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SETI, METI… and Assessing Risk like Adults

David Brin is a familiar name to science fiction readers worldwide, the award-winning author of the highly regarded ‘uplift’ novels that include Startide Rising (1983), The Uplift War (1987) and Brightness Reef (1995). Among his numerous other titles are The Postman (1985), Kiln People (2002) and Existence (2012). But Brin is also known as a futurist whose scientific work ranges over topics in astronautics and astronomy to forms of dispute resolution and the role of neoteny in human evolution. His Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Space Institute and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Brin has served on advisory committees dealing with subjects as diverse as national defense, space exploration, SETI and nanotechnology, future/prediction and philanthropy. His essay The Great Silence (available here) is but one of his many investigations into SETI and METI that weigh the consequences of contact with other civilizations, a subject that occupies him in the post below.

by David Brin


In a previous Centauri Dreams posting (SETI, METI and Existential Risk), J.N. Nielsen made an earnest effort to appraise both sides of the current debate over “messaging” to the cosmos, or METI. He started with an apt comparison to the way that passive-listening sonar differs from the brashly-seeking active kind — the “pinging-and-echoes” we’ve all heard in submarine movies.

Alas, he then poses the current dispute over METI in oversimplifying terms: “Is the universe such a dangerous place that it behooves us to maintain radio silence?”

This posits a glaring misapprehension — that the dissidents who mistrust METI are acting out fear of the unknown, dreading possible consequences of shouting for attention into the sky. In fact, however, Dr. Jim Benford, the late Dr. John Billingham, former senior US diplomat Michael Michaud and I have all resigned from SETI-related international commissions — and taken the matter public — in protest over behavior that has taken on an increasingly cult-like quality.

This troubling trend became apparent a couple of years ago, the one and only time that a substantial and open discussion of the matter took place in a neutral and respected venue, before a special gathering organized by the Royal Society. The proceedings of that gathering will soon be published by the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, and I urge all interested readers to keep their eyes open for that event, when the whole matter will be laid out before you all, in far greater detail than I can do here.

(For those who are impatient to learn more (a trait I find most-becoming!) here is a link to articles and speculations by David Brin about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Keeping my response to Mr. Nielsen succinct in this place, let me say that he gets the “dissidents’ motives entirely wrong. We freely admit that the odds of any one bad-outcome scenario from METI broadcasts or beams might be small. We are, however, capable of admitting one thing that METI zealots obstinately refuse to avow — that we don’t know what those odds are, not even within many orders of magnitude. In the new and important realm of Risk Analysis, that kind of uncertainty ought to prompt adults to at least talk about ways to reduce the uncertainty.

But talk and discussion and appraisal of risk are exactly what the zealots — aided and abetted by certain folks at the SETI Institute — bend all their efforts to avoid. The Royal Society meeting was a fluke and efforts to expand the discussion are met with stony silence or open disdain.

To make things perfectly clear, what we METI dissidents have asked — and ALL that we have asked — is for a series of open, eclectic, vigorous and thorough discussions to be held, probing this matter of risk from all sides, before individuals and small groups jump the gun, peremptorily blaring yoohoo ‘messages,’ arrogating the right to speak to aliens on behalf of all humanity. So far, these stunts are being pulled by a small subset of radio astronomers and fans — or commercial owners of tracking dishes that had been built by taxpayer funds — who deliberately avoid collegiality with other sciences, fleeing input from experts in pertinent fields like history, biology, anthropology, planetary science or, indeed, any other discipline that might shed light onto a vast range of conceivable outcomes from First Contact.

Some of which (by the way) do not depend upon any ability to travel physically between the stars.

At risk of tedious repetition, because it has proved relentlessly necessary — all that we dissidents have asked for has been the kind of earnest and eclectic pre-discussion that worked so well, decades ago, when the genetic biology community engaged in the extremely successful and positive sum “Asilomar Process” to explore their then-nascent field and thereupon decide on procedures to get both safety and rapid discovery.

That has been our request and position. Anyone who claims that we have sought anything else — out of “fear of slathering Cardassian invaders,” snarked one deceiver — is a damned liar.

(By the way, just envision those open and public symposia I talked about, drawing on all realms of pertinent human excellence, revolving around every topic that might shed light upon either aliens or ourselves. Wouldn’t such symposia make for terrific television? Might they not capture the imagination of — and edify — millions or even billions? Why would anyone oppose such exposure to the full range of ideas and analyses or our place (and possible others’) in the universe? The pro-METI opposition to this speaks a lot about their honesty and fealty to science.)

Getting down to specifics

Having explained that key point, let me go on to say that Mr. Nielsen shows a calm logic that would be welcome in any discussion. Alas, he also displays the blithe assurance we see all-too often in this field — and that was rife among the commenters underneath his posting — that one does not have to read-up any of the background material, in order to be an instant expert. Just arm-wave a pat few sentences of “logic” and you’ve solved the most perplexing puzzle in the cosmos!

Nielsen’s dismissal of the Benford paper on interstellar communications economics – for example – is toe-shallow. Indeed, does Nielsen contend that advanced ETCs — no matter how rich they are — would not still very likely prefer one means of making contact that is six to ten orders of magnitude cheaper than another?

A factor of a million or a billion may affect your choice of method, even if you are a super-Kardashev society of near-gods.

Thus, the Benfords clearly proved that “pinging” potential new civilization sites – at intervals – would be far more efficient and likely than gaudy, omni-directional beacons. Indeed, that strategy is consistent with the famous “Wow” signal… and with the fact that no gaudy, omni-blaring tutorial beacons have ever been found. The one null-result of SETI that is already definite, sufficient and proved.

Nielsen is at his best – though still very superficial – in discussing possible ways and reasons for intentional silence. Certainly I have listed in my Great Silence catalogue many variations on that theme, ranging from cowering dread all the way to beneficently allowing Earth culture to grow without cultural interference. Indeed, some of these are drawn out dramatically in my novel Existence. Still, I have trouble when Nielsen says the following:

“…just as these peer civilizations would likely incorporate our curiosity about the universe, they would also likely incorporate our willingness to take risks.”

