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If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me

The line in the title above is from a Jimmy Buffett song. A friend who knows all Buffett songs line by line uses it on his answering machine, invariably provoking a chuckle when I ponder the implications. If the phone doesn’t ring, just what kind of message is being sent? Or is any message being sent at all? Thus does the singer capture the bewildered funk of romantic attachments, which can make hash out of all our logic. Like the dog that doesn’t bark (think Sherlock Holmes), the phone that doesn’t ring carries its own meaning, one we must now try to parse.

For the SETI phone isn’t ringing. If extraterrestrial civilizations are out there, is their silence a way of sending us a message? Alan Tough created a Web site with the express purpose of offering a communications venue to any nearby alien probes, spacecraft designed to study us and report home. The Invitation to ETI contains a number of essays explaining the project and more or less asking for participation by ET (Paul Davies’ contribution is titled If You’re Out There, ET, Log On!), but David Brin jogged my memory yesterday on a mailing list when he mentioned his own essay on Tough’s site, called An Open Letter to Alien Lurkers.

Wonderfully, what physicist and science fiction author Brin did in this essay is to discuss the reasons why ET might choose to remain silent. If the phone doesn’t ring, it may be because the species in question has a non-interference policy:

If you’ve monitored our TV, radio — and now our internet — perhaps you have a policy of noninterference for a different reason… in order to spare us and our culture from some harm that might come as a result of contact. An erosion of our sense of free will? Or our sense of having a high culture? We can understand this notion, too. Certainly the history of first contact between human cultures tells that the one with lower technology and sophistication often suffered ill effects.

If mercy motivates your reticence, we grasp the concept. Yet, this provokes a question — are you absolutely sure? Can you be certain we’re so fragile? Is it possible you might be mistaken? Or (again) perhaps rationalizing a decision that you made for other reasons?

A Safer Solution for Contact?

A solution would be not to phone but try the Internet, a safe course of inquiry because it can be performed via e-mail or anonymous participation in online discussion groups. Eccentricity would hardly be a drawback, for any such overtures would be met, at best, with amused tolerance, some people playing along with such messages out of curiosity and gamesmanship. Perhaps it’s happening today, opines Brin, or possibly ET writes science fiction stories under a pseudonym, hoping to tease our imaginations. If the latter is the case, the sad diminution is the number of well-paying short story markets for science fiction is grounds for concern.

Spiral galaxy

On the other hand: “Perhaps you even lace these works with special clues that can only be deciphered by purchasing and carefully reading every one of the purported author’s books…In hardcover, yet.” All of which gets across the tone of this delightful piece, one that confronts the SETI silence in provocative ways. Is the phone not ringing because any alien probe in our system is damaged and incapable of sending? Or because the extraterrestrial race is waiting for us to pass a particular milestone of development? If the latter, we could certainly use a hint.

Image: The spiral galaxy NGC 4414. Would alien astronomers within such galaxies search nearby stars for other civilizations, or would they look closer to home? Credit: NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team, STScI, AURA.

Brin lists eleven reasons for non-contact in all, including the possibility that the universe is dangerous enough to house berserker world-destroyers that might be programmed to make an end of civilizations on the rise. All the listed reasons go to the question of how little we know about the beings we hope one day to make contact with. If a SETI signal is ever received, should a response be sent immediately? The history of contact here on Earth between less technologically advanced cultures and those with superior tools has seldom ended well for those on the way up. So maybe the best strategy is considered silence until we work out the potential ramifications.

Exopsychology and Its Chances

Nonetheless, with powerful messages being sent to nearby star systems from the Evpatoria Planetary Radar in the Ukraine, NASA’s Deep Space Network sites in California, Spain and Australia, and the European EISCAT system in Svalbard (the latter to contain a Doritos ad!), the question of contact could conceivably be upon us before we have developed a widely accepted mechanism for response. And if Dr. Tough is right and a smart probe may have already been attracted to our area by radio, TV and radar signals pushing into interstellar space, then the phone that doesn’t ring becomes a psychological puzzler.

Exobiology is a science currently without specimens to study. In the same way, exopsychology is a perhaps hopeless but profoundly entertaining attempt to trace out alien motivations. I say hopeless because we bring all the assumptions grafted into our bipedal species over aeons of evolutionary development to the challenge. Can we hope to understand the assumptions a species with an entirely different line of growth would make as it confronts a civilization far beneath it technologically?

