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A Dialogue on SETI

Last October, a conference at the Royal Society looked into “the detection of life, the communication with potential extra-terrestrial civilizations, the implications for the future of humanity, and the political processes that are required.” It was a fascinating gathering, one whose results I’ve been able to study ever since thanks to Keith Cooper, who forwarded videos of a debate there on interstellar messaging (METI) and passed along transcripts of the various panels. Keith is editor of the superb Astronomy Now and is an accomplished writer on space exploration and astronomy, with over 100 articles published. I especially want to mention SETI: Cosmic Call and SETI: Terminating the Transmission in relation to what follows below.

For as Keith and I discussed these issues, it occurred to me that our correspondence in the form of a dialogue was a natural for Centauri Dreams. So here’s a slightly edited version of some recent thoughts of ours on SETI, the strength of extraterrestrial signals, and the possibility of sending return messages to the stars. Expect more in this exchange in the near future.

  • Paul Gilster

Trust a Benford to get me thinking, Keith. In this case, Jim Benford, who along with brother Gregory and son Dominic, has told us so much about the feasibility of detecting and/or building interstellar beacons. As you know, I’ve written a lot about so-called ‘Benford beacons,’ fascinated with the cost constraints that the brothers have been able to establish. We have so little quantitative information to work with when it comes to SETI issues, so having an idea of how we might view beacons in terms of cost optimization was a real plus for the field.

Last week, though, I got into the question of how easy it would be to detect a signal from our Solar System. Specifically, the famous case of I Love Lucy episodes propagating out into the cosmos, and what it might take to receive them — can an extraterrestrial civilization (ETI) hope to make sense of them, or even figure out that they represent an artificial signal? And Jim’s new paper, written with John Billingham (former head of NASA’s SETI program), argues with the help of a lot of math that radio telescopes of the sort we have now couldn’t manage the task. I know you heard Jim present these results at the Royal Society meetings last October.

Image: The Parkes radio telescope in Australia. Credit: CSIRO.

Send us the Alpha Centauri equivalent of I Love Lucy, in other words, and we’ll receive nothing at all. Up the technology a bit to the level of the proposed Square Kilometer Array, operating over a wide range of frequencies and fifty times more sensitive than any radio receiving instrument we currently have, and you do manage to reach further. But even with this, we’re talking about a receiving radius less than 20 light years, and what would be at best a very low data-rate detection. So any civilization remotely at the same level as ours just isn’t going to be able to settle in to watch the Ricardos and Mertzes at all. It would be astonishing if they recognized the signal as artificial in the first place unless they already had our system under close study.

SETI implications? I think so. Back in my shortwave radio days, I used to prowl the radio dial looking for hard to detect signals from the other side of the world, and I think I always believed we would pick up ETI the same way. A chance detection, in other words, a whisper from across the stars that simply told us, for a fleeting moment, that something intelligent other than ourselves was out there in the galaxy. Now I’m thinking that scenario is more and more dubious. If Benford is right — and there are few people whose work I trust as much as Jim — then with our current state of technology, we just won’t be able to pick up any unintentional leakage at all.

Is this a rational answer to the Fermi paradox, that the stars are too widely spaced and intelligent civilizations too immature in their growth for us to be aware of each other? Or do we turn the issue around, and ask what a civilization far more advanced than ourselves would be likely to be transmitting? SETI strategy issues are much in play, and I’d be interested in your take on this latest Benford work. What do you think, Keith — is this helpful in SETI terms? And what about METI, if it turns out that we’re not quite as visible to the galaxy as we thought we were?

  • Keith Cooper

You make some great points Paul, and I broadly agree with all of them. However, we must always be mindful of the assumptions that we are making, so allow me to play devil’s advocate. To highlight this, I want to briefly raise the issue of the Fermi Paradox, which you mention.

