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SETI’s Dilemma: Break the Great Silence?

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).

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • philw October 15, 2007, 15:49

    Problem is…in the small possibility that there are hostile civs out there the downside for humanity is huge. Imagine that for the last billion years the galaxy has been void of biological intelligences with the cybernetic destroyers comfortable snoozing in standby mode. Suddenly, some naieve twit sends them a wakeup call.

    A more than 3 sigma improbability but if so, we don’t want the consequences.

  • Cynthia October 15, 2007, 16:26

    The big question is… Will the planetary impact of greenhouse gasses created by generating the energy to transmit signals into space be more likely than that of emotionless brain-eating aliens that might be attracted to Earth?

  • yool October 15, 2007, 17:08

    Hey, come on. It is nonsense to be afraid. There is no space-traveling race in our galaxy at the moment. At least not like those of the space operas. Wonder why? They would already be here, as no matter how numerous the stars are, the colonization is geometric process :-)

    There are NO space traveling aliens, at least not in our galaxy at the moment.

  • Jeff October 15, 2007, 17:17

    In all of our religions, the gods say they came from the sky. They also walked and talked with mankind, they taughts us how to create cities, use tools, fire, and practice hygiene before any of us ever knew about germs. They have already been here.

    This galaxy alone is vast and we are in an out of the way neighborhood somewhere in the boonies. I consider it insane that we are the only beings in it’s vastness to contemplate our own navels. In my opinion, an occasional visit from the good guys (or the bad guys) is completely unavoidable.

  • tacitus October 15, 2007, 18:28

    Well, the odds are that if there is a interstellar-capable species living in our galaxy, they already know we’re here (or at least, that there is a planet with an abundance of complex life on it, if they haven’t been here for a while).

    If planets such as ours are rare, then they would already be keeping a close eye on us, whether for scientific interest or out of caution; and if there was a huge abundance of planets harboring complex life, then that greatly reduces our significance, and hence, the strategic importance of our resources (whatever that might be to them).

    While it is obviously impossible to ascribe motives to an as yet unknown alien species, it would seem there would be few reasons why such a race would be hostile to us. Sure, if they are religious zealots, or petty, power hungry warlords then they could be a danger, but is it likely that civilizations with those traits would survive to the advanced technological stage required for interstellar travel?

    Perhaps the most serious threat would come from an incurious or implacable alien species that regards us as no more than another way to arrange atoms. Even then, why would they want to interfere with us or destroy our planet? It’s not likely we would be harboring resources they can’t find in more abundance elsewhere.

    So I believe that we have little to lose, and everything to gain from reaching out to the stars. Maybe no civilization has physically conquered the interstellar reaches yet but are out there just waiting to say hello. Contact with an intelligent alien species would be a profound moment in the history of this planet, and is well worth the vanishingly small risk such exposure would entail. If anything, we are more likely to be a risk to ourselves in such an event, with all sorts of paranoid cranks and religious nut cases out there just waiting for signs of doomsday to cause trouble.

  • tacitus October 15, 2007, 18:33

    Mind you, I do have a half-written story about a pair of extra-dimensional aliens who have dropped in to survey an experimental universe created by their employers, only to notice that they have accidentally contaminated one particular planet with some stray biological material which has somehow managed to evolve.

    The question is, should they clean up the mess….?

  • andy October 15, 2007, 18:59

    The argument that METI is justified because random transmissions may be picked up is like saying that because wolves might hear us wandering around in the forest, we might as well deliberately attract the wolves by transmitting their calls.

  • nps October 15, 2007, 20:49

    Here is the best theory I have ever heard on aliens.They will not be our
    friends.Quoting Charles Pellegrino, author of “Killing Star”, they will
    probably follow some common sense rules:

    1.Any species will place its own survival before that of a different species.

    2.Any species that has made it to the top on its planet of origin will be
    intelligent, alert, aggressive, and ruthless when necessary.

    3.They will assume that the first two rules apply to us.

  • Raymondo13 October 16, 2007, 1:43

    Like some believers, I believe that “others” have already been here. Who can dispute the large passages of time (billions of years) and a civilized race, superior to us has not evolved. It is just a matter of time before we go to the stars, slowly at first, but we’ll get there. If we, as a fairly new evolved race, are here at this time and think we’re alone (which is unbelievably recent as galactic time goes), then others who think “no one” is out there are unbelievably stupid. With all of the billions of stars in our galaxy there must be a few civilizations that have made it to the stars and here (to earth). Advanced civilizations probably have a mandate either to come back and visit or can’t be bothered with us at all because we would use up preacious resources of theirs. Gauranteed we would be a drain on them and that’s probably why they haven’t come back just yet. Mankind has to mature first and then I think we will see them then, or even bump into them as we galavant through the stars!!

  • Alexander Zaitsev October 16, 2007, 2:41

    Dear Colleagues,

    Please find this my Hyderabad paper at:


  • tacitus October 16, 2007, 3:10

    The odds of meeting an alien species who will view us as direct competitors (or vice versa) are vanishingly small. The greatest likelihood is that either they or we (hundreds of years from now) will be far advanced technologically over the other.