This is yet another blithe assumption, a dilettante arm-waving that begs, rather than asks key questions. Nielsen posits that the descendants of the alien equivalents of bears or lions or geese or herbivores would share a similar psychology with we humans, who happen to come from exogamously-exploring, gregariously-interdependent yet individualistic apes, a combination that is – in truth – rather rare in nature. Oh, sure, there may indeed be others like us! But then his broad generalization is broken.

Add to that the social effects we’ve seen, in which 99% of human societies strove hard to repress curiosity and inventiveness, and you have reason to suggest that Mr. Nielsen talk things out and expose his assumptions to critical scrutiny. Preferably before publication.

Like the following:

“If our civilization determines that METI is too great an existential risk to bear, then existential risk perception begets risk aversion and possibly culminates in permanent stagnation.”

Um… where on Earth did THAT come from? Yes, I just said that most human societies squelched curiosity. But that was a personality trait arising organically from feudalism, not an outgrowth of any single act of risk analysis.

The crux

Our exceptional enlightenment civilization is outgoing and daring — traits that other human societies would have deemed foolish but that we consider noble. That spirit is under siege right now, as forces try to re-assert feudalism. But one thing is for sure. A little pre-discussion about the highly outward-looking topic of extraterrestrial civilization is not going to be the thing to bring down a curtain of stagnation! Our outwardness will not change if we act with a little prudence and pause to analyze METI risk factors, like adults. The way the biologists did, at Asilomar. Mr. Nielsen is presenting us with a strawman, and a deeply pernicious one, at that.

Indeed, no one on this planet has pursued Otherness and exploration of the topic of the alien more relentlessly than I have, in both fiction and in science. I do not view the cosmos with trepidation. I am proud to be a member of the only civilization on Earth (and perhaps anywhere) that ever stared at the stars with eagerness, salivating with intense hunger.

But overlaid upon both curiosity and romance is something else called maturity. I have children. Care for their posterity is a duty I intend to fulfill. If that means spending a decade listening and learning and discussing, instead of yammering like idiots into a cosmos that is unexpectedly and perhaps dauntingly quiet? Well then call me the adult in the room.

To impatient adolescents that is a crime. Well then…. mea culpa.

On the other hand, maybe folks could stop yelling “gotcha!” in a topic that is actually rather complex. Indeed, those complexities are the spice, the juice, the excitement in this field. If your contribution is a quick, snarky “of course” about… aliens? Well… take my word for it. You have no idea what you are talking about.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ron S November 12, 2013, 11:09

    Pressing the virtual “Like” button…

  • Alex Tolley November 12, 2013, 12:51

    Good essay. However Dr. Brin then assumes (I think) that a group decision on METI will be adhered to. How can this be done? What actually stops a person/private group/nation from ignoring the agreement? It has been suggested that we could police this by masking these signals, but is this really possible?

    The parallel with the Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA experiments is instructive. While experiments were only within the purview of scientists with good funding, the explosion of molecular biology techniques and rapidly reduced costs has led to the “bio-hacking” movement today. How many of these local groups or even individuals adhere to, or even know of, the principles and safety protocols?

    In the US, I suspect any attempt to prevent METI would be met by legal action invoking the 1st Amendment. A religious group/cult wishing to communicate with God might invoke the separation of church and state and the right of freedom of religion to stay the hand of authorities.

    So while I agree with Dr. Brin’s argument, I don’t see how any agreement reached to hold off on METI until we can assess the risks could be enforced. It is perhaps ironic that Dr. Brin has espoused the transparent society based pretty much on the difficulty of control over surveillance, yet is advocating a community approach in the face of similar arguments with ever cheaper METI technology.

  • CharlesJQuarra November 12, 2013, 12:56

    Hi David, I’m not convinced anymore there is such thing as ‘Great Silence’, or at least we don’t have conclusive evidence of it yet. If you have a chance to see prof. Messerschmitt discussion at SC2013, or have the time to read his article about optimal encodings for interstellar communication http://arxiv.org/abs/1305.4684 it becomes increasingly evident that the way we’ve been doing radio listening is wrong and inefficient. So radio signals might have been there the whole time but have simply gone unnoticed

  • CharlesJQuarra November 12, 2013, 13:43

    And just for completeness, If we are going to be cautious about METI because of the associated existential risks, we need to be prepared as well when we start doing prospective mining operations of asteroids (which as you know, is less than two decades away). Any Von Neumann probes that linger on the asteroid belt might feel indifferent to us right now, but might suddenly feel threatened if they see a potential competitor for their same resources. So consuming asteroid resources might be a potential trigger for them to switch strategy between stealthiness and agresiveness

  • Markham November 12, 2013, 14:45

    In interactive decision theory (game theory) extra knowledge about your opponent translates into more effective strategies and more winning rounds to the one with the edge. It seems those unilaterally engaging in METI want to trade that knowledge edge for the immediate satisfaction of being the one “doing” something active… versus patiently waiting for that extra edge in information.

    The adult approach when hearing strange noises out in the field at night is not to charge blindly out to see, but to investigate with caution. That would seem to map out to decades perhaps of investigation with powerful telescopes at the Suns gravitation focal point, cautious consideration of our electromagnetic signatures, and even discussions on active cancellation of said signatures. A slow methodical approach such as that doesn’t sit well with impatience and short lifetimes…

  • Wojciech J November 12, 2013, 15:01

    I like the proportions of this dispute which blissfully ignores rather simple fact that any civilization capable of reaching Earth already would be aware of existence of both life and civilization since millions of years(in case of life) and at least 1500-2000 years(in case of civilization).

  • Michael November 12, 2013, 15:02

    In the wilderness of space would it not be wiser to listen out to judge what can be reasoned with than to shout out loud and draw the unreasonable?