Perhaps not. Actual contact between humans and extraterrestrials may be so profoundly strange that we will have no real understanding of what has happened when and if the chasm is bridged. But then, the alien race may feel quite the same way. Brin’s eleventh and final reason for non-contact is that alien species might simply find us too weird to work with. All of which brings Leo Szilard’s response to Fermi when the latter asked his famous question to mind. Where are they? “They are among us,” said Szilard, “but they call themselves Hungarians.”

A Long-Term Bet on an Artifact

Contact or no, we do, at least, know where Allen Tough comes down on this. The Toronto-based researcher, now pursuing his interests in extraterrestrial life and the human search for meaning full-time, has an extensive background in both psychology and education that illuminates his thoughts on alien encounters. Tough has placed a bet on the Long Bets site that our first encounter with alien species or their artifacts will occur here in our Solar System. He makes no bones about the benefits of what we humans call a Bracewell probe:

“Most SETI scientists agree that any ETI we detect will likely be thousands or millions of years ahead of us (because our sun and our science are so young). Such an advanced society will likely have the capacity to build and launch cheap smart autonomous probes to explore the galaxy. Also, an advanced society will likely be motivated to send out exploratory probes. If such a probe were sent a few centuries ago to explore Earth, it will likely be here by now… I am betting that extraterrestrial intelligence, in one form or another, has already reached our solar system and will be confirmed first.”

The SETI League’s Paul Shuch is on the other side of the bet, not because he thinks Tough is necessarily wrong about those alien probes, but because detecting them will be so difficult if, indeed, they are there. “It’s a matter of instrumentation,” says Shuch, “and though we’ve gotten very good at intercepting electromagnetic waves, our record for detecting even nearby natural space debris is not too stellar (pun completely intentional).”

Those of us who suspect intelligent life is vanishingly rare in this or any other galaxy think this is a bet that may take quite a long time to be resolved, but searching for anomalies in the Solar System nonetheless makes good sense (maybe, as Hungarian-born Szilard implies, we should start the search in Budapest). After all, we’re completely in the dark when it comes to potential alien motivations or accomplishments. Thinking through what they might be, and the possibilities of a result close to home, is simply a matter of prudence and thoughtful engagement with the universe. If any of David Brin’s reasons for non-contact do apply, I for one want to find out which one it is.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk March 25, 2008, 8:53

    Humans will always remain human. We need to either radically
    change ourselves or step out of the way for something more
    sophisticated and less destructive.

    I wonder how many other species out there realized this same
    decision? We have outgrown this planet and need to do something
    radical or we will not survive. Smart species either adapt and
    evolve or at least more to a new territory.

    We are still monkeys with car keys. And the Founding Fathers
    were not the type of Christians you are thinking of; many of them
    were Deists, which holds that God made the Universe, got it running,
    then stepped back and let it go.

  • ljk March 25, 2008, 9:17

    DIY Monolith Technology

    The 2001 monolith is a science-fiction icon. It can represent technology, God, alien influence or intense monkey violence, depending on what exactly you got out of Kubrick’s masterpiece. But will we ever see one?

    Rather than go to all the bother of developing a hyperintelligent computer probe ourselves, the easiest route is the “Christmas” strategy: just wait for someone to give us what we want. This assumes the existence of aliens, but let’s be honest: nobody involved in the search doubts that for a second. The fact it’s always called a “search” is one clue – the unspoken belief that it’s definitely out there and we just have to find it. You can attribute this to hope, loneliness, or faith; but the most convincing reasons are a combination of the sheer size of the universe and the fact that, once you remove the “Invisible Sky Beard” factor from our genesis, it seems unlikely it should only happen here.

    But why build monoliths at all? Because of the universe’s speed limit: if you can’t get to other stars (because you’d be inconveniently dead of old age before you made it one-hundredth of the way), the only other option is to build a robot to go for you. Should we observe such a probe it would bring good news and bad . The good – there’s an incredibly advanced alien civilization saying “Hi there, we’re here!” The bad is them saying “Yeah, we can’t beat the speed of light either. You’re pretty much stuck there.”

    Rather a mournful picture of the universe, islands of intelligence stranded by the ridiculous distances between them. As we reported previously, such systems would likely be Bracewell probes – self-replicating systems able to cover as much universe as possible in search of intelligence. Clarke’s monolith never shows any replicative ability, but the sheer number of them in 3001 would be strong evidence that they can. [They did show replicating abilities in the 1984 sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact – millions of
    them were turning Jupiter into a sun for the Europans.]