    Our aggression and survival instincts kick in when resources of some kind are limited. Assuming that one or the other species has overcome this problem (think The Culture from Ian M. Banks scifi novels) then the other will have nothing to fear. Having viable interstellar travel is a likely sign that a civilization has overcome any resource limitations (unless they happen to be close neighbors, which is highly unlikely).

  • Tony Trenton October 16, 2007, 6:18

    You are all missing the essential.
    All biological entities are specific to the environment in which they evolved.
    Life here has evolved to handle Oxygen which is a very poisonous & destructive gas.
    The Gravity we are bound by is specific to the size of our world.

    The chances of our environment being suitable to another species is very small.

    Don’t forget the distances from our world to our nearest neighbour is +4.25 light yrs.

    Statistically there should be +- 10,000 space travelling species in our average sized Galaxy.

    Don’t forget the most dangerous aspect of all. The top predator is extremely aggressive. WE HUMANS ARE KILLERS!!!

  • Paul October 16, 2007, 7:30

    Daft, our supposed galactic overlords have the tech to get here and yet don’t know we’re here. I for one… etc.

  • Dr. Goulu October 16, 2007, 9:06

    This topic was already extensively discussed some time ago here : https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=834

    I’d just repeat my ultimate Cubic Saturation Principle :

    Any living species tends to grow exponentially if enough resource is available. But ultimately, resource available to an intelligent civilization is bounded by a cubic function of time : the volume of a sphere centered on its origin planet, and growing at the speed of its spaceships. I call this the “cubic saturation principle”

    A simple calculation shows that if we could build ships traveling at speed of light, we would reach the saturation in about 5000 years. History as shown that we ARE “wolves” : humans never let less developed tribes survive. If any alien civilization is intelligent, it won’t answer any signal. And it cannot take the risk of letting us expand exponentially : they will have to destroy us preventively if they can, or hide. Emitting METI signals prooves to the univers that we are dangerous and/or naive, not intelligent.

  • johnF October 16, 2007, 9:37

    Why should they be bothered about us either way? How do we know the sky is really silent? We are like a stone age tribe on a pacific island dismissing legends of new york because such an advanced civilization would need smoke signals visible for hundreds miles to communicate! perhaps like an islander watching a 747 cruise past overhead thinking ‘i wonder what that is’ we’ve already seen signs of them and not realised. Or not.

  • andy October 16, 2007, 10:26

    Our aggression and survival instincts kick in when resources of some kind are limited. Assuming that one or the other species has overcome this problem (think The Culture from Ian M. Banks scifi novels) then the other will have nothing to fear. Having viable interstellar travel is a likely sign that a civilization has overcome any resource limitations (unless they happen to be close neighbors, which is highly unlikely).

    Maybe interstellar travel is a sign that the civilisation has overcome limitations on physical resources (in which case we must ask ourselves what their reasons for interstellar travel would be, which may well seem bizarre to us), but it is pretty obvious that physical resources are not the only ones. The evolution of a species/culture/civilisation merely finds new instantiations of ecological concepts such as predation (hostile takeovers?), parasitism (patent trolls?), symbiosis (joint ventures?) etc. rather than transcending beyond them. The difference is the resources: physical resources versus “cultural” ones such as money. Human civilisation is not a unified block, it is an ecology.

    I strongly doubt whether a transition to interstellar capability would cause a transcendance, instead these general ecological concepts would just be instantiated in new ways that may be difficult to predict, especially since having no experience of the aliens’ culture/civilisation, we would have no idea what forms their “cultural” resources would take.

    Problem is the physicists leading the pro-METI debate seem to only concentrate on exploitation of physical resources (and come to the conclusions that any interstellar-capable aliens would not need to exploit these resources in our own system), which may well not be the main driving force behind the evolution/expansion of an advanced civilisation.

    What’s disturbing is the METI people seem perfectly willing to act unilaterally on behalf of all humanity: apparently the METI people would rather talk at hypothetical aliens than talk to other humans, which seems a strange attitude in those who would be the voice of our civilisation.

  • johnF October 16, 2007, 10:42

    To push the metaphore further than I really should, historically the destruction of a tribe by a more advanced civilisation (E.g colonial europe) is more often accidental than deliberate, hence as discussed in the link posted by Dr Goulu ‘new yorkians’ arn’t a danger, its bacteria ,or ideas they carry. In the latter case even communication could be dangerous to our little civilization, so perhaps we could even take a silent sky as an encouraging sign.