I find Fermi’s Paradox to be vastly overrated. How so? Consider what data we currently have on extraterrestrial civilisations (ETCs) – it’s a big fat nothing. We’ve closely surveyed around a 1,000 stars at water hole frequencies, briefly glanced at around a million more, but there are hundreds of billions of stars in our Galaxy. We’ve barely even begun to explore the optical, infrared or ultraviolet regimes with SETI, or search for artifacts of ET origin. So the Fermi Paradox isn’t a paradox of data, as we have none – it’s a paradox of our assumptions. It’s telling us that our assumptions are wrong, and that ET may not be as easy to find as we first thought. It’s a good springboard for new ideas, but I don’t think we should get hung up on it.

Image: Keith Cooper (left), with Michael Michaud (center) and Alexander Zaitsev, at the Royal Society conference.

Paul, you ask how all this ties into Jim Benford and John Billingham’s work and the wider issue of METI. Taken at face value it tells us that Earth remains, to all extents and purposes, invisible at radio wavelengths, and the transmissions that we have made are negligible. Our METI signals don’t even repeat – a cardinal rule in our own search. But what assumptions have Billingham and Benford made?

In this case I feel that their analogies to terrestrial technology and resources may be too strong. They assume SKA-sized radio telescopes, but who is to say that ETCs are not using something larger and more sensitive? We saw how cost optimisation led to the Benford Beacons model – a realistic viewpoint that I applaud – but here it becomes limiting. How do we know that what is expensive for us is expensive for ETCs? We really don’t know anything about their resources, or their motivations.

Furthermore, it was clear from attending the Royal Society debate that nobody could agree on the numbers. Seth Shostak, whilst agreeing that our television signals could not be detected with technology similar to ours at a distance greater than about a light year, pointed out that the Arecibo telescope could detect another Arecibo at a distance of 500 light years, while Alexander Zaitsev disagreed with Benford and Billingham’s assessment of his Cosmic Call message. So I don’t think it is clear-cut yet. Hence why Jim Benford made the call at the end of his Royal Society presentation for all transmissions from Earth to be fully documented so more thorough analyses can be made.

So there is still the risk that we could be detected, and that’s why I think there should be an international moratorium on METI until we know a little more about what is out there. Admittedly human civilisation could be detected by other means, a point of view I’m currently wrestling with, but what do you think Paul? Is it wrong to have a cautious attitude towards METI?

  • Paul Gilster

I think ‘cautious’ is a reasonable attitude toward our broadcasts, Keith, but let me answer your point about extraterrestrial technology first. What you’re driving at is the great question about SETI in general. For fifty years we’ve been listening to the skies in the hopes of detecting a radio signal (and, lately, an optical signal) from a distant civilization. But now we see that radio transmission itself may be a short-lived phenomenon. Go back to the start of our earliest transmissions and you can see that we may be talking about no more than a century or so from the time our own society became radio-capable to the point where most transmissions at whatever frequency are going to be carried through cable and other non-detectable means.

So SETI is currently in a mode of intense self-examination, as you know even better than I, having attended those Royal Society meetings (lucky guy). The whole question becomes, how do we put ourselves into the minds of creatures who are by definition alien? Even if we assume they want to contact us — quite a big assumption, in my view — we still have to figure out what means they would use. Can we predict what kind of technology we’ll use for communications in a scant 100 years? Or, put a better way, can we see the shape of a future breakthrough that might change everything? Probably not. And we may be talking about a civilization that is not just a century but a millennium or, even more likely, a million years or more ahead of us.

The question of detectability has that wild card built into it. We can nail down the numbers — and Benford and Billingham have shown us some pretty hard figures for just how far out our signals are going, even if those numbers are still controversial (I see there was disagreement at the Royal Society). But if there is a risk in METI, it’s that upping our visibility in the electromagnetic spectrum might attract something we know absolutely nothing about. We’re not particularly worried, I wouldn’t think, about a civilization that builds SKAs or their equivalent — if they’re at our stage, it’s hard to see how they might present a threat to us. But that hypothetical species that’s a million years ahead of us would have all kinds of technology at its disposal for detection.