    The thing is: if human scientists waited for other people to do things for them, we’d still be delaying investigations into fire and non-cave habitats. Many of the onyx-object’s capabilities are within sight of our own technology.

    Full article here:


  • ljk March 27, 2008, 22:28

    Is Our Universe Ruled by Artificial Intelligence?

    Written by Fraser Cain

    Science fiction is filled with unusual alien species. But apart from the occasional robot, biological life is running the show. But NASA scientist, Dr. Steven Dick, sees a future Universe that has evolved past biology. Where every intelligence is artificial. Consider the likelihood of a postbiological Universe.

    Does intelligent life exist beyond Earth? It’s easily the most profound and challenging question that humans have ever asked. The consequences of discovering other intelligent life would ripple through every aspect of human society, and actually meeting another species would be even more challenging.

    But are there abundant intelligent life forms out there? Or is the biological life on Earth just a stage? Just a single step towards our inevitable technological existence.

    In a recent paper published in the journal Acta Astronautica, entitled The Post Biological Universe, Dr. Steven Dick notes how every search for extraterrestrial intelligence assumes that life will be biological. And yet, here on Earth we can see that intelligent life develops more and more sophisticated tools over time. And these tools will eventually lead to artificial intelligence that outstrips its makers.

    Full article here:


  • Joeo33 March 28, 2008, 12:00

    Paul–Great post! Thanks so much for asking these questions.

    I really admire Allen Tough’s heroic effort, and while IETI has been enormously valuable in promoting the idea of an ‘invitation’ or ‘request for confirmation of presence’, there are several reasons while the IETI site might not be appropriate for the purpose of initial communication from a ‘benevolent’ civilization. A ‘hostile’ or ‘malevolent’ civilization won’t require an invitation. I am sure Dr. Tough and any ETI understand these points.

    1. Without special hardware, software, and protocols, the Internet is useless for reliable and secure communications. For example, dozens of messages conveying important information may already have been sent, but not received by IETI because they were intercepted and either altered or deleted. If they want to send an important message to our civilization, they won’t use the Internet in this way.

    2. Choosing a single group to deliver an important message to the world–to act in effect as the ETs’ representatives–would inevitably result in fear, suspicion, resentment, and hostility. While I may admire and trust Dr. Tough, others would not. If IETI releases an ET message, what messages have they not released? What messages has IETI sent?

    3. In the worst case, no matter how careful benevolent ETs are, governments and other groups on our planet, through their malice and/or incompetence, could turn the initial contact process into a planetary disaster, for which the ETs are ultimately responsible. Only the government(s), not IETI or any other single group, can take responsibility for an action which might have such consequences.

    None of these are criticisms of Dr. Tough and those supporting IETI, and their effort to promote the idea of an Invitation without directly confronting the attitudes of governments and most scientists toward UFOs and ETs.

    Paul Davies asked “What better way, then, to persuade ET that we are finally ready for that great cosmic encounter than to create a customised website for our galactic cousins to access?”

    A better way would be a government-sanctioned request by the scientists and others interested in SETI for an open and public communication from any ETI in the neighborhood.

    For example: If you know more about our civilization than we do, and about the experiences of other evolving technological civilizations, and have something critically important to tell us–something that years from now we’ll desperately wish we had learned now–then would you please transmit an initial proof-of-presence message in the form of an optical signal, on or after 5 July 2008, at exactly midnight local time, originating from altitude of not less than 63 miles directly above the SETI Institute, with a duration of less than one second, and with the approximate apparent brightness of Vega.

    Perhaps you could write your own proposal for a future blog entry, and invite readers (including some SETI researchers) to submit their own ideas, and then ask the NASA experts on UFOs and ETs at “Ask an Astrobiologist” (http://nai.nasa.gov/astrobio/) to comment. My guess is that, even if you can find a scientist or anyone else to join you, a huge flock of extraterrestrial pigs will overfly NASA HQ before they’ll say they would welcome such a signal from ETs.

    I think you’ll find that this is simply part of the UFO debate: It’s OK for SETI to look for ETs so far away that we can’t talk to them, but if ETs are already here, we don’t want to know about it, and we certainly don’t want to talk to them.

    If the scientists will not take the first step of formulating a simple Invitation, and then the enormously difficult second step of obtaining the consent of one or more governments (and eventually, presumably, the UN), and finally the third step of formal issuance of the Invitation, then the message from the scientists and governments of the Earth is exactly the same message we’ve been sending for decades: Don’t Call Us.

