Greetings from the frontiers of science! Today’s assignment is a thought experiment involving “Active SETI” (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) which entails beaming powerful radio signals containing unmistakable proof that they emanate from an intelligent civilization out into the great void of space. The point of the exercise? To light earth up like a Christmas tree across the Milky Way galaxy so that any technological civilizations out there would have no trouble seeing us.
This method of actively seeking out intelligent life in our galactic neighborhood is the opposite of our SETI efforts to date where we use “Passive SETI” to try and listen for a message or beacon from another civilization. These passive programs date back to the 1970’s and have benefited from massive increases in our abilities to scan the radio spectrum for hints of life. Multi-channel spectrum analysis that allows us to listen to millions of “channels” from specific stars at one time has dramatically increased the chances of success – someday.
Alas, to date there has been no indications that anyone in the cosmos is interested in communicating with anyone else. We have found no beacon, no messages inviting us to make contact. And we haven’t stumbled across any inter-planetary communications networks that would prove the existence of alien life beyond earth.
But take heart. We have explored only a small piece of the sky so far and there are several good reasons why we may have even missed a message in past sweeps. We may not be technologically advanced enough to decode it. We may lack the imagination to recognize a message even though it’s been right in front of us. But the most likely reason we have yet to achieve success in our SETI efforts is that there just aren’t that many civilizations transmitting.
Does this mean that there are fewer advanced civilizations than we thought? This is a definite possibility. It could very well be that the deck is stacked against any intelligent civilization reaching our level of sophistication. Rouge asteroids or comets, an unstable sun or moon, a nearby supernova not to mention the possibility that the denizens of any technologically advanced society could blow themselves up all make it a distinct possibility that while intelligent life is abundant in the universe, it doesn’t necessarily stand to reason that it survives long enough to reach out and try and touch someone.
Then again, there could be another explanation for our failure to make contact with an alien race. And this reason is at the heart of the debate over the passive vs. active SETI programs.
Perhaps those alien civilizations know something about the neighborhood that we don’t; that calling attention to ourselves by lighting earth up like a flare in the blackness of space might bring unwelcome – indeed catastrophic – attention to our planet.
The question isn’t so much are there evil alien monsters out there bent on death and destruction of any planet luckless enough to come to its attention. The question is why take the chance?
Should it be our position that all alien races are benign and would mean us no harm? The more I think about that the less I agree with it. Not necessarily because aliens would be hostile. They may have the best of intentions. As Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel points out in his book The Third Chimpanzee that any contact with an alien race is likely to resemble the contact made here on earth between advanced civilizations and primitive ones to the catastrophic detriment to the primitives. It may be best that until we have reached a level of technology more equal to our neighbors, we remain passive observers of their civilization.
And beyond that, there is the question of who decides whether escalating our SETI program to include active measures to make contact should be our policy?
Author, lecturer, scientist David Brin has thought about these issues of First Contact and other SETI matters for many years. He serves on a SETI subcommittee of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) charged with developing protocols and policies regarding our SETI efforts. It was this subcommittee that came up with the very First SETI Protocol: “Declaration Of Principles Concerning Activities Following The Detection Of Extraterrestrial Intelligence” – a great read if you are at all interested in this stuff.
This is from a piece Brin wrote two years ago about the controversy of active vs. passive SETI:
With that success behind us, we on the IAA subcommittee turned to a Second Protocol dealing with Transmissions from Planet Earth. The widely accepted draft contained articles asking that all of those controlling radio telescopes forebear from significantly increasing Earth’s visibility with deliberate skyward emanations, until their plans were first discussed before open and widely accepted international fora.
It seemed a modest and reasonable request. Why not present such plans, openly, before a broad and ecumenically interested community of experts in fields like exobiology, sociology, history and biology, at a conference where all matters and concerns could be honestly addressed? If for no other reason, wouldn’t this be common courtesy?
At first, the subcommittee drafting the Second Protocol deemed this to be obvious. Moreover, the core group at the SETI Institute seemed to concur. Indeed, this was not even a new document, but rather a revision of one that the Instituter’s own Jill Tarter presented to the UN six years ago — confirming that they once favored restraint and consultation before transmission. They are the ones who have changed their minds.
But recently… and after a draft appeared ready for submission to the IAA… several members of the IAA SETI Committee, including chairman Seth Shostak, abruptly balked and demanded alterations, abandoning even a collegial and moral call for pre-transmission discussions.
Indeed, suddenly all notions of pre-consultation or discussion — before making Earth dramatically more visible — were derided as paranoid, repressive of free expression and nonsensical. Almost no discussion of the matter was brooked; no questions were answered.
I should add here for clarity that most of the scientists at the SETI Institute favor holding discussions on placing more emphasis on active search protocols. The balkers are a group of Russians for the most part who apparently have ideological reasons – among others – for not even allowing a forum for all interested scientists to participate.
Brin points out that the ideology grew out of the old Soviet model. The Russians believe any aliens receiving an active SETI message would be benign because they would be socialists! They figure any advanced intelligence would have developed along the socialist model of governing and would therefore, by definition, be peaceful.
On such stupidities might the fate of the world hang.
As I said, the question of whether or not to engage in active SETI research should hang on erring on the side of caution. This is especially true since what is driving the active SETI movement is impatience at the lack of progress in the passive SETI program. One can certainly understand the desire to reach out and attempt contact. But without examining all the ramifications by failing to invite other scientists and researchers into a debate before starting any active SETI search is not only foolhardy but unscientific.
It reminds me of the global warming debate. Scientists who will brook no opposition to their cherished beliefs vilify their colleagues who think differently. They are simply frozen out of the discussion, marginalized in the community. This has proven to be a huge mistake as more and more information challenging climate change orthodoxy is either dismissed out of hand or tainted with charges of coming from biased sources. It has had a deadening effect on scientific debate and thus has done a disservice to policy makers and the public who are groping for answers on who to believe and what to do – if anything – about climate change.
Recently, Brin updated his 2006 article with ominous news:
As of Summer 2008, Retired senior US diplomat Michael Michaud has resigned from the IAA SETI Subcommittee in protest over what he sees as continuing efforts to repress open discussion of these issues, and to disparage those who see anything wrong with METI. He was recently joined by Dr. John Billingham, one of the founding fathers of SETI and director of NASA’s long-running SETI program.
The METI folks make the point that in 20 years, anyone with a computer and a dish will be able to aim their own powerful signal at the stars so why oppose their efforts today? They make a good point while at the same time, obviating the need for active SETI research to begin immediately. There is time to discuss all of the issues surrounding active SETI before it becomes a reality.
Work on the Second SETI Protocol should continue and a consensus reached. For if we can’t come together on these basic questions regarding our potential role in a crowded universe where contact with other civilizations becomes a reality, we will be unprepared for any consequences that might arise from this success.