Shaking Hands With an Alien



A couple of weeks ago, the University of St Andrews announced a new research hub (‘SETI Post-Detection Hub’) to prepare for the human response to alien communication, showing a clear acknowledgement of the potential for future alien contact. The hub includes scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, and other intellectuals from a range of disciplines. It aims to prepare a measured response in the event that we make contact with aliens, ensuring that humanity knows how to conduct itself in such a scenario.


This got me thinking: what if aliens landed in St Andrews? What if they chose to settle here? How would St Andrews students respond to extraterrestrials arriving in their midst? And how could we introduce the aliens to humanity in our town most effectively? Of course, before we could even begin to process such a momentous occasion, we would be alerted to their presence by a quintessential Sally Mapstone email, imploring us to take kindly to our otherworldly visitors:


“Dear Students,

As many of you will be aware, a group of aliens has arrived in St Andrews.

Please do not be alarmed – at this stage they are not hostile.

I would like to maintain the university values of inclusion and respect, so I hope you will give these aliens a warm welcome.

Professor Dame Sally Mapstone FRSE

Principal and Vice-Chancellor


From the alien’s perspective, a good stretch of the legs would not go amiss after a long, sapping journey across the solar system. Given the size of the town, it would not be long before the alien invaders, out of sheer boredom, visited one of St Andrews’ many pubs; they could not fail to notice the loud, animated conversation coming from the outer tables at the Central, the Criterion gazebo, or the smoking crowd outside of Aikman’s. I wonder which bar they’d frequent the most. Perhaps Aikman’s, just for that authentic atmosphere; they’d surely be made to feel comfortable there with its embrace of eccentricity, its unique beer selection and the live music on a Saturday night. Maybe they’d enjoy a sour beer. Or something mulled. For something truly authentic, they could watch the trad and folk society on a Tuesday night.


All of these experiences might entice the alien into learning more about humanity and its weird ways. Mind you, they’d be mightily misled if they thought all the world was like St Andrews – if they travelled much beyond the three streets, a secondary, post-arrival shock would be hard to avoid.


On the other hand, pubs might feel a little too human – too radical a culture shock. There is also the question of whether aliens would enjoy alcohol. Maybe their bodies would process it differently, so it would have no effect. Or perhaps they’d refuse the trade-off of a substance that makes you more confident but simultaneously damages your health. Maybe the social interaction that accompanies alcohol consumption would not appeal to them: they might choose a ‘sunrise swim’ and ‘hike in the Highlands’ lifestyle over being a hungover-and-deadline-missing partygoer.


Or maybe they would love alcohol, incredulous as to how it has never been produced on their home planet. Having been introduced to the delights of alcohol, they might then be led to the Union. Imagine the scenes if an alien turned up at 601. Perhaps it would have the time of its life; nothing would introduce them to the strangeness of student culture faster.

If the aliens arrive soon enough, they might enjoy a trip to the Edinburgh Christmas Market and stare in wide-eyed bemusement at the humans paying over the odds for goods from the kitsch wooden stalls. How would we explain Christmas to them: “we’re celebrating the birth of a boy who saves the world, by dying to a method of ancient execution so that the rebellious things we do in life are forgiven by the being that created us. Then he rose to life again”.


They could even try to get a ticket for Christmas Ball – that is, if they found a way to raise enough money for the increasingly extortionate price. The weakness of the pound might help them with this, giving them a favourable exchange rate from their home-planet’s currency. It may be a challenge to find an outfit suitable for a black-tie event though – who knows whether an alien could fit into a tuxedo or a dress? Maybe they have hips where their shoulders should be and legs where their arms should be. In any case, the aliens would surely prefer Christmas to Halloween. On these three streets, the likelihood of a chance encounter with someone dressed as an alien is too high – we wouldn’t want them to be offended, especially if the sci-fi depictions are right and they wield laser guns that can turn you into a pile of ashes in one swift motion.


After their introduction and arrival into St Andrews, perhaps a debate would arise concerning their representation at the university. Maybe we would begin to see a group of students, outside the union, demanding that a fair share of aliens be admitted. Alien rights could become the issue of the future. Or perhaps these aliens would be radically more intelligent, hard-working and talented than we lowly humans. Perhaps this could cause resentment – a historical human university becoming dominated by aliens! And contributing to the housing crisis, too! This resentment could lead to calls for fewer aliens to be let into St Andrews, the introduction of institutional anti-alien discrimination, and demands from angry students demanding that they be sent back to their home planet.


The chances of alien dominance at the university are increased by the prospect of a new fee structure. The university might begin to charge ‘extra-terrestrial fees’ to its alien students. Fees for those from outside the country are roughly triple home fees, so it seems only logical that fees for students from outside the planet could approach as much as 100,000 pounds. A wonderful new business model for the university – if we could ensure that aliens gave as excellent student satisfaction ratings as the humans, the university would not only be richer, but it would retain its place in the league tables.


All the above assumes an alien would be peaceful and willing to engage with the (semblance of) humanity in St Andrews. What if they become hostile? Would cohorts of students be sent to fight off the aliens? Would the philosophy students suddenly all decide to be conscientious objectors? Would we see rugby players on the front lines?

In this hostile scenario, the Mapstone email would surely look quite different: it would try to reassure students while emphasising that St Andrews will do everything in its power to deal with the threat. Perhaps universities would actually shut down if the alien arrival posed a severe threat.


The Mapstone e-mail could look something more like this:

“Dear Students,

As many of you will already be aware, hostile aliens have landed on earth.

This is a major and alarming moment for the world.

The university will be working with the government to respond to this event effectively and to establish peace as soon as possible. Having consulted the government, the university has decided to close with immediate effect. Classes, and all university-affiliated activity, will end indefinitely.

We know this might cause stress and concern in the student body. In these unprecedented times, we urge you to take care of yourselves.

Professor Dame Sally Mapstone FRSE

Principal and Vice-Chancellor


If the future aliens are hostile, well, that is for the university's SETI hub to decide the response - and I am glad that this responsibility is shared by an interdisciplinary team.

On a more optimistic note, if it turns out that our alien guests offer their friendship, I hope they very much enjoy their stay in St Andrews.



Illustration: Lauren McAndrew



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I first met Alan in third-year Russian class, where we bonded over our joint struggle to get to grips with the nightmarish agglomeration of case endings and grammar rules that the language threw our w