  • Peter October 16, 2007, 14:35

    Wow, paranoia rules here!
    And negativism.
    Hide here, don’t let anyone know and maybe we’ll get a chance to annihilate ourselves. There is no evidence that there are any peoples out there. Therefore the sending of signals is at worst, a waste of good minds, time and money and at best, a hope, a dream and possibilities opened. How many of our probes and robotic explorers have gone out with lasers locked and loaded?? Our space program is peaceful except for the satellites aimed at OURSELVES. Any intelligent species is dangerous, but in a galaxy sized ecosystem, it’s fairly easy to give room and share resources.
    Go for it. Send the messages. Let the cowards hunker down in their caves and quake in fear of progress, technology, change and growth. I’ll be sitting on the mountain top, waving my arms and offering interstellar friendship.

  • andy October 16, 2007, 15:04

    Go for it. Send the messages. Let the cowards hunker down in their caves and quake in fear of progress, technology, change and growth. I’ll be sitting on the mountain top, waving my arms and offering interstellar friendship.

    Problem is, you aren’t offering the “cowards” that option. We’re all on the same planet here, the same solar system. If you decide to go screaming our existence into the cosmos, you are also revealing the position of the “cowards” as well.

    It’s also very interesting you immediately dismiss as “cowards” those who do not automatically assume that the galaxy is benign and that announcing our presence to all quarters is a good idea. As I said above, the contrast between the willingness of METI proponents to talk to aliens and the unwillingness of METI proponents to have discussions with humanity is very odd.

  • ljk October 16, 2007, 16:50

    Many are also assuming that ETI will be biological creatures
    along the lines of us. If any have developed machine intelligences,
    or artilects, they may have very different ways of thinking and

    Such beings may well ignore us as too different and insignificant
    to bother with (humans still have trouble accepting the fact that
    they are not the Center of All Things, even with the fact of a
    Universe that is 13.7 billion years old and wide), or if they do
    pose some kind of threat to us, they likely already know we
    exist and stopping them will be futile.

    But with 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, why would
    they come after us?

  • Tibor October 16, 2007, 17:03

    In order to go beyond personal opinions and hypotheses regarding the benefits or dangers of METI, it is necessary to try to quantify the potential impact of sending a message. The first attempt to do this is the San Marino Scale, first proposed 2005 by Iván Almár. The scale goes from “1 Insignificant” to “10 Extraordinary”.

    Now the SETI Permanent Study Group of the International Academy of Astronautics at its September, 2007 meetings in Hyderabad, India, endorsed annd adopted the San Marino scale, and “…urge(s) the international SETI community to consider using the San Marino Scale…”

    I would add, the METI community should consider this as well.

    I believe this is a good Ansatz and helps to bring in objectivity – if this is possible at all – into the debate.

    For more, see the San Marino Scale website:


    and, for first application examples, the paper by Shuch and Almár, 2007, “Quantifying Past Transmissions Using The San Marino Scale”:


    Just for a first taste, here is the assesment of the authors for the cases they investigated in the paper, regarding the significance of the message sent:

    Arecibo Message: 8 Far-Reaching
    Evpatoria: 7 High
    NEO Radar: 6 Noteworthy
    Invitation to ETI: 4 Moderate

  • hiro October 16, 2007, 17:29

    First of all, we cant observe the other side of the the galactic disc, so we dont know what’s going on over there. Suppose there is an advanced civilization exists around 50,000 light-years from the galactic center, I dont think our technologies are good enough to see anything happens at the rim of the disc.

    I ask myself: what do I want from a monkey? The answer is none. This is the same situation to advanced civilizations. If they’re only 10,000 years ahead of us, then they have everything they want.

  • Warren October 16, 2007, 18:44

    Thank you Andy. Let me second that.

    The fact is that no one really has the slightest idea what we are dealing with. We do not know! Our ideas are almost pure speculation. To me it is not a “3 sigma improbability”. We have no idea what the probability is. So why are so many apparently intelligent people willing to be so certain of their views when they have almost no evidence to support them?

    It is clear to me and many others that the only aliens we are at all likely to encounter have been in control of their own evolution for tens of thousands to billions of years. Now what do we chattering chimpanzees know about such beings? Nothing at all. Nothing! What we are trying to think about is quite likely very different from the living matter that we are familiar with. Comparing contact with such beings to relations between human groups doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We are not talking about Columbus vs. the Indians here or anything like it. Looking at relations between humans and other animals might be the best we can do for now and it would certainly not be a particularly good idea for a bee hive or an ant colony to place a flashing light next to their nest in my back yard. As Brin says on his web site, if sending messages is such a good idea why don’t we see lots of them?

    And what do humans have to lose by waiting a while before taking action like this? If we survive another hundred years we actually may know something about intelligent life in the universe when we have carefully studied Titan and Europa, sifted through tons of dust in the Kuiper belt, modeled aliens in huge computers and looked at distant places at much higher resolution. There is no real hope of getting an answer to your message for thousands of years, so what difference will a couple of centuries make?

    So we don’t know anything about the risk and we can’t get results back in our lifetimes. And the answer isn’t obvious?

    But yeah, go for it Peter. If you want to be a real man and a romantic hero, fine. But it would be nice if you would fly over to the next galactic arm to send your signals and leave me out of it, OK? Since I am “just a coward” though, my opinion is not important, huh?