What to do? Two things come to mind. First of all, while we can make a highly educated estimate of how far our signals can be detected by a civilization like our own, I think we have to be aware that a sufficiently advanced ETI could well be aware of us at far greater distance. Alexander Zaitsev has maintained for a long time that our planetary radars would make the strongest detectable signal, although as Jim points out, the signals would be non-recurring and hard to identify. But for a civilization able to work science that is ‘indistinguishable from magic,’ even our far more routine leakage at various wavelengths might still be enough to work on.

I’m not convinced, then, that we can put the genie back in the bottle. But it’s clear that the more we transmit, and the stronger our signals become, the more likely it is that we might be detected. Cautious? Well, I’m not really worried because I suspect intelligent life is rare in the galaxy. But if I were wrong, and considering the stakes that’s an important ‘if,’ I’d want to at least do what Jim Benford recommends, which is to start documenting our electromagnetic output with exactly these issues in mind. And I think conferences like this one at the Royal Society should be expanded to bring in a wide range of disciplines, from anthropology to history, sociology and mathematics. We need many eyes on the issue, from many different backgrounds.

Here’s the problem with your moratorium, though. We’re going to be approaching the point where, absent draconian governmental measures, every company with a product to peddle or Hollywood director with a movie to sell will have more and more power to work with to try a METI broadcast. I don’t see how you stop this brightening of our EMF signature, but that’s the kind of thing I would hope people from different disciplines might kick around at future meetings.

And Keith, don’t you think figuring out alien motivations is way beyond us? It drives me crazy when people start talking about what it would be ‘logical’ for an alien species to do. We have no notion whatsoever about what might drive such a society, as Michael Michaud made clear in his talk at the Royal Society. And our only example of a technological culture is our own. How on Earth do we draw any conclusions based on that single, highly limiting sample? Have a shot at that, Keith — you can have the last word, and let’s plan on tackling Michaud’s insights in a future session, too.

  • Keith Cooper

Paul, you’ve got it spot on. We don’t know anything about what life might be like out there, or how it might think or be motivated, and so allowing our assumptions (such as the idea that advanced civilisations will be inherently altruistic and happy to bestow their knowledge onto us) to be taken as fact is dangerous and limiting. Of course assumptions are all we have at present, but we have to make ourselves aware of what assumptions we’re making, and not reject alternatives out of hand. There’s an awful lot of phase space for debates on SETI and METI to explore. That’s why we need a moratorium, to give us time to discuss all those possibilities. And Paul, you might be right in saying that a moratorium may prove too difficult to enforce, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try.

In 1972, Project Cyclops (page 32) recommended that:

“Before we make such a response or decide to radiate a long distance beacon, we feel the question of potential risks should be debated and resolved at national and international level.”

So what has changed? The problem is that we – the astronomical and SETI community and all interested parties – are failing to deliver a balanced debate on METI to the public. As science communicators, it’s our responsibility to present a fair and open discussion before we begin a programme of transmission. We need to avoid sensationalising it, as happened with Professor Stephen Hawking’s comments last year. If, at the end of the debate, the democratic consensus is that we should transmit, then fine. As Michael Michaud told me at the Royal Society, he would stand aside under such circumstances. We will be all the more stronger for just having the debate.

Whatever happens, the debate shouldn’t be left in the hands of just radio astronomers. It should be opened up to historians, anthropologists, social scientists, evolutionary scientists, biologists and so on, and then the public. Paul, you touched on the historical aspect, but the more I study the issues surrounding METI, the more I realise that our own history books are rocky ground.

They’re usually not written by the people involved in those historical events and frequently have skewed perspectives. For example, how many people realise that disease has been the worst enemy in contact, not swords or guns? A 1993 conference on Cultural Aspects of SETI recommended that analogies from previous contact scenarios on Earth should be used only as a rough guide for thinking, not as a roadmap of what contact with ETCs will be like. Furthermore, it also suggested that the best analogies would be ones where contact was via the transmission of ideas between cultures, rather than physical encounters, because a message from the stars is more likely than aliens actually arriving on Earth. Real world examples of this include the rediscovery of ancient Greek science, or the decipherment of Egyptian or Mayan texts. However, we should also be aware that the transmission of ideas – ‘memes’ – could be dangerous, even if their intention is well meaning. A destructive meme could spread like a virus.