  • andy November 12, 2013, 16:57

    Interesting series here. Any chance of including someone who is not both white and male to give their opinion?

  • Christopher Phoenix November 12, 2013, 17:47

    Excellent post, David Brin… I agree that discussions on SETI/METI involving the input of researchers from all pertinent fields are a good idea.

    Alas, he also displays the blithe assurance we see all-too often in this field — and that was rife among the commenters underneath his posting — that one does not have to read-up any of the background material, in order to be an instant expert. Just arm-wave a pat few sentences of “logic” and you’ve solved the most perplexing puzzle in the cosmos!

    …If your contribution is a quick, snarky “of course” about… aliens? Well… take my word for it. You have no idea what you are talking about.

    Yeah, a lot of commentators on the ‘net seem to think one can opine (with absolute certainty) on interstellar propulsion or crew composition for multigenerational flights or what exactly aliens are doing without bothering to build up a background in the relevant fields (physics, astrophysics, planetary science, biology, etc.).

    What we can hope is that if some people really care about the possibility of alien life in the cosmos or space travel, it can inspire a them to study the relevant background material obsessively… starting with their basic math, science, and history in school! :-)

    And, no matter how knowledgable and insightful a person might be, they cannot tell us all about aliens simply because we have not found any yet.

  • Craig Watkins November 12, 2013, 18:23

    If humans developed interstellar travel and found an alien civilization on the verge of developing similar technology, I would think that alien civilization would be facing an existential threat to their existence from humans. We saw how aboriginal peoples around the world were treated by the European explorers/conquerors and I’m not confident that aspect of humanity has been eliminated by the passage of time. This isn’t “fear of the dark”, we are simply projecting human nature onto the aliens, and given that we are the only known life form capable of space travel, I don’t think that is a bad assumption from a risk management perspective.

  • Tarmen November 12, 2013, 18:44

    Funny thing happening now in my kitchen. I live in a rural place with a lot of wild space around. I am the only human and I look after 2 housecats in exchange for their keeping the critters to a minimum. So, I am sure many mice are getting cold in the field out there tonight, but one decided to bravely explore into my warm dry basement last night. The Two have been aware of him for 24 hrs, and were only waiting for me – the Galactic Authority here, to give them the go-ahead. (Open the door.) Now the brave little thing is a captive on my kitchen floor. (actually still breathing despite frightful odds….)

  • David Brin November 12, 2013, 18:46

    Alex Tolley: We are very well aware that any moratorium would be hard to enforce over the very long run… that is in a free society. A tyranny could do it. Or else, using some clever technigues to jam and cancel signals a very agile civilization can damp out some kinds of shouts.

    Still that misses the point. We are learning about the cosmos so quickly (from zero to a thousand extrasolar planets in a decade) that even a mild moratorium – using just moral suasion from an eclectic symposium — could cause governments around the world to re-establish control over the big radio telescopes they built with taxpayer money and delay by ten years these ridiculous adverts and ego-howls. And one decade from now we will know a lot more about the universe.

    Sure, by then some backyard amateurs may gain shouting capability. But you underestimate the power and coherence that is needed to make a truly detectable beam. This is not a freedom of speech issue in the short term.

    Mr. Quarra, it turns out Dr. David Messerschitt is a member of our dissidents group. You are mistaken about the implications of his work.

    Wojciech, thank you for perfectly illustrating what happens in this field… onlookers who know absolutely nothing about it proclaiming “of course” and then spinning one or two sentences that blithely dismiss any need for knowledge, study or understanding the complexity of the issue.

    Andy, likewise… have you ever heard of Jill Tarter? The whole movie CONTACT was modeled on her. A terrific lynchpin of the entire field, Why don’t you get off the drug high of self-righteous indignation? It is lobotomizing. One of many nasty human traits that could be repelling contact.

    Chris Phoenix. Wisdom, as usual.

    Again, folks who are actually curious can learn more at:

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin
    blog: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/
    twitter: https://twitter.com/DavidBrin

  • Andrew Palfreyman November 12, 2013, 19:15

    It’s nice to read sci-fi or to watch it on TV or the movies; however, the chances that other races are anything like that which is chiefly portrayed – admittedly for convenience sake – is tiny. And off we go again talking about “peers”. I call it anthropocentrism gone nuts.

    Have you estimated the possibility of anything remotely resembling a peer race of ours existing in this galaxy at this moment? Given the timescales involved in the evolution of the xenome – billions of years – it is highly unlikely that a level of technological sophistication similar to our own today exists out there. The very closest others will most likely be millions of years behind or millions of years ahead of us.

    Talk of “peers” amounts to quasi-religious wish-fulfillment. It ain’t happening.

  • Anthony Mugan November 12, 2013, 19:48

    There are relatively few hard data points to inform this debate. One that certainly is available however is the weak anthropic principle. Life on this planet has been left alone for getting on for four billion years, so far as we can tell. We certainly have not been farmed, colonised or demolished for a hyperspace bypass etc. So far as we can tell we haven’t even had a whisper of communication from any ETC.

    That has certain implications in limiting the range of possibilities that can be considered credible.

    Viewing METI as a risk, even an unquantifiable one, depends on the assumption that a signal from us might precipitate a response that would be damaging. Leaving aside the very important sociological implications of contact and to purely consider more physical risks (direct threat)…

    a) Threat = capability + intent.
    A threat can only exist if the ETC(s) concerned have both the capability and the intent to cause some sort of problem.

    b) There is no evidence to support the idea that any such threat has existed at any time in the past 4 billion years.

    For a threat to appear just as we engage in METI is an exceptionally unlikely scenario. It implies that the emergence of ETCs is a very unlikely event AND, at the same time, for two ETCs to emerge relatively close together in space and time. This is not a totally impossible scenario, but clearly very unlikely.

