Perfume for the Apocalypse

Flying saucers will never be out-of-fashion as far as I’m concerned, but this New York Times review, “Little Green Men and Flying Saucers are so Pass??: New Ideas about Aliens,” has me eager to read Paul Davies’ latest book, The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence.

Dwight Garner writes:

The best sections of “The Eerie Silence” are those that deal with the effect a signal from another civilization would have on humans. About this signal, Mr. Davies asks, “How and by whom would it be evaluated?” and “How would the public get to learn about it?” (From TMZ or WikiLeaks, wouldn’t you think?)

He goes on: “Would there be social unrest, even panic? What would governments do? How would the world’s leaders react? Would the news be regarded with fear or wonderment? And in the longer term, what would it mean for our society, our sense of identity, our science, technology and religions?”

Untitled, Gregory Crewdson

It’s been a big week for the sky-watchers and universe-curious. Press for his new documentary series reveals Stephen Hawking’s thoughts not on hopeful signals sent out into the universe from our end (which Davies suggests are outmoded), but instead on why the whole pursuit may be misguided and even dangerous. Hawking cautions:

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

Hawking and Davies agree that aliens may come in forms we may not even be able to conceive of, much less comprehend. Hawking says, “Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains,” and Davies suggests that aliens may be “postbiological“Should we ever make contact with E. T., we would not be communicating with Mekon-like humanoids, but with a vastly superior, purpose-designed information-processing system.”

So if the aliens come, and they don’t obliterate us on sight, what should we do? If the differences between us are greater than the way we cut the corners of our printer-paper and wear our tank tops, how will we communicate? io9 has this handy guide on what to do if you find yourself in the role of “first human ever to make alien contact” (be sure to bring your own writing utensil!).

The same site hosts a poll asking, “How will we communicate with alien intelligences?” With my nasal-tunnel-vision, I found it curious that more people imagine aliens would to respond to smell than to weapons. I’ve wondered–maybe thinking of those little slit nostrils aliens are so often depicted as having–about this before: Will aliens smell? In both senses of the verb–will they have a perceptible odor? And will they be able to smell us?

The guide above doesn’t address personal grooming, except to say that after a few hours on the aliens’ spaceship, you’ll “want to get home and probably take a shower.” But what fragrance should you wear to the summit? Assuming you’re angling for role of spokesperson here, and not trying to repel the aliens, you’ll likely want to smell cleanish but interesting, human but useful, strange enough to merit further, but ideally not painfully invasive, inquiry. Fr??d??ric Malle’s G??ranium pour Monsieur might be a good place to start your intergalactic-scent search. A favorite fragrance blogger describes the scent as a “mint green vortex for space dandies.” I smelled it for the first time a few weeks ago in a sniffing chamber that looked like it could beam me up, and it did, at least in the way that smells sometimes transport us to other worlds, pulling together disparate bits of our own planet, in this case the handle of a shaving brush that’s been in the family for decades, its wood worn shiny by oil from hands that knew better than you the calluses of an honest day’s work; ointments not yet invented, made from ferns harvested along undersea trade routes; and breath made fresh enough for a first kiss. My only worry is that this scent is perhaps too cool, and maybe you want to smell a little louder when you meet the aliens. But surely it’s lovely enough to make them pause before annihilating us, maybe even stay curious long enough for Will Smith to arrive and save the day.