Nicholas Lezard: How not to greet a little green man

I would not necessarily assume that the first human being an alien will want to speak to is an astrophysicist

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So the United Nations has appointed Mazlan Othman, the Malaysian astrophysicist who is head of its Office for Outer Space Affairs, to deal with aliens when or if they eventually deign to make contact with us. This is excellent news and a welcome sign that this august institution, having now resolved all international conflicts to everyone's satisfaction, is getting its priorities right.

Yet one wonders what it is about the Malaysian space agency, which has been around since 2002, that gives it the edge over, oh, let's say, NASA, which has been sending people into orbit and beyond for decades. According to the unusually sub-literate Wikipedia entry for the Malysian space agency, under the heading "Muslims in Space", "On [sic] of the many challenges that need to be addresses [sic] by the astronaut is on how [sic] to perform religious obligation [sic] while in space."

So I am glad to know where the Malaysian Space Agency is directing its research, and they will be my first port of call when I need to know which direction Mecca is when whizzing around the planet at mind-boggling velocity, or when one can start eating during Ramadan when the sun is rising and setting every twenty minutes. Should I, though, want to ask about the relative merits of ion drive as against nuclear propulsion systems, then maybe I'll ask one of the older, more established space agencies. (And at least the Russians will offer me a decent vodka.)

But my main problem is the idea that it is an astrophysicist who should be the first point of contact between ourselves and another species. Now, I have nothing against astrophysicists, and think their work is both necessary and mind-boggling, but I would not necessarily assume that the first human being an alien will want to speak to is an astrophysicist. In fact, the assumption that a scientist of any description is the right person for the job seems to be somewhat arrogant, rather like pouncing on a new arrival at a party just because you have a hunch that you'll have something in common with them.

Imagine. You've just travelled 500 light years, a distance which to the scientifically ignorant doesn't sound that much but is, believe me, a bloody long way, and maybe the first thing you'll want to talk about is not how stars are born or whether they found the Oort Cloud made their engines make knocking sounds above Warp 5.

Alien: Greetings. We come in peace. We have monitored your transmissions and –

Mazlan Othman: Greetings. What a splendid space ship that is. How does it work?

Alien: Er, well, it's some kind of warp drive, I suppose.

MO: Could you tell us how it works? We've been trying to work this one out ever since Star Trek.

Alien (peering over her shoulder to see where the drinks and nibbles are being served): Actually, that's not really my field, I just get it back from the garage, turn the key and off it goes, ha ha.

MO: Did you come via the Crab Nebula?

Alien (eyes beginning to glaze over): No, the Horsehead. I find you can get really stuck in traffic if you go via the Crab Nebula.

MO: Did you have any problems with religious observance during your journey through the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos?

Alien (beginning to get a sinking feeling): Ah, well, for us religion is more a matter of social convention than ...

MO: Oh, never mind. It's just that as an astrophysicist I have so many questions to ask ... being so advanced, you wouldn't happen to know what happened before the Big Bang?

Alien (wondering where the girls are): Look, I don't mean to be rude, but I've just remembered that I've left my A-Z in the Ophiucus System. I'm so sorry, terribly absent-minded of me, but you wouldn't mind if I just popped out?

And that would be that. So I think the UN should also consider also hiring someone who can do small talk.

Just a thought.

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