    Sadly, there really isn’t much I can do to stop you, no matter how stupid I may think you are. You folks will almost certainly be sending these messages, maybe lots of them especially if a large corporation can make money selling the equipment. This is just one more more reason why I wouldn’t bet a lot of money that humans will be around two hundred years from now.

  • Scott October 16, 2007, 22:42

    Ya’ll are WAY too deep into science fiction. Use ourselves as an example. There is a narrow window where an evolving species explores the space around it. Then this desire wanes and is overwhelmed by events on its home planet. Eventually, this ends in the destruction of the planet itself (existance of higher life forms) and so the mandallia wheel turns again. Life exists in galaxies, but very rarely does it develope an intelligent species and when it does the seeds of said species destruction are in motion.

  • Ron S October 16, 2007, 23:26

    Tibor’s comment on classifying METI risk along the lines of NEO (or other object) impact risk is interesting both for their similarities and differences.

    Similarity: Assume a negative METI outcome is comparable to an NEO impact outcome. A rare event with a devastating result. That makes it worth attention.

    Difference: NEO impact event always existed throughout our history and is of a static statistical nature. METI risk may only be a century old, and the statistical risk is be increasing due to METI attempts and increased unintended signaling.

    Difference: We can reasonably well assess and refine NEO impact risk. We cannot do the same for METI risk – it’s pure speculation, despite anyone’s wishes, beliefs, fears or desires.

    Difference: While currently a technological stretch, we can realistically progress toward and implement NEO impact mitigation strategies. For METI risk we have no realistic possibility for any mitigation strategy in the forseeable future. None.

  • rob October 17, 2007, 0:59

    i suggest we used to the idea that our fate is largely out of our hands. Any civilization that could reach us in the present would be superior to us technologically at the least. The question then is what would they want with us? Not much i gather. Civilizations which become interstellar are more likely going to be interested in the bigger questions and mysteries regarding the nature of existence and reality. We are small potatoes. May as well relax – the actions of our scientists will little/no effect on our fate. It doesn’t trouble me

  • zoltan galantai October 17, 2007, 5:08

    Urs Bitterli published a book about the history of contacts of human civilizations with different technical levels. It is a well detailed source of this field from a scholar.
    Cultures in Conflict: Encounters Between European and Non-European Cultures, 1492-1800

  • david October 17, 2007, 6:58

    Can we even assume that because aliens are probably millions or billions of years older than us that we are no threat to them? How far can our knowledge of the universe progress before we know it all – if that is even possible. In the next few centuries as we alter and enhance ourselves might we eventually reach that limit. If so then technologically in a thousand years we might be at the same plateau of knowledge as aliens who evolved a billion years ago. At that point we might very well be a risk to them. And to aliens who have existed for a billion years a thousand years might not seem too long to think ahead and prepare for.

    Of course if such aliens exist they would already be here, not that we would know it.

  • Alastair McKinstry October 17, 2007, 9:15


    Yes, we are bound to an oxygen environment, one that aliens may not like.
    But one point to bear in mind is that it isn’t the environment that Earth started with – that was probably CO2 / CH4 /H2 . Life _created_ the O2 environment
    as being most suitable / beneficial.

    O2 is beneficial (to most current life on Earth) because its highly reactive (ie toxic, if its not you’re cup of tea …). There are good ‘convergent evolution’
    grounds for believing that lifeforms elsewhere would do the same, if possible.

  • Forward Observer October 17, 2007, 11:36

    “May as well relax – the actions of our scientists will little/no effect on our fate.”

    If the idea of Vinge is correct that we are approaching a “Technological Singularity”, and if a galactic civilization is already in place, I have a feeling that a “weeding” may be about to occur…

  • Warren October 17, 2007, 11:56


    You are just as much into science fiction as the rest of us, aren’t you? The model you propose here may may appear to be the most likely and is no doubt the best way to score social points at the moment, but it is still pure speculation. (Surely you do not think that all lifeforms develop exactly the same way, do you?)

    Why can’t we deal with reality? What is wrong with the statement “We do not know”?

    (So, to get back on topic, clearly we should wait until we do know before considering any action?)

  • Forward Observer October 17, 2007, 14:38

    “But with 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, why would
    they come after us?”

    Because a new technological singularity (that we might spawn within 35 years,
    according to some respected voices) let loose in the galaxy might disrupt their
    carefully established networks, in the manner of a computer virus?

  • rob October 17, 2007, 15:31

    Forward Observer Says:

    October 17th, 2007 at 11:36
    “May as well relax – the actions of our scientists will little/no effect on our fate.”