    Conversely, if the emergence of ETCs is at a rate >1 per galaxy per billion years and there is a moderate chance of any such civilisation surviving to the point of having interstellar travel capabilities, then it becomes rather rapidly more likely that we are in some form of ‘zoo hypothesis’ solution. In this scenario the capability is there but the intent clearly has not been there. Again – no risk (or extremely low risk, as policies could change,).

    The absence of any sort of formal contact or overt interference with earth is a pretty big hint that a strategy such as METI is a complete waste of time. Directly observing exoplanets and ideally, in due course, going and having a look may well be the most effective strategy. The latter is certainly the approach most likely to produce a reaction and is therefore potentially a much greater risk than METI. In that scenario any ETC present will be aware of our capability (unless we are very stealthy indeed) and our intent may become all too evident if contact is made and our historical track record as a species becomes known

  • Kamal Ali November 12, 2013, 20:56

    Given that in a few decades (at most) we will be able to image Earth-sized
    planets in habitable zones of stars at least up to 100LY, to take their spectra and even to resolve continents, I cannot imagine that civs that are thousands or millions of years ahead would not be aware that Earth has a biosphere [in fact I imagine they have quite a nice catalog of all such planets in the galaxy if they care to].

    Traveling at 0.1c, they could travel here (and to every other biosphere of interest) from the center of our galaxy in only 200K years so I think its quite likely that if
    1: they exist,
    2: are long-lived and
    3: that they care,
    that they know that not only does Earth have a biosphere but a technical civilization. So I do not think METI would be news to them (although it may be news to the temporally narrow (few hundred years) slice of civs that can receive radio signals but don’t yet have a comprehensive catalog).

    Our biosphere which reflects our star’s light is itself a beacon, it’s on 24 hours and has been on for billions of years: it’s already a huge signal with time-integrated power far greater than METI efforts to date. I think it would be rare that any civ would be detected by its sporadic narrowcast, temporally narrow METI rather than by its perma-beacon biosphere and leakage signals.

    As to the risk of the conveyance of that information: one could say “well, some particular species may not be belligerent, but the next one to find out may be”: consider this: in the 4.10^9 years of history on this planet, we have no history of comprehensive widespread invasion or exploitation from any alien species
    (we don’t have evidence, if it happened it wasn’t widespread or it’s in front of us and we do not recognize it but its not harmful). And they’ve known about our biosphere and technosphere for timespans proportional to their civ’s lifetime. Either they don’t have the ability or they don’t have the desire or they’re here already (von Neumann probes etc) but not harming us.

    METI may give them some information that they don’t already have, but it’s not going to be bearing the news of our existence: advanced civs will probably already know that.

    My arguments are statistical: there could always be exceptions: there may be a near-peer civ (few hundred years ahead) that’s destroyed their biosphere, that cannot fix it or won’t fix it, that would prefer to travel here and appropriate our resources but overall it seems civs that are 10^5 or 10^6 years ahead would have so many resources that we could not offer them anything unique).

    Since civs are likely spread out uniformly (?) over time, we would only incur risk from one that is relatively developmentally near to us (not 10^5 or 10^6 years ahead) and if it is physically near (10^3 LY away
    because then the travel time would be on the order of 10^4 years:
    on the same order of time as the entire existence of their civilization.

    But overall, I base my safety mainly on the basis that any civ capable of traveling here would have known of Earth’s bio capabilities far before the advent of our technology and that in the sample time of 4.10^9 years the well being of that biosphere has not been compromised.

    So, my opinion is that METI does not constitute an existential risk.

  • Heath Rezabek November 12, 2013, 21:19

    David – I have tremendous respect for what you do, and for the work the Benfords have put in on this subject as well as others nearby in the topical landscape. Gregory’s ‘Library of Life’ proposal was absolutely pivotal in shaping my own work, rickety as it is. So it’s with some trepidation that I have to take you to task for one aspect of your criticism of my colleague Nick. Throughout, there’s an insinuation that he hasn’t the background or seriousness of purpose needed to tackle these issues.

    I have to disagee on two fairly different levels. On the one, though I’m not as steeped as you in the topics of the original post, I’ve never seen Nick face a subject with the lack of focus suggested by a term like dilettante; the limitations of this medium (which you yourself call out) make an attack like that all but ad hominem.

    On the other, if that criticism is genuine, then the suggestion is that the enthusiast has no business trying to tackle these issues because they’ll never comprehend them short of becoming a specialist. Without the benefit of a sheltering context (such as academia) or livelihood (such as speculative fiction), it’s either miraculous or foolhardy that the enthusiast show up to the table at all. I certainly wouldn’t have done so without an inner drive towards mitigation of existential risk through archival. Nick has written far more than I have, ranging more widely, and I think he has far tougher skin. But reading your post today as if it had been written to me, I couldn’t help coming away with the feeling that I’d be hard pressed to put my work out there again if I’d faced this kind of dismissal.

    Maybe that’s as it should be, and those without the sustained support needed to tackle these topics are best off ignoring them. That’s a shame and a loss to society if so, though. The rarity of laypeople willing to discuss and understand these topics is one of the reasons for the shortsightedness we face.

    Nick’s comment about permanent stagnation lying on the opposite side of the drunkard’s walk is a reference to the terminology of existential risk, in which Nick Bostrom (different Nick) posits it as a potential pitfall should evolutionary hurdles not be overcome before our initiative, bravery, and means to overcome them are squandered. I imagine you know this, but my reading of your critique suggests that you thought of it as careless speech.

    I’m never likely to speak with Nick Bostrom, surrounded as he is in a sheltering context for his own work. But as a free thinker, I have to feel free to do my best with his terminology as well as with that of any other subject which brings me closer to understanding, or I may as well go take a leap. If I can’t delve as deeply because I have to spend my days in labor unrelated to my deepest concerns, then my best hope is that those with a broader base to work from will speak to me encouragingly, and not disdanfully, when they speak to me at all.

    As above, I’m not Nick. But I felt your tone unduly dismissive, and it’d have been cowardly not to try and say why.

