The president of the United States normally has a lot of responsibility, but if aliens arrive, he or she could end up deciding the literal fate of humanity.
We can't claim to know what will happen if space aliens land on Earth, but the screenwriters of alien invasion movies have gamed out the possible scenarios for us. On one hand, you have the Independence Day scenario: They try to exterminate us for whatever reason. And I hate to break it to you, but if a civilization is advanced enough to find us and blast us with photon torpedoes, no Will Smith-plus-computer-virus heroics are probably going to save us, and we're all going to die.
The second scenario is a bit like upcoming science-fiction film Arrival : UFOs show up, but until someone can figure out how to communicate with them, no one will have any clue whether the extraterrestrials are saying "Give us all your phosphorus before we blast you with our super laser," or, "Here's a quick and easy recipe for unlimited energy." Guessing wrong means interstellar war.
In either situation, as the leader of Earth's only superpower, the president of the United States will have a lot of responsibility should aliens land. He or she will either be leading the (again, probably doomed) fight against the extraterrestrials a la Bill Pullman in Independence Day or working on brokering a billion-year peace deal with the people of Squidulon-5 or whatever. Those are the highest possible stakes—either human slaves in the Saharan phosphorus mines will be cursing your name in 2528, or you will be remembered as the greatest and most important diplomat in Earth's 4.5 billion year history.
The chance of us making first contact with aliens between 2016 and 2020 is remote, but if we did, who would you want in the Oval Office? To figure it out, I reached out to some of the best minds in the world of extraterrestrial research. These experts—three researchers in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) field and one UFOlogist—gave me some pretty interesting answers. Sometimes they were pretty vague, but it doesn't sound like any of them are eager to Make Earth Great Again.
Dan Werthimer, Chief SETI Scientist at the UC Berkeley Department of Astronomy
VICE: Does it make sense to raise the issue of what to do about an alien landing in the presidential election?
Dan Werthhimer: I think people should start thinking about the consequences of communicating with other civilizations. There are potentially great outcomes: We could learn a lot, and there are potentially bad outcomes. We could learn about technologies that would be good for weapons, or something like that. So it would be good to start thinking about how the world is going to deal with this and who should speak for Earth—and if we should reply, who's going to reply, and how do we draft that sort of message. It's good to think about that ahead of time, because it could be chaos if we ever find a signal.
Is one major candidate better in your opinion?
I think [Donald Trump] makes a lot of off-the-cuff remarks, many of which he later says, "Oh that was a joke," but that's the kind of thing that could get us in a war, or a nuclear war or something. Especially when you're coming into contact with different cultures, or even different civilizations, you need to be careful about what you say, and how it could be misconstrued. We need to go about these things much more carefully than Trump does with that stuff.
What could go wrong if Trump is in office and aliens show up?
It's likely the first civilization we contact will be way more advanced than we are. We cannot contact them now if they're primitive civilizations—or if they're still bacteria or trees. It's unlikely that we'll discover a civilization that's just discovered radio like we have—we've only had radio for 100 years. The more likely scenario is we discover civilizations that are billions of years old that have been talking to one another. You get on the galactic internet and learn about the thousands of other civilizations that can talk to one another—or billions. Our sun is 5 billion years old, and some stars are 10 billion years old. So you can imagine very advanced civilizations.
You want to go about these things carefully and put your best foot forward—there can be dangers. If these civilizations are way more advanced, then presumably they'll have technology that is way more advanced than ours. Hopefully they'll learn to live together in peace—I grew up in the 60s, and I thought everybody was a flower child, and we were all gonna live together happily. But that might be naïve! There could be the Borg out there or something. So you don't want somebody like Trump shooting off his mouth, and people misunderstanding what he intended. I can imagine during the Cuban Missile Crisis if Trump had been our president. He could have obliterated the planet by mistake with nuclear weapons.
Andrew Siemion, Director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center
VICE: What qualities do we want in a president if aliens land?
Andrew Siemion: I think imagining what might happen if a civilization were to visit Earth would be difficult to predict, and I think all the declared candidates have their pros and cons. I don't know that I would venture a particular person on a declared ticket to be my favorite. Suffice to say that they all have pros and cons, depending what another civilization might be like.
But what do you know about the candidates on this issue?
I do know that Hillary has expressed some interest in the topic, and that's very heartening. But I think, again, it's very difficult to predict what another civilization might be like. And it's hard to predict what kind of leader would be best suited to deal with such a situation—but my hope would be that were we to actually make contact with another civilization that it would be a unifying moment for the whole world. Not just for the United States, but for the whole world, and we could all come together to address that challenge, or revel in that discovery, whether we're Democrats or Republicans or other.
Are you saying hostility is a very real possibility?
It's very difficult to predict what another intelligent species in the galaxy, or indeed in the universe, might be like. Some people think technological developments and altruism are kind of tied together, and the more technologically advanced a species becomes the more altruistic or friendly it becomes. We don't really have any good evidence for that. In fact, we kind of have evidence to the contrary. So it's really hard for us to predict what another civilization might be like. At SETI, we're just trying to listen for signals. We're not expressly trying to make contact per se, at least overtly.
Preston Dennett, UFO Investigator and Author
VICE: Which candidate should be president of the United States if aliens land?
Preston Dennett: Ha! That's an interesting question. I would pick Hillary because she's had more foreign policy experience. She has also been photographed carrying a book about UFOs, and her husband has read UFOs Over Roswell, so I'm guessing she knows about UFOs.
Paul Horowitz, Experimental Astrophysics at Harvard
VICE: Which candidate should be president of the United States if aliens land?
Paul Horowitz: That's such a no-brainer!
Well, I'd want one, someone of statesman-like, upstanding character—like Walter Cronkite, or [Barack] Obama, or Colin Powell, or Gandhi—and two, someone who would seek the counsel and accumulated wisdom of social scientists, historians, linguists, and astronomers. Clearly, one [candidate] fails spectacularly at both. Some may argue that the other, though she would do nicely on number two, does not really satisfy number one. Without stating my opinion on that—and given your constraint that it has to be a choice [between existing candidates]—it's obvious.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.