    Is it strange that the scientists and others who speak so passionately of their fears for the future of our civilization will not even consider the possibility of learning from the experiences of other civilizations?

    No one welcomes the enormous disruption that contact would cause. But even among the elements of the US Government most hostile to the idea of contact, at least a few understand that the worst-case costs of a carefully managed contact process might be preferable to the worst-case costs of the ‘final intelligence failure’.

    If the scientific community can’t even openly discuss this issue, then we’re obviously not ready for contact, and, for better or for worse, we’ve been sending exactly the right message: Don’t Call Us.

    Thanks again, and Best Wishes.

  • ljk April 8, 2008, 9:27

    If ET Calls, Would We Be Told?

    Written by Nancy Atkinson

    If a verified message from aliens is ever received, would the public be told about it? SETI – the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence – does have an international protocol that if an alien signal is ever received, it would be disseminated among the astronomical community and made public. And of course, says Mac Tonnies at the SETI Blog, “international cooperation might be necessary in order to distinguish a legitimate alien signal from any number of phenomena capable of generating false alarms.”

    But what if the signal is more than just extra-terrestrials saying hello?

    Tonnies believes SETI’s plans for full disclosure only makes sense if the message is fairly benign. If the signal was a notice of impending doom from a black hole, supernova, or alien invasion – something we on Earth had little power to do anything about – Tonnies questions whether governments would choose to make such information public. But could something of this magnitude really be kept under wraps?

    Full article here:


  • ljk April 11, 2008, 10:32

    Intelligence: A Rare Cosmic Commodity

    By John D. Ruley

    Astrobiology Magazine

    posted: 10 April 2008, 07:00 am ET

    Advanced ground and space-based telescopes are discovering new planets around other stars almost daily, but an environmental scientist from England believes that even if some of those planets turn out to be Earth-like, the odds are very low they’ll have intelligent inhabitants.

    In a recent paper published in the journal Astrobiology, Professor Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia describes an improved mathematical model for the evolution of intelligent life as the result of a small number of discrete steps.

    Evolutionary step models have been used before, but Watson (a Fellow of England’s Royal Society who studied under James Lovelock, inventor of the “Gaia hypothesis”) sees a limiting factor: The habitability of the Earth (and presumably, other living worlds) will end as the sun brightens. Like most stars, as it progresses along the main sequence, the sun’s output increases (it is believed to be about 25 percent brighter now than when the Earth formed). Within at most 1 billion years, this will raise the average temperature of the Earth to 50 degrees C, rendering the planet uninhabitable.

    Full article here:


  • ljk April 11, 2008, 10:33

    A Shadow of Ourselves

    Should we reply to an alien message, and if so, what we should say?


  • ljk May 20, 2008, 9:26

    Galactic Neutrino Communication

    Authors: John G. Learned, Sandip Pakvasa, A. Zee

    (Submitted on 16 May 2008)

    Abstract: We examine the possibility to employ neutrinos to communicate within the galaxy. We discuss various issues associated with transmission and reception, and suggest that the resonant neutrino energy near 6.3 PeV may be most appropriate. In one scheme we propose to make Z^o particles in an overtaking e^+ – e^- collider such that the resulting decay neutrinos are near the W^- resonance on electrons in the laboratory. Information is encoded via time structure of the beam. In another scheme we propose to use a 30 PeV pion accelerator to create neutrino or anti-neutrino beams. The latter encodes information via the particle/anti-particle content of the beam, as well as timing. Moreover, the latter beam requires far less power, and can be accomplished with presently foreseeable technology. Such signals from an advanced civilization, should they exist, will be eminently detectable in neutrino detectors now under construction.

    Comments: 6 pages, 2 figures

    Subjects: Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph); Astrophysics (astro-ph); High Energy Physics – Experiment (hep-ex); High Energy Physics – Phenomenology (hep-ph)

    Report number: UH-511-1127-08

    Cite as: arXiv:0805.2429v1 [physics.pop-ph]

    Submission history

    From: Sandip Pakvasa [view email]

    [v1] Fri, 16 May 2008 01:32:47 GMT (85kb)


    This example has been used a lot in SETI discussions, but
    the above paper does make me think that we are doing the
    equivalent of a primitive tribe looking for smoke signals and
    listening for drum beats while everyone else is on the Internet.

  • ljk August 2, 2012, 14:24

    I just found out that Allen Tough, Founder and Chief Scientist of Invitation to ETI, passed away on April 27, 2012. He had been very ill for a while now. I am so sorry to see him go both personally and for the SETI community.

    His Web site: