The vexed issue of who should speak to an alien from another planet that demands "Take me to your leader" might soon be resolved.
The United Nations is about to appoint a little-known Malaysian astrophysicist to head its Office for Outer Space Affairs, which could soon be designated with the task of communicating with extraterrestrials. Mazlan Othman will tell delegates to a scientific conference next week at a country house outside London that she will head the UN office and be in charge of talking to any aliens who either arrive here from another world or, more likely, communicate with us.
Dr Othman recently told fellow scientists that the discovery of many Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars suggests that intelligent life may be more common in the Universe than many scientists had once supposed. "The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that some day, humankind will receive signals from extraterrestrials," Dr Othman said.
"When we do, we should have in place a co-ordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such co-ordination," she said.
Professor Richard Crowther, an expert on space law and governance at the UK Space Agency, and who leads Britain's delegation to the UN on the issue, said: "Othman is absolutely the nearest thing we have to a 'take me to your leader' person."
The UN has a history of being closely involved in the debate over how to handle the discovery of life on other planets. It has drawn up a protocol to decontaminate equipment that may be carrying alien microbes, and it has worked on the sort of greetings that humans should give to intelligent extraterrestrial life forms.