When Alexander Zaitsev presented his recent paper at the International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad (India) recently, he spoke from the center of a widening controversy. The question is straightforward: Should we broadcast messages intentionally designed to be received by extraterrestrial civilizations, thereby notifying them of our existence? Zaitzev, chief scientist at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, addressed the question by seeing a necessary relationship between SETI (the search for ETI) and METI (messaging to other civilizations).

Indeed, the Russian scientist, working at the Evpatoria Deep Space Center in the Ukraine, has the experience to discuss METI from a practical standpoint. Evpatoria has already transmitted a number of messages, the so-called ‘Cosmic Call’ signal (1999) being made up of various audio, video, image and data files submitted by people around the world. The later ‘Teen-Age Message,’ aimed at six Sun-like stars, was sent in 2001; another ‘Cosmic Call’ followed in 2003.

Zaitzev has in the interim emerged as a leading spokesman for direct messaging to extraterrestrial civilizations, an idea now hotly debated by a relatively small group of researchers concerned about its implications. I note the size of the debate pointedly — it is remarkable to me that an issue that has the potential of involving the entire human species in what could become a first contact scenario is known only to a limited number of professionals, within whose ranks there is by no means agreement.

Thus, having coffee with a neighbor not long ago, I brought up the SETI/METI debate, curious about his reaction. I asked whether he believed transmitting messages intentionally designed for contact was a sound idea. “What’s the problem?” he asked. “If anyone’s out there, the sooner we get to know them, the better.” When I urged caution, pointing out that we know nothing whatsoever about what an alien species might think or do, he smiled. Wasn’t I just bringing up tired science fiction scenarios like the movie Independence Day? And what about the ‘I Love Lucy’ factor?

The latter, of course, is that expanding sphere of electromagnetic radiation that seems to flag our presence in the form of old television and radio shows (Fred Mertz as Terra’s first ambassador to the stars — the mind boggles…). Whether or not such signals would actually be detectible is problematic, but Zaitsev turns to an even stronger source of signalling, planetary radars like Arecibo, Goldstone and Evpatoria itself, whose active search for near-Earth asteroids would represent a more likely chance for reception.

When Zaitsev analyzed radar observations of asteroids and comets at the three radar sites, he found that none of these transmissions crosses the habitable zone of a star. That would imply that a civilization like our own, restricted to its own planet, would be unlikely to pick them up. In any case, a civilization bound to its own planet presents no threat to Earth in the first place. Whereas Kardashev Type II or III civilizations, with far greater energy resources at their disposal and presumably at home in interstellar space, would be more likely to receive them.

In his paper, Zaitsev puts the matter this way:

Accidental detection by such civilizations of signals from the planetary and asteroid radars of some other civilization is extremely unlikely. If we are afraid of powerful and aggressive civilizations of Type II and Type III, which live “practically everywhere”, it is necessary to forbid numerous pointless transmissions of asteroid and planetary radars as their radiation gradually illuminates greater areas that promotes its detection by ‘star aggressors and interventionists.’

In other words, if we’re serious about trying to keep our existence unknown, we had better stop using our planetary radars in the first place, which would mean giving up our protection against catastrophic strikes on Earth by comets or asteroids. It’s ironic that we’re discussing closing Arecibo’s planetary radar as we ponder such matters, but in any case, Zaitsev goes on to argue that there is less danger from interstellar messages like Evpatoria’s, targeted at specific stars, than the radar transmissions we have been making for some time in our own defense.

Zaitsev sees a close connection between SETI and METI in that both require an identical selection from the same target star lists, both involve consideration of optimum frequencies and likelihoods of success, so that the question of where to search and where to send are equivalent. He calls for the further use of Arecibo, Goldstone and Evpatoria in sending future interstellar messages, and notes that SETI itself may be dangerous. What if an uncontrolled SETI search ended up with fanatics in control of weapons derived from knowledge received from a high-level civilization?

As an onlooker in this debate for some time now, I keep running into a crucial problem. Again, it is the size of the participating audience. David Brin has been an advocate of the idea that we need wider involvement from other discipilines in deciding how to handle the METI question, and I have to agree with that assessment. It would be interesting to learn of any first-contact situation on Earth involving a technologically superior civilization and a less developed one where the latter did not suffer.

I admit to having little patience with sociology, but it would certainly be helpful to have a historian’s take on all this, and for that matter, people in the arts. We have a model for this kind of gathering. It is the 1983 Los Alamos meeting called the Conference on Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience. There, biologist met social scientist, historian met physicist, in an attempt to put our past human experience into perspective as we look forward to a future beyond the Solar System.

Why relate possible alien contact to scenarios that are expressly human? Because these are all we have to work with, and therefore must form the basis of our investigation. Which raises another troubling question. Human nature has shown its colors for good and ill throughout recorded history, a mixed record of dazzling achievements and horrific barbarism, depending on where you look. Would aliens be better than us, or worse? Or would they be much like us in having a mixture of motivations of the sort that in our own history has often led to misunderstandings, brutality and war?

At this point these can only be speculations. But how helpful it would be to see a meeting like the Conference on Interstellar Migration convened to address these matters from as wide a range of perspectives as possible. The interest for such a gathering seems to be growing. I would hope it could also raise the consciousness of the general public to an issue that, as we continue our technological advance, may well play a role in our long-term future. SETI/METI is a good story, but it’s not science fiction any more. And we need to establish an informed consensus before we send more messages.

Dr. Zaitsev’s paper “Sending and Searching for Interstellar Messages” is now available online. For more on the Los Alamos conference, see Ben R. Finney and Eric M. Jones, Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).