    – Heath

  • Eric Kansa November 12, 2013, 21:39

    Interesting few posts from a perspective of an anthropologist / archaeologist.

    @Anthony Mugan on past alien interference on Earth – We understand prehistory in only broad brush strokes. The kind of interstellar “spam” / “chain-letters” (in the form of physical artifacts) in Brin’s latest novel Existence are possibly lying around us undetected.

    It would be interesting to figure out a way to calculate likely maximum rates of interstellar “spam” of the type Brin envisioned based on our non-detection of such spam. My guess would be that we could be bombarded with alien chain letters raining from the sky every year and not know it, since if they were physical objects, most would sink to the bottom of the seas.

    At any rate, if human history is any guide, there are risks to doing SETI, METI, and doing nothing. Survival seems like it’s largely a matter of luck.

  • Thomas W. Hair November 12, 2013, 22:15

    The tone of the article left me cold. Dr. Brin does not mince words, but seems to have a disdain for those who have a different view. METI happens every second of every day as our phased array tracking radars scan the skies for ICBMs, asteroids, and space junk in orbit. Beyond that, if we lowly humans of the early 21st century can detect planets orbiting stars thousands of light years from Earth, then I am quite confident that a race a million years more advanced can image, to a high degree, every planet orbiting every star to that same distance within their respective field of view. If they exist within a few thousand light years and we are not blocked by interstellar dust, then they know we are here…remember we are on Centauri-Dreams…traveling to the nearest stars is probably orders of magnitude harder than imaging exoplanets thousands of light years away. I ask, why care about the significance of METI? It seems very moot to me.

  • Gerry November 12, 2013, 23:06

    I don’t remember where I first encountered the idea, but it is intriguing to consider that our universe is still in an extremely early phase of its life-span. Though some argue that there should have been ample time for civilizations to arise over the past few billion years, it could be that those arguments underestimate the rarity of high-tech civilizations across time and space.

    Given this extreme rarity, it might be a few more tens or hundreds of billions of years yet before any significant number of civilizations will have had the chance to arise. They would represent the one-in-million that have been able to defy the odds and survive long enough to explore this and other galaxies, and perhaps meet up with each other. Maybe we’re just early to the interstellar civilization party. If that’s the case, are we in a position to get out there first? One problem is that this is kind of an anthropic notion which would seem to place humanity in a very unusual and privileged non-Copernican position…

    If one civilization gets out into the galaxy well ahead of any others and goes ahead to colonize/terraform all the “good” planets, might that tend to preclude the evolution of whatever native intelligence might otherwise have arisen on those worlds…interesting ethical questions there. Would the first civilization be the only one…at least until they themselves went extinct or otherwise vacated their niche as galactic colonizers.

    And yes, all this is based on all kinds of assumptions which may or may not be projections from the limits of human experience, culture and psychology. It’s a fascinating subject, however, and I’m glad that venues like this blog exist as platforms to share these ideas with a wider audience.

  • CharlesJQuarra November 13, 2013, 0:51

    “it turns out Dr. David Messerschitt is a member of our dissidents group. You are mistaken about the implications of his work.”

    Allegiance to a think tank is fine, Dr. Brin. Count me in too if you like. But I’m a bit befuddled by your assumption that I am the one making those implications. These are Dr. Messerschmitt conclusions, not mine. I’m just a messenger here. Look at page 34, section 1.3 of the paper I linked above.

    copy paste Quote:
    “Implications for SETI observation programs

    The end-to-end approach taken in this report yields relevant insights into the design of both transmitter and receiver for interstellar communication. Near term the most profound implica- tions apply to receiver design, which applies directly to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Generally these searches have been targeted at beacons rather than information-bearing signals, and thus concentrated on narrowband signals. In addition, most such searches at radio frequencies have assumed a continuously received signal, exploiting that assumption to reject false alarms through a presumption of signal persistence and adding an expectation of extrater- restrial signatures such as Doppler-drift in frequency due to relative acceleration. Implicit in these presumptions is a required average power for the beacon that is some orders of magnitude larger than necessary, should the transmitter designer seek to reduce its energy consumption and capital costs through a reduction in the duty factor of the signal. There may of course be advanced civi- lizations to whom energy consumption and conveying information are of little concern, and past and current SETI searches have been seeking signals from such civilizations.”

  • andy November 13, 2013, 2:48

    @David Brin: Yes, I’ve heard of her. Has she written any of the articles in this recent series here on Centauri Dreams? No.

    I’m not saying the people who have been involved so far have not raised interesting and valuable points, it’s just that I think it is important to have as many voices and perspectives as possible at the table. Unfortunately in this recent set of Centauri Dreams articles it is following the same patterns of the various interstellar conferences with minimal diversity in the speakers list.

    I am not trying to argue that the bias is deliberately maintained or some kind of conspiracy to keep certain voices out of the debate, rather that given the state of things it has become something that tends to happen unless people actively try to work against it, but is it something we should be content with? If merely acknowledging that there is a problem is dismissed as “self-righteous indignation” then I don’t see much hope for improving the status quo.

  • coacervate November 13, 2013, 4:38

    This is the third time I’ve written this…first time that I clic’d submit. s0meone who i met has a 7 meter dish ca. 40 south jerry rigged with a magnetron from a standard microwave oven. I know for a fact that they are not alone…here on Earth sending. Others have taught the basics. Simple to do but not without risk. Legal? well outside of permitted PEP. Safe? Hmmm…however, they have aircraft monitors to avoid illuminating them.

    it is aimed at a portion of the sky through which alpha centauri passes every day. At random intervals, 12 times a day the computer sends a series of dashes representing primes from 1 through 23 followed by “See me, feel me” by the Who. The rest of the time is spent in listening mode.

    It is my hope that hams will contact hams.