I’m not saying we should never transmit Paul; one day, when we’re ready, we’ll reach out to take our place in the galactic community, if there is one. But first we have to explore the Universe more, and understand better both the intricacies of contact and, what I feel is very important, the prevalence of altruism amongst species. Should SETI discover a signal first, then it would be remiss of us not to consider replying in kind – otherwise why are we doing SETI? In such a situation we would at least have some information about the transmitting society, and we could take our time in debating and formulating a reply.

Contact with ET will be unlike any first contact that has come before in human history. We should expect the unexpected, and not rush in with our eyes closed.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ronald March 6, 2011, 11:22

    Eniac: maybe I should have added which options I consider the most likely myself, as an explanation for the Fermi Paradox, in fact I have two which I consider almost equally likely:

    1) We are presently the only (and probably even the first) advanced intelligence (= technological civilization) in the MW galaxy.

    2) Other intelligences exist, but no one has ever made it to the stars.

  • Eniac March 6, 2011, 20:27

    Eukaryotes are but one example of myriad forms of endosymbiosis. The mitochondrion has a cousin that is just as successful in the chloroplast. Multicellular life has evolved independently at least 13 times, last I read about it. I cannot see where the big hurdle is.

    That some of it took gigayears probably has as much to do with climate and geochemistry as with anything else. Prime factors here are the continuing strengthening of the sun, the fixation of atmospheric carbon, and the oxidation of the Earth’s surface with the subsequent advent of free oxygen.

    That there are many civilizations like ours, but none make it to the stars seems very unlikely (and frightening) to me, considering the rapid rise of technology and the fact that we already have pretty well thought out designs that could do the trick, thanks to people like us on this forum.

  • James Benford March 7, 2011, 9:35

    I’m keeping track of this discussion following our paper. A few comments:

    Ljk gave me the site for Paul Shuch’s good paper on the ‘Arecibo Myth’, for which I’m grateful. It’s on the SETI League’s website, and a SPIE conference publication, but not in the archival literature. Nor is any other calculation in the literature. I remember seeing it a long time ago and am pleased to see that it reaches my own conclusions: that Arecibo can’t realistically communicate with another Arecibo over long distances. Those who so claim do not state their assumption that the bandwidth will be extremely narrow (0.01 Hz), that both the receiver and the transmitter will stare exactly at the right very small part of the sky, tracking each other, that the receiver will track for hours in order to integrate a very weak signal and that no information will be sent. This last point is that because the bandwidth is small, the bit rate is glacial, far less than the slowest modem, maybe a bit per hour in the best case.

    That the Arecibo Myth is propagated in such a deceptive manner (not stating their optimistic assumptions, that they aren’t talking about communication, but merely detection) is bad science, deliberately misleading. Seth Shostak said it in the Royal Society debate, for example. I asked Frank Drake about it recently and he said it’s not a serious statement.

    Ljk also asks: ‘James Benford, who & what do you need to document all METI efforts?’ In the paper, I propose that all who transmit should document the message so we can know what’s being sent and evaluate whether it can be detected, either as just a pulse of energy with no data or actual communication of data, at nearby stars with any assumed receiver technology.

    Specifically, we suggest that all those radiating provide clear documentation of

    * All such radiations, past and future, should be described completely enough to ascertain their delectability as a function of assumed ETI technologies.

    * That such descriptions should be required to meet peer-reviewed publication standards, which past radiation events have not.

    * This information should include both transmitter parameters (power, frequency, aperture, bandwidth, frequency stability) and ‘message’ parameters (bit rate, keying method, error correction coding, number of message repeats, etc.).

    * If they wish, radiators could also provide what they assume might be receiver parameters such as antenna area and receiving system temperature, allowing detection.

    * There should be an on-line database containing such descriptions in a standard uniform format.

