe. Recently, renowned astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking caused a furor when he said that extraterrestrial life is almost certain to exist, but we should be careful since they are likely to be predatory in nature. Hawkingâ€™s exopolitical speculations has stimulated wide ranging debate over the motivations of advanced extraterrestrial life. As a member of the Royal Society, Hawking’s views very likely played a role in influencing the agenda of the upcoming Royal Society conference.
The upcoming UN announcement of a First Contact official comes at a convenient time for a grass roots effort to get the City of Denver to pass an Ordinance, Initiative 300, that will create an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission. Initiative 300 is on the ballot for the November mid-term elections and deals with some of the same â€œFirst Contactâ€ issues that Othman will be given responsibility for at the UN. For example, the proposed Ordinance asks:
Shall the voters for the City and County of Denver adopt an Initiated Ordinance to require the creation of an extraterrestrial affairs commission to help ensure the health, safety, and cultural awareness of Denver residents and visitors in relation to potential encounters or interactions with extraterrestrial intelligent beings or their vehicles, and fund such commission from grants, gifts and donations?
It will certainly be difficult to dismiss the importance of Denverâ€™s proposed Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission if the UN moves forward with its plans to appoint Othman as the official responsible for First Contact, and the Royal Society endorses political processes to deal with the detection of extraterrestrial life.
The upcoming appointment of a UN official to be in charge of a future First Contact scenario is a welcome step forward in legitimating discussion about the social and political implications of extraterrestrial life. Such a political discussion â€“ popularly known as exopolitics â€“ is the explicit focus of the upcoming Royal Society Conference. Uthmanâ€™s upcoming responsibility makes it more important than ever that the academic/scientific community discusses the social and political implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and the growing likelihood of First Contact. Further Reading