    I don’t submit this to upset anyone, though I know it will. We should think in terms of reality. For example, global CO2 is going to rise unchecked. We are like yeast in must. we must consume, we think we are in control but we are not. Similarly we can not stop technology on any level such as METI. It is really beyond our control. So will a 7 meter dish find a ham on AC? Probably not. Will a rogue transmitter connect with ET over the coming centuries? I hope so. Risk is high enough on this most unbright cinder, lost amidst the hot mazes, lets open some doors, risk be damned.

    Listening to you I get the music.

  • Doug M. November 13, 2013, 5:40

    “… have you ever heard of Jill Tarter? ”

    Yes. She’s been the sole and only female speaker at a bunch of interstellar-themed conferences, most recently at the Benford’s Starship Century last autumn. That’s the one that where the speaker list was 94% male, 100% white, and had a median age of 66.

    It’s not self-righteous to notice that this field is dominated by white dudes; it’s plain fact. The major interstellar organizations are all overwhelmingly white and male in their membership and in their boards — even more so than the relevant STEM fields that they’re drawing from. To give a single example, American astronomers are, as a group, about 30% female and 18% nonwhite. The Board of Directors of Icarus Interstellar? 100% white dudes. The I4IS Board? Seven men, one woman, all white. The I4IS Advisory Council? 100% white dudes.

    Wheeling out Jill Tarter doesn’t really help matters. She’s a fine scientist who has done wonderful work,. But if her occasional presence at a conference is the best you can do to show the inclusive nature of the discourse, well, there’s a problem.

    I’m a supporter of the interstellar project. And that’s why I’m pointing this out: that project is signally failing to reach out to women, to minorities, and to young people. With the notable exception of the 100 Year Starship conference — which draws on US federal funds, and so makes a real effort to be inclusive and diverse — the organizations, the conferences, and the interstellar community in general all skew male, skew white, and skew middle-aged and older.

    To bring it back to the discussion at hand: there’s no righteous indignation in noticing that all of the people mentioned in this conversation — you, Nielsen, the Benford brothers, Heath Rezabek, Pat Correa, Harold “Sonny” White — are all coming from that same narrow demographic. In a discussion that’s all about “otherness”, surely that’s noteworthy.

    Doug M.

  • N. E. Davison November 13, 2013, 6:05

    I find it unimaginable that anyone could contemplate METI at this stage. We have absolutely no information about the rules of the game. We may be alone in the galaxy; we may be totally outclassed by ubiquitous nonbiological intelligences. We may be cute little critters to be observed benignly; we may be viewed as a pathology should we decide to emerge from our little solar system. We just don’t know.

    It is completely unreasonable to make any projections whatsoever about alien intentions, motives etc. The Great Silence may be there for a good reason, but we have absolutely no idea of why it is there. We can only make guesses on the basis of our little biology.

    I have some idea of the “flow of science” having been a Physics Professor (retired) for many years, and I see no evidence whatsoever that we are approaching a full knowledge of Physics let alone Alien Psychology. We need information. We need at very least to sample a lot of nearby stellar systems, certainly by remote observation, preferrably by “quietly” going there. That will take time. If we find nothing, and are not politely told to go home for a few more tens of millenia till we mature a bit, then we might possibly think about initiating METI. To do it now or any time in the near future (next few centuries) is to totally misunderstand our position in Galactic time.

    This is not excess caution. This is not science fiction. This is reality. This is a statement that we do not know the rules, and it would be pathologically negligent to play a high stakes game without knowing if we are allowed to withdraw once we begin to play.

  • David Cummings November 13, 2013, 6:50

    David, very well written essay and very persuasive. Your responses to some of the objections raised are also persuasive. Especially the point about taxpayer funded equipment and salaries. If the taxpayers are funding these facilities it’s only fair they have a say in the matter. That means opening the subject up for debate.

    I personally believe that METI is a waste of time and money (to the extent money is spent to build or re-purpose facilities). As a taxpayer I would vote (not that I have a vote in the matter, I fully realize that) to spend every dime possible on a) developing new telescope and other detection technology, and b) deploying new telescopes and other detection technologies both on the ground and in space. That’s where I want my money spent. Using taxpayer funds (or taxpayer funded equipment) to engage in “ego-howls”… I would vote against that if ever presented with the chance to cast such a vote.

    As for self-funded “ego-howls”, well, I do believe that the Great Silence really does mean something and that technological civs are few and far between. If YOU want to send a signal that’s going to take 1,000 years, or 10,000 years, to reach some discerning ear, go for it. But pay for it yourself.

  • Securis November 13, 2013, 8:09

    @Anthony Mugan:

    “a) Threat = capability + intent.”

    I do not think that is correct. Even an altruistic/benevolent ETC could harm us unintentionally. Also the risk of METI is not purely physical for example a “SETI Hacker” scenario.

    @Wojciech J:

    There is a difference between being detectable and intentionally increasing the visibility of Earth.

    @David Brin:

    I just read your article “Shouting at the Cosmos… or how SETI has Taken a Worrisome Turn into Dangerous Territory” which left me deeply concerned.
    Any update on that situation?

  • ljk November 13, 2013, 12:00

    To David Cummings – Correct me if I am wrong, but no one’s tax dollars are used for SETI since NASA stopped their SETI program abruptly in 1993, and even less so regarding any METI projects.

    Any money spent on these programs are done so voluntarily. Which explains why most of them are rather underfunded and struggling. So when I hear people say that too much is being spent on listening or looking or talking, I beg to differ. We have not spent nearly enough for such an important undertaking.

  • Brett Bellmore November 13, 2013, 13:32

    “. s0meone who i met has a 7 meter dish ca. 40 south jerry rigged with a magnetron from a standard microwave oven. ”

    Now, that’s hilarious. I bet if somebody had a decent sized, Arecibo scale dish around Alpha Centuri, that it would actually collect a photon occasionally. Not that there’d be any chance it could be distinguished from background.

    Effective METI is difficult. Takes a lot of power, and/or remarkably tight collimation. That’s one of the objections to it, IMO. It’s a huge expense for so little reason, at our current level of technology.

