[Updated 9/27: Alas, like so many things reported by The New York Post, this news does not stand up to fact checking. As Discoblog notes on a follow-up by the Guardian, Othman has denied that she will be announcing this role for herself at the Royal Society; rather she will be talking about plans for handling potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroids.
[I can take two small points of consolation: (1) Although I fell for this false story, I at least did warn that the reality was probably not quite as represented; and (2) my dream diplomacy job is still theoretically available.]
Hypothetically, if extraterrestrials made contact with humans—whether through radio signals or a spaceship landing on the Washington mall, à la The Day the Earth Stood Still—who would hold up our end of the conversation? The president? The secretary-general of the U.N.? David Attenborough? Some fisherman in a pickup truck in rural Michigan, which seems to be the reported preference of whoever pilots UFOs?
As of this week, the official answer as far as the U.N. is concerned is Malaysian astrophysicist Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman, the director of the U.N.’s Office for Outer Space Affairs, which is appropriately “responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space.” Dr. Othman is expected to announce this addition to her portfolio of potential duties later this week during a scientific meeting at the Royal Society’s Kavli conference center in Buckinghamshire, according to news sources.
The New York Post refers to Dr. Otham somewhat ungraciously as an “obscure Malaysian scientist,” but it is true that she is not a generally well-known figure in most circles. The Malaysian Insider offers this about her background:
Mazlan attended the University of Otago in 1975 earning a Bachelor of Science (honours) and returned to Malaysia as the country’s first astrophysicist, and worked to create a curriculum in astrophysics at the national university, as well as to build public awareness and understanding of astronomy and space issues.
Her interest in public education was rewarded in 1990 when then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad put her in charge of the Planetarium Division of the Prime Minister’s Department, overseeing development of Planetarium Negara, Malaysia’s national planetarium in Kuala Lumpur.
After the planetarium opened in 1993, Othman was made Director General of the government’s new Space Science Studies Division, where she launched a microsatellite development programme. She received a full professorship the following year, according to her wikipedia entry.
In November 1999, then United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan named Mazlan as Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna but she returned to Malaysia in July 2002 on the request of Dr Mahathir o serve for five years as the founding Director General of Angkasa, the Malaysian National Space Agency, where her work led to the launch of the first Malaysian astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor.
She was reappointed as UNOOSA director in 2007 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and left Angkasa to return to the post that December.
So this is her second tour of duty as the head of UNOOSA, although these duties pertaining to alien contact appear to be a new addition.
The ESA quotes Dr. Othman as saying that space activities affect society through…
creating an awareness that our planet is special but at the same time vulnerable, and uniting the hopes of people around the world that humankind will someday physically explore other worlds.
That perspective seems fair and appropriate in someone whom we would want to represent our planet’s interests to others.
If you would like to know more about Dr. Othman and her views, you might like to read these two interviews that she gave to the International Astronautical Federation and to the website for Angkasa, Malaysia’s space agency; both are primarily about that space program rather than any matters relating to aliens, however.
Of more direct interest might be the talk that Dr. Othman gave last January at the Royal Society’s meeting on “The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society,” where she appeared with Martin Rees, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Simon Conway Morris, Paul Davies, Chris McKay, Christian de Duve and others. Audio recordings of their talks are available for download; you can listen to Othman’s here.
You may also be interested in this article that Othman wrote on “Influence of Culture on Understanding Astronomical Concepts” (The Teaching of astronomy, Proceedings of IAU Colloq. 105, held in Williamstown, MA, 27-30 July 1988. Edited by J.M. Pasachoff and J.R. Percy. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990., p.239). That paper uses the example of how Malaysia’s culture affects its students’ learning of astronomy; by extension, it shows an awareness in Othman of how complex the problems of communication between beings with utterly different cultural frames of reference can be even on seemingly “universal” matters as astronomy or math.
So I, for one, welcome our new alien-overlord communicator.
Yet I suspect that all may not be exactly as first reported on Dr. Othman’s role. Even though she is being described as the U.N.’s official spokesperson to any aliens, my guess is that in fact her real role will be to help develop systems for facilitating any such exchanges if contact is ever made—that on the day when we can converse with aliens, someone with a more lofty ambassadorial status will actually assume the job as our representative. I mean no disrespect to Othman in suggesting this; I just have a hard time believing that, during what may be one of the most momentous events in human history, the authorities will let that spotlight fall on the appointed head of a little-known U.N. office. But we’ll see.
Also, I await (alas, surely not for long) the ridicule from the usual crowd of U.N. haters charging that the very existence of this role for Dr. Othman shows the wastefulness and worthlessness of the organization. When we can’t communicate diplomatically with members of our own species, how well can we possibly do with aliens?