    If the idea of Vinge is correct that we are approaching a “Technological Singularity”, and if a galactic civilization is already in place, I have a feeling that a “weeding” may be about to occur…

    that’s definitely one possibility. we could also take the ‘2001 space odyssey’ point of view that we will be of little impact to interstellar civilizations that are far superior to us technologically until our own technological capabilities are sufficient to impact or affect the universe in a larger way.

    in other words, we may well arrive at some technological singularity and suddenly find the intergalactic police at our door with a list of things we are and are not allowed to do as benefits the universe as a whole system.

    and my larger point – we are heading towards something mysterious and unknown, with all the possibilities and dangers inherent. comfort along this journey can be found by embracing it with a certain fatality. what will be will be, largely regardless of what we do to ‘prepare’. we may as well sit back and watch the show :)

  • ljk October 17, 2007, 16:32

    To my quote:

    “But with 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, why would
    they come after us?”

    Forward Observer replied:

    Because a new technological singularity (that we might spawn within 35 years,
    according to some respected voices) let loose in the galaxy might disrupt their
    carefully established networks, in the manner of a computer virus?

    My response:

    Unless there is a civilization out there monitoring every world with
    the potential to achieve Singularity and waits to pounce on it so
    that they remain the Big Cheese of the galaxy, I really don’t see
    how they are going to stop every society from arising to that level.

    400 billion star systems across 100,000 light years – it’s hard to
    appreciate just how big and how much that is. It would take one
    heck of a civilization to monitor all that at once, and I do not
    think there is any evidence for such – but who knows, they could
    have us in some kind of Matrix reality keeping the sheep in the
    dark, right?

    If they are worried about threats to their longevity, why haven’t
    they stopped all supernovae and other celestial objects that spew
    enormous amounts of radiation? Maybe other galaxies are
    “cultivated”, but this one at least doesn’t seem to have a Type 3
    civ around – or so they want us to think. :^)

  • Forward Observer October 17, 2007, 16:34

    Rob Says:

    October 17th, 2007 at 15:31
    that’s definitely one possibility. we could also take the ‘2001 space odyssey’ point of view that we will be of little impact to interstellar civilizations that are far superior to us technologically until our own technological capabilities are sufficient to impact or affect the universe in a larger way.

    If Earth’s Technological Singularity plays out, what we formerly viewed as “millions of years of technological progress” occurs in a far shorter period of time, perhaps weeks or days. That puts Earth on the doorstep
    of super civilization potential, within a 100 years from developing electronics, radio communications and computers.

    When manmade electromagnetic signals are received by the putative
    galactic intelligence network, bells would go off. If it only takes 100-200 years
    to reach Technological Singularity from the invention of solid state
    electronics, the network must respond swiftly. Hopefully they are
    beings with a sense of humor and will give us a chance to come up to speed in a prescribed manner.

  • tacitus October 17, 2007, 17:00

    It is interesting that of all the possibilities out there, the majority here seem to be expecting the worst. I don’t believe it has anything to do with cowardice, but it does seem linked with the general mistrust of authority (e.g. the US government) that is more commonplace in the US than it is in, say, the UK or Scandinavia.

    Comparing an ETI encounter with our own encounters with primitive tribes is not really a fair comparison. We often saw native peoples, or the land upon which they lived, as resources to be exploited for political or monetary gain. That is not likely to be the case with interstellar civilizations, since the odds that Earth or its peoples would be a coveted resource to an alien race is highly improbable.

    As others have said, we just don’t know, but it would seem to be folly to hide ourselves away when the more likely rewards of contact will undoubtedly be a watershed moment in the existence of our species.

  • Ronald October 17, 2007, 17:53

    I tend to agree with andy, Warren, Ron S.

    Although it seems unlikely that a civilization that is able to bridge the gap between the stars would not have detected us already, some caution and reserve may be justified.

    Caution, because, although indeed it is very unlikely that an advanced civilization would be interested in any of our earthly natural resources (other than knowledge), andy is right that the basic characteristics of a species and its ecology are quite persistent, competition and sense of threat predominant among them.

    In the Kardashev scheme of things, a level 2 civilization (capable of interstellar travel and colonization) is almost indestructable. However, intelligent life may be rare, technological civilization even rarer, and one that is able to reach level 2 exceedingly rare. It might well be a very precious goal to achieve and maintain. Furthermore, the window of opportunity for such an advanced civilization to reach level 2 may be (very?) short. Lastly, comfortable planets may be rare.

    The galactic pecking order may be at stake here. It is fundamental flaw to think that an advanced civilization has a) unlimited capabilities and b) no more (serious) theats to face.
    All in all, reasons for any advanced civilization, including ours (in the future), to cherish and protect its attained galactic position.

    Although, again, the chance to encounter any alien civilization (hostile, friendly or indifferent) is very small, or maybe also *because* of this, I think it is rather premature to skip some essential steps and indulge in SETI/METI like activities. Personally I am much more interested in and looking forward to near-future (optical and infrared) telescopic searches for terrestrial planets and the analysis of spectral signatures for ‘biomarkers’ their atmospheres.

    First things first.