  • David Brin November 13, 2013, 13:56

    Kamal Ali, alas, you do exactly what I predicted and what we see in this field relentlessly – a blithe set of “if-therefore” statements that reach your own favorite blanket and sweeping conclusion about a field in which we are 99.99% ignorant. Does it truly make you proud to declare disdain for anyone who knows vastly more than you do about this field, but happens to see some complexities that you shrug off?

    As a matter of fact, you start with a cogent point. It is indeed pertinent that advanced ETCs can likely detect planets and spectroscopically determine the likely existence of biospheres, from 1000 light years away. They might have thousands or even millions of such sites catalogued.

    So? That fact does indeed, largely (not entirely) refute the simplest of all inimical scenarios – the Anti-Life Berserker” popularized by Saberhagen. But that scenario never seemed a plausible one, since there are no clear ways that a berserker-creating society could benefit.

    But you apparently conflate the detection of biospheres with the detection of technological sapience, which almost certainly erupts out of biospheres only rarely. Hence our existence as a tech civilization is not something our neighbors would have already catalogued. Indeed, leakage from our television broadcasts has been shown to be largely un-detectable beyond one light year, despite the clichéd assumption.

    Were you a person possessed of courtesy and curiosity, instead of one driven to snark “of course” contempt at any model but your own, I would at this point offer you links to sage ruminations about how an advanced ETC might periodically probe its catalogue of neighboring biospheres, on the off chance that one of them has developed TC. I would aim you toward the many thoughtful (or not) papers describing potentially beneficial (or not) processes of first contact and how a minority of them might go wrong.

  • Chris Winter November 13, 2013, 13:58

    Andy: “Interesting series here. Any chance of including someone who is not both white and male to give their opinion?”

    Lisa Randall could probably be induced to comment — if she’s not too busy.

    And of course Dr. Jill Tarter. I should have thought of her.

  • David Brin November 13, 2013, 14:20

    Heath, thank you for your courteous and conversational message. I regret any sense I might have given of slapping down Nick. Nevertheless, I truly believe (as do you) that he has a thick skin. Moreover, I feel my rejection of his facile oversimplifications were entirely justified. He engaged in the same, tedious habit we see all across this field of enquiry.

    Indeed, it seems endemic in any “scientific” field in which there is almost no known subject matter, and subjective-wishes have become the prime currency. I can count on my fingers the number of scholars who have weighed in on SETI in a contingent and tentative way, comparing possibilities instead of leaping to proclaim “aha! I know the answer!” In a subject that is almost entirely free of data.

    This becomes pernicious when it is accompanied by sneers of contempt for anyone who might disagree… and let’s be quite clear here. While Nick’s article contained passaged of cogency, it also contained others that were flat-out sneers.

    I made it very plain that I do not favor stagnation, and have indeed fought it all my life. I believe stagnation may be one of the top traps that prevent ETCs from achieving the stars, as evidenced by the 99% of human cultures in which feudal castes suppressed curiosity and competitive development. This means that I share Nick’s fear…

    … but I feel that his blithe-armwaved invocation of “stagnation” was almost spectacularly ill-considered. It was nothing more than a polemical trick in order to avoid discussions that might inspire and stimulate the entire world.

  • Steven Mosher November 13, 2013, 15:06

    “Indeed, no one on this planet has pursued Otherness and exploration of the topic of the alien more relentlessly than I have, in both fiction and in science. I do not view the cosmos with trepidation. I am proud to be a member of the only civilization on Earth (and perhaps anywhere) that ever stared at the stars with eagerness, salivating with intense hunger.

    But overlaid upon both curiosity and romance is something else called maturity. I have children. Care for their posterity is a duty I intend to fulfill. If that means spending a decade listening and learning and discussing, instead of yammering like idiots into a cosmos that is unexpectedly and perhaps dauntingly quiet? Well then call me the adult in the room.”

    the unintended irony is stunning. well done. Thanks Dad.

  • Paul W November 13, 2013, 15:29

    I much enjoy pretty much anything that Brin writes. Thanks for all!

    Building an omni beacon to shout, a la Stephen Hawking, “The Earthlings are HERE!” seems a bit much to me. Not that I am losing sleep that anyone remotely nearby is listening. “They” sure ain’t shouting.

    Let’s spend our money and time doing the looking ourselves. Lets get a TPF array up and look at the local neighborhood. Very patiently. The nearest sun-like stars.

    Go for it SETI, LISTEN carefully and find new ways to listen. But the big money needs to go to LOOKING, not shouting at the darkness.
    Now, if I can just get this fancy StarSense thingy to align my massive 8 inch reflector…

  • David Brin November 13, 2013, 15:33

    Eric Kansa, you inadvertently described one of the key plot elements of EXISTENCE, in which the nature of interstellar first contact takes a surprising twist.

    Thomas Hair said: “Dr. Brin does not mince words, but seems to have a disdain for those who have a different view.” A hilarious statement, since I am the one suggesting open discussion, collegial argument, and that people do NOT leap up and declare “of course I know the only possible answer!”

    How Ironic that Mr. Hair’s very next sentence does exactly that thing, happily declaring a commonly held, quasi-religious “fact” that Earth has leaked detectably… which almost all experts have refuted for twenty years. Which Mr. Hair would know, if he bothered reading a bit, before declaring “of course!”

    Gerry thank you! For restoring my faith. You came here with a rumination. A hypothesis to lay on the table… and not an “of course!” gotcha, quasi-religious declaration. Yes, your scenario is one of a hundred or so that are not disproved by any known facts. Very worth discussing.

    Charles, I understand David Messerschmitt’s results. They indicate that current SETI search methodologies have a systematic flaw. The chief thing needed is to supplement the Allen Array and other narrow search methods with an all-sky detection array as proposed by the SETI League, which suggests placing 5000 simpler radio telescopes in the backyards of amateurs around the planet, linked to a network and able to quickly detect pan spectrum transient events, alerting bigger telescopes at once. Indeed, the SETI Institute should be supporting this early warning network, and its failure to do so is most-telling.

