If and when extraterrestrials try to contact humanity, they might want to stop by the United Nations headquarters. But despite earlier reports, it looks like there won't be a designated ambassador-to-the-aliens waiting for them there after all.
According to numerous reports, 58-year-old Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman, head of the U.N.'s Office for Outer Space Affairs--which is charged with "promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space"--had been tapped for the role. Word was that she was waiting only for U.N. scientific advisory committees and the General Assembly to give the thumbs-up.
But now the U.K.'s Guardian News says that Othman is quashing the suggestion. "It sounds really cool but I have to deny it," Othman reportedly said in an e-mail cited by the online newspaper.
Othman, who led Malaysia's national space agency before heading to the U.N. and helped train that country's first astronaut, is scheduled to speak next week at a Royal Society event devoted to the implications of alien contact and the need for necessary political processes to be in place should that contact occur. But the Guardian reports that Othman will be there to speak about how the world deals with "near-Earth objects."
Earlier reports had been more tantalizing. The Australian leaned on a recent quote from Othman saying this: "The continued search for extraterrestrial communication...sustains the hope that someday 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 U.N. is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination."
The publication also quoted Professor Richard Crowther, a specialist in space law and governance at the U.K. Space Agency, on Othman's suitability for the supposed job: she "is absolutely the nearest thing we have to a 'take me to your leader' person."
Though contact with space aliens may not happen tomorrow, the recent discovery of potentially Earth-like planets, and of the existence of lifeforms in the harshest environments on Earth itself, have led to an increased focus on the possibility of extraterrestrial creatures. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking has recently helped to legitimize exopolitics, which looks at the public policy implications of alien life.
"To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," The Times of London quoted Hawking as saying back in April. "The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like."
And how best to deal with them. As The Australian points out, under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, overseen by the Office for Outer Space Affairs, members of the U.N. agree to protect Earth against contamination by taking the precaution of "sterilizing" extraterrestrials. But, The Australian says, Othman "is understood to want a more tolerant approach."
If Hawking's thinking is correct, however, any eventual ambassador may be in for some challenging diplomacy. Though he suspects most aliens will prove to be microbes and small animals, Hawking warns against trying to make contact with intelligent ETs. He thinks they'd likely be cruising the starways in search of resources, and potential colonies.
"We only have to look at ourselves," The Times quoted Hawking as saying, "to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."
Update, 10:12 a.m. PDT: This story has been recast to include a newspaper report of Othman denying the purported appointment as an ambassador to the aliens.