What kinds of experts might be on a team sent to explore a new planet?
January 30, 2013 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Assuming one already knew the planet had a safe, breathable atmosphere and a similar terrain to earth's. Also assuming the group already had team leaders, security guys, pilots, and engineers for ship/equipment operation and maintenance. Just trying to discern what KINDS of scientists (or even cultural anthropologists, etc) might prove useful to an information-gathering mission-- one in which encountering intelligent life is highly likely.

Specifically looking for specialists whose careers might exist currently-- like astrobiologists and planet modelers and such. What kinds of backgrounds would prove useful on such a mission, in regards to interpreting the world or civilizations they might encounter?

posted by np312 to Science & Nature (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Geologist, for starters. During the last Apollo missions to the moon, they made a big deal about converting a professional geologist to a professional astronaut (Harrison Schmitt).
posted by Melismata at 11:13 AM on January 30, 2013

Linguists. Your chances of establishing quick and easy communication with any intelligent life is quite small (they may well not "speak" by pushing air around like we do) but at least it would give you a chance.
posted by Jehan at 11:13 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Specklet at 11:14 AM on January 30, 2013

If I were the captain, I'd want, in rough order of priority:
Linguist -- if I could only get one scientist, I'd ask for a linguist. If we're highly likely to encounter intelligent life, we can probably get much more scientific knowledge of the planet from them than from studying it ourselves.
Cultural anthropologist -- particularly one with experience with very isolated populations and the effect of "first contact" on them.
Engineer -- at least one who's good at making stuff or explaining how to make it from a Stone Age basis up to our current level of technology. Being able to tell the natives how to make gunpowder or steel will be highly useful if they're a little behind us. Bonus: such an engineer would probably be pretty good at translating their tech back to terms we could understand, if they're ahead of us.
Medical expert -- not necessarily a physician, but I don't know what you call a person who studies medicine as a science and not to practice it. Some subset of biologist, I presume.
Botanist -- particularly an agricultural one. If I get two, one will be a toxicologist, because I assume that we'll be exposed to more plant-based poisons than any other.
Economist -- not because I want a study of their economy per se, but because a good economist has training in scarcity and resource allocation, which will be helpful in analyzing alien society.
Intelligence analyst/interrogator -- a good one, even in a friendly situation, can get way more information out of other people than even those people think they know. And having someone who's good at winkling out truth from lies always comes in handy.
Meteorologist -- always good to know what to expect before you send your away team out on their own. Also, if the locals aren't to the level where they can predict weather and climate, this guy will be worth his weight in gold.
posted by Etrigan at 11:15 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a great book about this.

(But in actual answer to your question: probably botanists, and I'd imagine botanists that have research interests in plants that exist in extreme terrains on Earth; linguistic anthropologists with specialties in very odd, non-phonetic langagues like some of the African languages; animal behavioral scientists/zoologists, both to look at possible new species and also to catalogue the physical forms of intelligent life; a photographer, for obvious reasons; a meteorologist and a geologist, to see how the planet was formed, what resources it might contain, and what the weather would be like.)
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:16 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Linguists and mathematicians and programmers - and they better be on good terms with each other and real comfy with stats.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:17 AM on January 30, 2013

Oh, and one more:
Theologist -- a legitimate one, not a priest with a doctorate. One with experience in comparative religion, because odds are there will be some form of religion/superstition among the aliens, and having someone who can analyze that will come in handy (the cultural anthropologist might be good at this, but a specialist would be nice).
posted by Etrigan at 11:18 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, and diplomats would, I think, be the most important people in any first contact scenario that actually involved an alien civilization. The hard science questions can be asked going forward, but there's only one chance to start off on a positive footing.
posted by jsturgill at 11:18 AM on January 30, 2013

Another thing to think about is that you don't want all the people you bring who will be in a first-contact scenario to be all one race and and sex.

Beyond that, I vote for geologist, linguist, a couple from biology specialties, and an anthro/socio person for sure.
posted by rtha at 11:28 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Check out the 100 Year Starship Symposium, that was the entire agenda of the conference. Some of it has been published in papers, and there are interviews and articles floating around as well.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:48 AM on January 30, 2013

I'd send a poet, but largely because they annoy me and would make good alien fodder.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:50 AM on January 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

I posted a link to this article about what to do if you are the first person on earth to contact aliens. It actually has some useful information relating to the potential pitfalls - and hence the skills that might be needed.

One of the really tricky problems would be trying to gauge whether you were talking to the alien equivalent of Yoda - or just, say, a golden retriever. If somebody lands a spaceship in your back garden and comes out to say hello you can assume they are smart - but on another planet it will be harder to tell. To this end I think an Animal Behaviourist would be useful.
posted by rongorongo at 12:00 PM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

An ecologist + hydrologist / hydraulic engineer + geologist / geomorphologist is your real world site assessment team for most all habitat assessment or creation/ mitigation projects. An experienced combo is going to figure out most physical processes on a gross level very quickly. Plus a couple surveyors or survey techs and someone who can run a weather station. And a toxocologist or biochemist if things get micro.
posted by fshgrl at 12:12 PM on January 30, 2013

Send along a professional ethicist and make them the most annoying teammember =)
posted by zresearch at 12:42 PM on January 30, 2013

Geologist or Geophysicist. Preferably with some side interest in fossils.

Biochemist. Breadth of experience more important than depth, to minimize the surprise factor.

Ethologist. Someone who's used to thinking from the point of view of another species.

Anthropologist with linguistic experience, someone who's studied weird languages from scratch. Still going to have human-biased instincts, but at least can have a go.

Engineer, military background. Used to minimal resources as well as hostile environments.

On preview, botanist is a good call too.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:12 PM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Engineer, military background. Used to minimal resources as well as hostile environments.

I would go so far as to require all of my team to have a military background or have done comparable field work (Antarctica, some other middle-of-nowhere place where you can't just go to the nearest Wal-Mart/REI/Aldi for more supplies), for just this reason. And to be able, in the words of Tom Hanks, "to follow fuckin' orders!"
posted by Etrigan at 1:19 PM on January 30, 2013

I would have to argue somewhat with the premise. You don't send humans to explore a mysterious extraterrestrial environment—you send robots, and lots of them. After all, you can't even begin to plan a manned mission unless you know exactly what type of environment to expect. Besides, robot missions are cheaper, don't involve a risk to human life, and greatly lessen the possibility of biological contamination. And you can bet that one of the major questions those robots will be designed to answer is whether or not life exists on that planet.

In short, if first contact ever happens, our representative is more than likely going to be a machine. For better or worse.
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:29 PM on January 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am just going to put in archaeologist here because after watching BSG and Stargate: Universe I wanted to cry every time I saw them destroy/ignore super awesome ruins that could have told them a lot about the upsides and downsides of the areas....

posted by jetlagaddict at 3:38 PM on January 30, 2013

Anthropologists trained in the US typically pass some sort of "four fields" requirement--at least a class or two in cultural, biological, and linguistic anthropology, plus archaeology. And linguistic anthropologists are frequently specialists in describing languages that are little-studied or undescribed, but they also have a buttload of overlap with cultural anthropologists, because the work of describing culture-specific speech situations or taking inventory of things like kinship terminology is basically ethnographic.

Anyway, a good reason why anthropology is notoriously among the lengthiest PhDs to complete is that it wouldn't be out of the question to have an anthropologist ready to handle several roles in a situation like this.

But if I were that anthropologist, I would not set foot out there without someone constantly telling me there are no poisonous chemicals, viruses, radiation sources, etc.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:15 PM on January 30, 2013

High priority might go to a psychologist who can double as a psychiatrist. You'll need that person along as a scientist because you'll be dealing with creatures who don't have brains comparable to ours. For example, do they have anything analogous to emotions? Get looking for correlations between vocalizations, expressions, posture, etc. If the aliens have an interest in human psychology but we remain ignorant of theirs, you could easily get into the sort of scenario Peter Watts described in Blindsight. Troi was on the bridge for a reason.

The other reason you'll want someone with these competencies along is to maintain the health of your own crew. Being bottled up in a metal can for years is enough stress in itself that you'd to want to have professional help aboard, even assuming the aliens aren'tLovecraftian horrors.

Incidentally, if you should ever be visited by aliens while standing around in a cornfield here is the standard guide to first contact.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:27 PM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd also suggest a mathematician, since this may be the only form of mutually intelligible information exchange between us and a truly exotic species. Better yet, combine a linguist and methematics prodigy into some sort of cryptographic expert.
posted by itstheclamsname at 5:46 PM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fantastic responses-- thank you!
posted by np312 at 6:42 PM on January 30, 2013

One of the first things you'd need to know about a life-bearing world with a breathable atmosphere, would be the level of biological compatibility. At this point we don't know if amino acid chirality is random, or is driven by some sort of selection bias.

Of course by the time we're looking at visiting other worlds, we may already have this figured out.

In any case you really need to know if we can eat lifeforms on the new world, and if they can eat us. If we're biologically incompatible, that's a bit of a bust for colonisation, or even visiting for any length of time. On the other hand, there would be fewer worries about contamination and our total lack of immunity to local microbes.

So, biochemists would be useful.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 9:57 PM on January 30, 2013

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