  • Adam October 17, 2007, 18:01

    A prudent approach to Galactic exploration is to spread monitor probes to every star system. These would be self-maintaining and autonomous in decision making. Our solar system is full of objects on orbits that range from one extreme to another. Any number of these could be “stealthed” probes doing their best not to be seen by our RADAR and telescopes by being inconspicuous, keeping careful watch on us, as their fellows do across the Galaxy. There’s room in all the belts – Main Belt, Trojan Belts and the Kuiper Belt/Oort Cloud – for thousands of such monitoring probes, or clouds of them if they’re nano-tech sized.

    We are not Alone by any means – if long-lived ETIs exist their agents will be here. So personally I think the METI debate is an irrelevance – They know we are here.

  • andy October 17, 2007, 18:55

    It is interesting that of all the possibilities out there, the majority here seem to be expecting the worst.

    What’s wrong with expecting the worst? It is a possibility that MUST be contemplated. It is only in industries which have not had the wake-up call of a major incident that the attitude of focussing only on potential benefits rather than performing careful, detailed risk assessments is done. To do a risk assessment, you have to consider these worst-case scenarios. Furthermore, you cannot plan effective risk mitigation without the assessment.

    From what I can tell, the situation is not so much that the METI crowd are ignorant of safety processes, they seem to be somewhat hostile to implementing a safety culture in their field, dismissing such concerns as “cowardice”, “science fiction”, etc. Furthermore the METI crowd also seem hostile to accountability. Essentially, they act on behalf of all humanity, yet seem averse to the idea that humanity should have any kind of say in what they are doing.

    Comparing an ETI encounter with our own encounters with primitive tribes is not really a fair comparison. We often saw native peoples, or the land upon which they lived, as resources to be exploited for political or monetary gain. That is not likely to be the case with interstellar civilizations, since the odds that Earth or its peoples would be a coveted resource to an alien race is highly improbable.

    Care to back up these assertions about what interstellar civilisations would or would not do with any actual evidence? We have zero experience of interstellar civilisations, we have zero experience of alien civilisations, so where are you getting this “highly improbable” from?

    This is another interesting point about the METI culture: they are very quick to dismiss the expertise of historians who have studied what happens when two different cultures interact, claiming that somehow contact with aliens will be totally different. Why are the METI crowd so prejudiced against historians? After all, the expression goes that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.

    it would seem to be folly to hide ourselves away when the more likely rewards of contact will undoubtedly be a watershed moment in the existence of our species.

    Again an assertion of probability. What is the evidence that contact is more likely to bring rewards? Benevolent beings from the sky handing out rewards sounds more like a cargo cult than a reasoned position.

    Fundamentally, METI is taking humanity down a path for which there is essentially no data to identify, let alone quantify the risks, without any kind of safety culture or accountability. Do we really want to wait for major harm to come from the METI effort before putting in the kind of measures that are in place in safety-critical industries? In an area where we do not know if the risks are the type that would give us a second chance, I know what my answer would be.

  • sail4evr October 17, 2007, 19:01

    What would an advanced civilization want with us? What do WE want with lower forms of life or less developed societies on our own planet?
    We study them. We consider less developed to be interesting and worth the time and money (resources) to investigate because we are curious and we are not beyond learning a thing or 2. I’m not speaking for everyone of course.
    Are they likely to be aggressive? Probably, because it requires an effort to expand, to overcome difficulties and hurdles. If one is not driven, you become lazy and sit back and question why anyone would care who else inhabits the universe.
    Who are the most peaceful people on the planet, just for example…the Quakers, What is the likelihood of their developing interstellar travel? Close to zero.
    Our planet has diverse environments. Some are hospitable and some are not. We are who we are as a function of geopolitics some would say in conjunction with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. I’m not going to get started on what that means, look it up. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geopolitics . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_selection .
    These are natural forces and I believe are universal in impact. I think there are certain things we do know about any alien cultures. They must be intelligent whatever that is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligence and be able to get a greater grasp on things as time progresses, in order to get off the planet they are on. I think that is a given.
    We know that our planet is disposed to sudden impacts, volcanic eruptions and all sorts of things that are deadly locally or planet wide. There is no reason that every other habitable (habitable applied to whatever environment develops its local species by natural selection above described) planet in the universe is not also subject to the same random destabilizing influences. Just look a the picture of the galaxy tearing a swathe through the miriad of other galaxies recently posted in Universe Today. We are lucky to be alive. Somebody walks across the street and gets killed by a piece of steel that falls off a building. Our end could be just as instantaneous, relatively speaking, a matter of months or years as our skies are darkened and all the food goes away and we eat each other to stay alive or commit suicide as there being no other alternative. We have hope and faith to keep us going, but hope and faith can only go so far.
    I have no lease on life and we as a global society have none either.
    But anyway the point is that any other alien civilization had to surmount these very same obstacles in order to have an impact of any kind on us.
    We have had many kinds of empires on this planet and most have failed. We, globally speaking, generally are coming around to the fact that cooperation allows or encourages more robust development and the ability to make bigger and better weapons. While this is bad in itself, at the same time governments and big business realize that destroying each other will slow this robust growth and hold back from pressing that doomsday button. We have seen that global wars are trending toward local peacekeeping operations.
    I think that alien civilizations have gone through the same processes because they are natural processes and have nothing to do with being human on earth or an alien on some other planet.
    That being said, in summary, I would tend to think that advanced alien civilizations would study us without influencing us to avoid contamination of the study, because they are curious and if we were to become dangerous, in a way that might be dangerous to them, they might be inclined to destroy, not us globally but our ability to leave this planet and threaten them. Kind of like destroying Iran’s nuclear weapons program, if there is one, to keep them from being a threat if there is one, to the rest of civilization. I realize this is a subject of controversy in itself, but is merely an example. There would be no need to wipe all of Iran off the globe.
    Having found values in cooperation, and realizing that life is precious, not overly abundent and worth studying and not destroying would save us from the ultimate calamity coming from aliens. We are much more likely to have a “natural” event destroy us or we destroy ourselves rather than aliens to do it for us.
    Some have asked in this blog “why pro METI scientists are not talking to humanity about communicating with aliens as it seems they prefer talking to aliens.” For the same reason we are having these relatively silly hypothetical discussions herein, rather than marching in a world protest for peace and to stop the killing? I’m just as guilty.
    The original question, should we continue with SETI and METI? Whatever makes people happy. It’s better than killing each other.

  • Forward Observer October 17, 2007, 19:41

    Regarding galactic monitoring and communications:

    Slow drifters could travel in the opposite direction to the galactic rotation – speed 450 km/sec. relative to passing star systems. Just need the tech for self-repair and small course changes.

    Gravitational lensing could be used for low power interstellar communications
    between probes, using the first star-lens to converge a beam to parallel rays
    and the second star-lens to converge the beam to a point. They would just a
    very good map to perform these feats on a regular basis. This might also be a way to transmit power to drifting probes for course corrections and power.

  • Kurogawa October 17, 2007, 19:56

    To andy: the assertion of probability to me comes from the totally different parameters being compared. Historians can only shed insight on OUR side of the “encounter”, surely, this is clearly very important to consider… though it would be mostly related to our reaction to the encounter with other civilizations, nothing to do with their reaction or attitudes to us.

    I have to agree with a number of you more positive chums, who point out the profound difference in needed resources by our different perspectives even after our possible singularity. Surely any resource needed by the visitors can more easily be found on Mars than having to deal with us before moving on. If any comparison could be made our “totally different needs” as compared with monkeys holds a better chance. and it would shortly go like this: The monkeys live on an island “earth” next to an empty island “mars” if I need fuel before moving on, suck it up from Mars… if coming out this way at all, surely it would just to see how we live… and move on (if they are not benevolent helpers as all the optimists -me included- would love them to be).

    Surely, like more sophisticated connoisseurs of the galaxy, the aliens want to read Shakespeare , hear Mozart or African drums… and yes… maybe they don’t give us copyright…lol… but that is the most valuable resource we have… humanity and our eccentricities. We are valueless destroyed. they will surely have gotten past such menial worries as our meager resources.

    I just wish we might hear their Mozart and their Monet(s)… that! would be a cultural encounter. —and no I’m not being literal about similarity of expressions of art and beauty or anything of the sort…but I want to know what they dream about. Surely that’s WHY we look up to the stars.

    Let’s be positive, and smile to a bright future.

  • Warren October 18, 2007, 3:25

    While I would like nothing better than to listen to and understand their “Mozart” and I would love to think they would be interested in my art, but when I consider what I know of our position in time and space relative to any advanced, space faring aliens we are likely to meet, it is very hard for me to imagine that they would have any interest whatsoever in either the resources of our solar system or in our art, culture or technology. It seems even much less likely that they would have an interest in any kind of interaction that would be of benefit to us. What do I have to say to a colony of termites? Some do make beautiful castles though. Some may eat mine.

    We don’t have to be enough of a threat to warrant systematic extermination, no bezerker probes waiting for a trigger. I can tolerate a few flies buzzing around in the yard but if they annoy me or attract my attention I will swat them. It is no big deal. I expect we are just about as important to an advanced alien as flies are to me. If a few “kids” see a bright signal maybe they just redirect a comet toward the earth and go back to what they were doing. Maybe the sun is behind it during the approach and we see nothing until the big boom.

    Science fiction, sure. I do not know what the real situation is. Maybe there are no space faring intelligent aliens forever. Maybe there are a million species of sub atomic sized Von Neumann devices from a thousand different galaxies watching me write this. We don’t know. What do we lose by waiting and learning? Will one of you “contact optimists” please answer this question for me? What is the hurry? Why take risks that are not necessary?