    * A top-level summary of the radio and laser signature of Earth should be part of that database.

    To date, nobody has responded to this. Zaitsev, who here says his transmissions have no risk, should be willing to provide these specifics, but has not.

    Keith Cooper: You ask about why some SETI myths are promulgated without peer-reviewed, quantitative arguments. They’re convenient to use; some SETI people are more interested in PR than science. In general, I feel that SETI should present itself more scientifically. In Popper’s dictum, a subject is considered scientific only if it deals with falsifiable statements. SETI has in fact falsified several hypotheses, the Galactic Club hypothesis for example, but the posture of the researchers isn’t to show that progress. Instead, the emphasis is on inspiration and ‘outreach’; they find the myths useful.

    Ronald says ‘any advanced civilization in our MW galaxy already knows that we are here’. That life exists here can be detected remotely in atmospheric gases, as you say, but not civilization. The lowest attenuation occurs in the microwave, so we’re more observable there. But as I have shown, our emissions to date are undetectable even at nearby stars.

    Bounty says we don’t need to discuss whether we should transmit: ‘I guess if we were talking about building a new very powerful transmitter we’d have a discussion.’ METI discussions should be held before that. A very wealthy person can now fund a long range Beacon with our present technology. Let’s talk it over before someone does.

  • Ronald March 7, 2011, 12:40

    Eniac: I fully agree with what you say about endosymbiosis and multicellularity arising several times independently and apparently being not too difficult nor uncommon.

    Since abiogenesis itself also does not seem to be the major hurdle, and you do away with my argument nr. 2 of not being able to make it to the stars (2) Other intelligences exist, but no one has ever made it to the stars), that would leave, as far as I am concerned, only my argument nr. 1 as an explanation for Fermi’s Paradox:

    1) We are presently the only (and probably even the first) advanced intelligence (= technological civilization) in the MW galaxy.

    James Benford: I stand corrected, I should rephrase that as: “any advanced civilization in our MW galaxy already knows that *life is* here”.

  • Ronald March 7, 2011, 12:57

    Talking about Fermi, this news just came in, I do not know yet how reliable, but if true then very spectacular:

    A NASA scientist, Richard Hoover claims to have found “evidence of extraterrestrial life” in meteorites.




    Paul, something to follow up on?

  • Paul Gilster March 7, 2011, 13:54

    Yes, saw the story, Ronald, though I haven’t had the chance to go through the paper carefully yet, but from what I’ve seen, I’m extremely skeptical. More on the reasons why soon.

  • Eniac March 7, 2011, 23:48


    Since abiogenesis itself also does not seem to be the major hurdle

    I disagree. Where do you see evidence for that? I think abiogenesis is a major hurdle, quite possibly the single most important keystone in the entire chain of events leading to our existence. What goes before can be explained by the relatively simple laws of physics. What comes after by the principles of evolution. But the thing itself? There is a huge gap between self-organization and self-replication that we know nothing about and can only speculate. There is some evidence for its rarity, though: The Fermi paradox. True, there are many alternative explanations, but abiogenesis is the weakest link, the suspect with the least convincing alibi.

    Of course all that changes if convincing evidence for extraterrestrial life turns up. At this point, though, it hasn’t. As long as it doesn’t, despite great efforts, the case against abiogenesis keeps getting stronger and stronger.

  • ljk March 17, 2011, 14:48

    I just discovered this story titled “Junkyard” by SF author Clifford Simak, which was made into a radio play on the X-Minus One series in 1956. It posits an interesting “encounter” by humans and ETI which grabbed my attention as plausible, even if the methods may be different in reality.

    You can read the transcript of here:


  • ljk July 27, 2012, 13:36

    Scientific American (blog)

    Better (extraterrestrial) communication through chemistry: Isotopes and mirror-image molecules

    By Ashutosh Jogalekar | July 25, 2012 |

    The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has traditionally hinged on detecting electromagnetic waves, most commonly radio waves but also infrared and x-ray radiation as well as optical pulses at specific frequencies. But in the absence of knowledge …

    Full article here: