I am happy, grateful to consider the idea of an alien contact outside of the earth’s sphere, verified through science, as a thought exercise. I wanted to start with what might be the first, initial reaction on an individual level and then fan out to larger, global implications. This brief essay is a compliment to my live presentation/workshop that can be found online via this project and the SETI Institute.
What might be the first reaction?, I thought, really leaning into the idea. What might be the first, even involuntary, response? I realized that the initial reaction would be not only mental, looking at the framing of the message and all the news and scientific reports about it, watching the talking heads on tv talk about it, calling friends and family to think about it, maybe meeting up with people to process this new reality. My very first reaction and I think the very first reaction of many who could perceive the meaning of such an earth-shattering event, would be physical then uttered in some way. That combination would be poetic and specifically onomatopoetic.
Maybe it’d be a whistle or some other uttered sound of astonishment: https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEgwPanFPWU
What would we need to make this sound or some other? A deep inhale and exhale. Maybe some sort of uttered, measured tone would be a way in which we’d steady ourselves, taking in and shifting in, this extraordinary conundrum: that we are ourselves but that our fundamental perception of what that means, has radically changed from one moment to the next.
Maybe we’d add words to this exclamation, maybe even “coarse” language to convey a new reality, a new circumstance that we hadn’t known before. Maybe we’d shake our heads without sound, trying to “shake it off”, not believe it because the implications of this new truth would be overwhelming.
Many of us would be excited to know we’re not in this universe by ourselves, but we also know that many would be scared to death. With geocentric foundations unmoored, how “blue” would our blue marble be for much of humankind?
In whatever way we’d understand it, in whatever language or pre-language, our bodies would be affected, we’d be “shaken”, “disturbed”, “shocked”, ‘moved”etc. All of these words are physical aspects to what we’d try to comprehend.
Onomatopoetic utterances, sensations, are the link between feeling, physicalized utterances and conventional, vocabulaic language. It’s a fundamentally poetic articulation. Some theorists believe that poetry itself with its emphasis on economy, repetition, imagery and other devices, is the core of language, the origins and motivations of human speech. Therefore it would not be surprising that we’d have embodied, somatic responses to such a seismic event.
Our first initial onomatopoetic response, would be a universal trait, I suspect, irrespective of the body, culture, language, belief, perspective. All humans capable of perceiving this experience would have some sort of physicalized sensation *and* utterance (through sound, gesture, etc.) to this event. Of course this would be different for each person, however the overarching concept would likely be unifying, at least in concept. Let’s try a “thought” experiment for this idea: Imagine that you heard the news that this connection was real. Where do you think you’d feel this realization? How do you think it might be uttered from/through you? Be specific and see if you can actually feel the sensation. After that initial, and individualized “big bang” in/from the body, everything, everywhere would break wide open.
In our groups, communities, families, beliefs, hopes and fears, we’d go to traditions, including the traditions of science and the traditions of religious and metaphysical concepts to “make sense” of this. Or maybe we could say “negotiate” this reality beyond the individual level, at whatever stratum we’d consider ourselves part of a community of some sort. Would we contract in to our small enclaves or could we do something else, something different that reflects the magnitude of this situation?
Rather than thinking about all the ways in which we’d perceive things differently from other people, we could work toward unifying theories that we all share. At what point in beliefs, research, study, prayer, etc. do we find connecting principles? Can we let go of our heretofore embedded, solid ways of breaking down cultural, religious, personal biases to see how we earthlings are offering facets to the same conceptual jewel, this new truth? How might our various angles allow us to perceive our great, eclectic, whole, home, our round blue sphere in the universe’s heavens, our haven?
Before we get to what the message literally says, there is the “truth” (in our speculation) that this message actually exists. That it’s real and there’s proof. There are some scientists and maybe some metaphysicians and spiritual leaders who’d look knowingly, smug in their pre-established beliefs. We’d look to them, to ancient texts and their lyric, that talk about beings from “somewhere else”, poetic approaches to oral and written cultures, as we try to find the harmonizing, complementary and contrasting strings that don’t negate the new understanding of totality. In our global search for understanding, we would not be undermined by culturally specific interpretations but would rather see how they offer us different approaches to the same ideas.
When I was little and watched the tv show Cosmos, by the great astrophysicist Carl Sagan, I recall being blown away, as if all the science fiction I’d been reading had become embodied in a real, science person. However, out of all of his astonishing contributions to science by presenting that show, I realized there was a dearth of comments on the contributions of people from the African diaspora, and other people of color on the show. This stuck out to me as a missed opportunity, because we have all, since humankind began, speculated on the stars. I was also eager to learn more from him because one thing I’d heard about, as a child who grew up learning about Black traditions and cultures, was the phenomenon of the Dogon people of West Africa who were aware of, and celebrated, the movement of the Sirius B star, hundreds of years before encounters with Europeans, with artifacts verifying this fact (as evidenced by two French anthropologists who recorded their belief system). I’d hoped Carl Sagan would mention this or other groups from Africa interested in the stars. I was so excited to learn watching his show. When he was later asked about this, Sagan attributed this Dogon understanding to some possible European encounter that remains unknown.
I always wished that, rather than dismissing the possibility of traditional Dogon cosmological insights, that a man of such great intellectual heft, Sagan or others would have dedicated time, researchers, etc. to finding out how the Dogon people and especially their priesthood asserted this cosmic choreography, so long ago. The Dogon, like many of the world’s peoples, have offered their own legends, beliefs and rituals to explain otherworldly phenomena on their own terms. How would a global unifying principle of these legends, and other ancient legends, offer us a new perspective now, in light of our artistic thought experiment? How would, how could we, see each other anew?
I have no doubt whatsoever that things we have considered “coincidences”, things we consider “impossible” for different people to understand in our circumscribed notions, would quickly become outdated, as we searched for a range of ideas from everywhere, every time, all peoples, that could give us insight into our new and ancient reality. If we received confirmed contact, we’d open up our minds, our hearts and let old, limited ideas go. I am confident in us as humans. I know we’d join together. We’d have to in order to gain some expansive sense of understanding in this extraordinary reality. This would include understandings in other languages, other embodied modes of perception too. All of our knowledge, experiences and beliefs, from antiquity to now would offer their lens, meaning, contribution to this overwhelming, simple, scientific truth: we are not alone.
Since homo sapiens first walked the earth and looked up, people have sought to understand their positions to the cosmos, each other and their individual selves, beyond simply pragmatic mapping. Our physical place, our physical bodies exist on this moving, orb moving around other orbs, swirling, breathing, as the air in our lungs does; we absorb the vibrations of this planet and the energy, utterances and palpitations we release ourselves.
The blue of the sky we look up to isn’t a color of earth. It’s phases of us seeing space through water, refractions and clouds. Our perception, our understanding, is relative and we are all related, connected, to each other. How do we hold ourselves and each
other together, connected to each other through this existential shift in our permutations of reality? If this encounter were undeniably true, would we, could we steady ourselves and each other, all of us, beyond the shadow of this new extraterrestrial tether, beyond our differences, breathing and uttering our understandings of each other and our new truth, beyond our doubts?
— Tracie Morris, 2023