  • Warren October 18, 2007, 3:56

    I would also like to suggest that, should anyone want to interact with us, to talk to us, that they will initiate the conversation and make themselves very visible so we can’t miss them. We won’t have to spend millions of dollars either sending or receiving signals by radio or laser between the stars. SETI/METI now sounds like a waste of time and money to me. Yes, it sounded like a great idea in 1966. It doesn’t now. An advanced civilization that is motivated to communicate should have no problem setting up a two way conversation on our normal time scale. If they want to talk to me they will draw a big X on my wall. If they want to talk to humanity, they will put a big red target on the moon. If they want to interact they are here. A system that is willing to wait for centuries to receive signals across interstellar space should have little problem sending small cheap physical devices to tens of thousands of potential targets.

    Hmmm, kidnapping some humans, playing with their genitals and putting them back into bed might attract some attention, too huh? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

  • Ronald October 18, 2007, 8:54

    I agree with Adam that, if long-lived (and very advanced) ETI’s exist that are able to come to us and potentially pose a risk, they already know we are here, no doubt about it. Observation and detection will always come (long) before travel. We ourselves will know exactly what planets orbit the nearest few thousand stars, within a few decades, spectral signatures, biomarkers and all.
    And on the other hand, if an other techno civilization is not able to travel to other stars (yet), it will also not pose any risk to us (yet).

    This reduces the risk question realistically to: do we want to conduct METI with civilizations that may become capable of interstellar travel in the coming centuries or millennia?
    How rare will these be? This makes the present discussion about risk a very academic, almost hypothetical one, but at the same time also the whole purpose of METI.

    I also agree with sail4evr: a much more important issue in the near future will be for *us* to become a Kardashev level 2 civilization, inhabiting several other planetary systems, within our present (little?) window of opportunity. This is by far the best way of risk-spreading and human (and maybe some other earthly species) survival, in view of impending ice-ages, meteorite impacts, supervolcanoes, pandemics and nuclear conflicts.
    Long before going there we will know exactly what planets to expect, including any possible intelligent life.
    An (however unlikely) encounter with another level 2 civilization, attempting a similar expansion for survival (and undoubtedly knowing about us), might then make for an interesting confrontation.

  • Ronald October 18, 2007, 9:10


    So, the fact that we have not yet received any clear, unambiguous signal from another, advanced civilization can only mean one of two things:

    1) There are no advanced civilizations in our (part of the) galaxy

    2) Any advanced civilization in our (part of the) galaxy is not interested in communicating with us, at the most just observing and studying us.

    This, again, makes METI virtually risk-free, but also virtually pointless.

    What is the chance of another techno civilization that is at about the same level as us, i.e. capable of interstellar communication, but not capable of interstellar travel? Because those are the only ones remaining that may still be interesting for SETI/METI.

  • Forward Observer October 18, 2007, 9:50

    Ronald Says:

    “What is the chance of another techno civilization that is at about the same level as us, i.e. capable of interstellar communication, but not capable of interstellar travel? Because those are the only ones remaining that may still be interesting for SETI/METI.”

    —if the typical rise time from discovery and application of solid state electronics to Technological Singularity (TS) is on the order of 100 years, as
    could be in our case (Ray Kurzweil, “The Singularity is Near”), the number of similar civilizations in the universe on our light cone is small. Maybe once TS is achieved, it learns how to communicate with other instances of TS in the universe in a way we can’t detect at present.

  • Kurogawa October 18, 2007, 13:32

    To Warren. The point I was trying to make is that if they are significantly more advanced than us there is no competition for anything. and flies and termites as you just wrote… “may eat your castle” or buzz annoyingly and interfere with your relax time. That analogy would necessarily entail that a whole civilization is out there with a “Do not disturb” sign on their system… I mean that must be as far out as people playing with our genital right?

    Put simply I do not see the risks you see… I completely understand the possible risks… and agree that they are extremely undesirable, and furthermore agree that there is no basis for finding out any “probability” of the negative outcomes coming true or not… sure. It all comes down to the individual. And I do respect your position. It’s in in itself a very difficult position, for you are asking all contact optimists to refrain from trying. and I guess in the end out of naivety, hope or something like that… we want to see them ourselves…that’s the hurry, and that will always be the hurry. until…

    I think it is so much about “us” in the search for ETI. We are social monkeys…we want to chat to really different beings… we want to measure up, socialize… I think we also want to know we are “not alone” we don’t like to be alone…it’s just a little sad. then there is the extra dimension of finally realizing that we are all ONE, all humans are just humans and not just Chinese or Americans… I’m afraid that till we meet another ETI we will never fully realize that. I for one feel we have been “alone” long enough, I want to socialize and learn… or whatever turns out to happen. And seriously… all our fear of confrontation is “sooooo Human”. We are the one’s with that history…there is no reason why all “intelligences” might be like us.

  • Neil October 18, 2007, 16:35

    Suppose ET gives us technology to live healthy lives for thousands of years and we keep making babies even when we are thousands of years old. Earth’s population could jump from 6.5 billion to 6.5 trillion in about 1000 years. I think Earth can sustain our present population, but we will be in deep dodo with 1000 times our present population and doubling every 30 years. Even the best tehnology gifts can make big trouble. It is better to advance at a slow rate, so we can adapt wisely. Neil