It's a question that has puzzled science-fiction fans and scientists alike for decades, and we already may have a hint of how people will react. On Oct. 30, 1938, a dramatized version of the 1898 H.G. Wells novel "The War of the Worlds" played on the CBS Radio system across the United States. The story details how Martians attacked Earth.
The radio broadcast caused a reaction when people mistook it for a real radio report, but accounts vary as to how much of a reaction there was. Some accounts describe nationwide panic, while others say not very many people actually listened to the broadcast. The promise of alien life stars in Episode 1 of "AMC Visionaries: James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction," which debuts on AMC tonight. Still, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher Duncan Forgan told Space.com the "War of the Worlds" broadcast may be instructive to think about as SETI scientists worldwide update their "first contact" protocols. [E.T. Etiquette: How Should Humanity Interact with Alien Life?]
"If you pick the right science fiction — the hard science fiction — it's placed in the best possible educated guesses about what will happen," said Forgan, who is a research fellow at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He explained that "hard" science fiction refers to science fiction that emphasizes accuracy (think the 2015 movie "The Martian," for example).
If researchers find a signal today, Forgan said, one of the things they will have to manage is a public used to getting constant news updates on Twitter and other forms of social media. It's something Forgan and his colleagues are already working on. The International Academy of Astronautics SETI Permanent Committee created a post-detection protocol in 1989 that was slightly updated in 2010; a new update is starting soon and should be finished in a few years, Forgan said.