    So? Dave M’s conclusions do not refute the Fermi Paradox, they only show that we have sampled a smaller segment of the “haystack” than we had thought. Especially if star travel is possible, the Fermi Paradox still stands, and Dave admits that. He opposes METI.

    Andy, sorry, but you inserted as completely irrelevant snark of political correctness that was utterly un-germane, except as sanctimony. I know a dozen women who are active in this field and probably none of them happened onto Centauri. So? Go alert some of the myriad bright women YOU know and invite them. Stop trying to push your obsession onto us.

    Oh, may I remind you all that I am pushing for open, eclectic discussions involving the widest possible community of interested disciplines, from history and anthropology to biology, astronomy… So shoving politically-correct sanctimony at me is not only stupid, it is hypocritical.

    Coacervate, I am quite confident that the stunt you describe is accomplishing absolutely nothing. By maybe six orders of magnitude. Yawn.

    Thanks David Cummings, Securis and ljk, for actually arguing about the actual point that is actually at hand.

  • Wojciech J November 13, 2013, 15:56

    Let me start with asking a question:
    How exactly are opponents of METI conceal our Earth’s atmosphere and city lights during the night visible to anyone interested? It’s a beacon that has been functioning since huge amount of time and quite visible. Are we going to sterilize whole Earth and move to live underground(just joking of course).
    Myself I am not a supporter or opponent of METI-I find it pointless as any civilization capable of either travel or detecting our existence would be able to do so using natural signals from Earth and artificial light visible during the night on the surface.

    Mr.Brin-I read and greatly value your work. But the tone you took in this discussion is sadly uncalled for and needlessly aggressive.

    Instead of addressing the issue you resort to exclusivism and elitism, avoiding any arguments and just trying to categorize others as simple “onlookers”, implying they have no right to discuss the issue. We are a small community and to be honest, with these discussions we are equal, even if some are more visible then others. In any case your comment goes against what yourself proposed many times in your books and statements and tries to exclude others from debate. I would much prefer you to address the issue I raised above(Earth being easily detectable by anyone interested), instead of trying to handwave the issue by saying that it was raised by an “onlooker”.

    Securis November 13, 2013 at 8:09
    @Wojciech J:
    “There is a difference between being detectable and intentionally increasing the visibility of Earth”

    And how would an alien civilization know the difference between intentions of light signs and radio waves produced by us? It makes no difference, both are easily observable and would be detected. Especially if we are talking about Kardashev type civilizations existing for millions of years.

  • CharlesJQuarra November 13, 2013, 17:51

    “Dave M’s conclusions do not refute the Fermi Paradox, they only show that we have sampled a smaller segment of the “haystack” than we had thought. Especially if star travel is possible, the Fermi Paradox still stands, and Dave admits that. He opposes METI.”

    I never said that it refuted the Fermi Paradox, I only said that it leaves the “Great Silence” in a weak standing, as it is. I feel the need to stress that because you and others are using that argument everywhere on the debate, so the certainty of it is extremely relevant. I totally understand the importance to be cautious and stealthy, at least until we get a solid footing beyond Earth’s orbit in multiple egg baskets.

    I want to go even further than simply hammering about METI, and have a wider, more inmediate perspective upon the existential risks. METI, after all, wouldn’t compromise our safety inmediately, but after a number of years after the message has reached interstellar destinations, and potential aggressors have decided to ‘act upon it’. On the other hand, Berserker type of probes are a much more inmediate potential risk, because doing ‘the wrong thing’ might trigger an unwanted response much, much sooner, leaving us much less time to prepare. So even as I agree with your cautiousness message, I beg to strongly differ with your emphasis on METI, since it seems to be at the expense of dismissal of other, potentially more inmediate risks

  • Khan November 13, 2013, 19:56

    RE: Dr. Brin’s tone — one can either consider this website a watering hole for enthusiastic amateurs, or consider it a site with more professional or academic ambitions. At a guess, I think Dr. Brin treated Nielson’s essay as an academic work, and found it wanting. Think of it as an informal peer review: sloppy assumptions are deserving of strong criticism, even ridicule. In that context, I’d be in agreement with Brin’s overall tone: if Nielsen were to submit that essay for formal publication, he’d be rejected for multiple reasons. I disagree with Brin about the context, however: Centauri Dreams is more akin to a gathering of intelligent people sharing fun ideas over drinks. (I learned this last year with the “Star Consciousness” article. I mean, lolwut?) Especially by carrying on in the comment section like this, Brin is sinking to the level of Arguing With People On The Internet. A chip on the shoulder against ignorant pro-METI advocates is more understandable in an actual academic setting, but a comment thread is not a thesis defense or a debate at an astronomy conference. (No offense, Dr. Brin — and let me add, I’m reading Existence right now and enjoying it very much.)

    As for METI itself, I’m broadly in agreement with Brin. Let me add my (deeply amateurish!) speculation: any ETI civilization is overwhelmingly likely to either be (1) pre-industrial, and thus unable to communicate or (2) post-singularity, in which case we are discussing beings with almost god-like intelligence, knowledge, and power. As great as the differential is, they still might become greatly interested in us, for the same reason: civilizations at our level of development are exceedingly rare. (BTW, this implies that, yes, they could currently be aware of Earth’s biosphere; this implication does NOT preclude possible hostile intentions once they learn of our technological civilization.) Maybe they’ll want to help us; maybe they’ll want to artificially preserve us at our current level of advancement; maybe they’ll consider us (a species on the cusp of our own singularity) to be likely future competition.

    If they choose to interfere in any way, for good or ill, they do NOT have to physically travel here, or even have local von Neumann probes waiting on standby. If we were to receive a transmission detailing nanotech blueprints or a long segment of DNA, how difficult would it be to enforce a global ban on assembly? Surely such a ban would be far more problematic than physically jamming the original METI attempt, and almost infinitely more difficult than the temporary policy proscriptions Brin is suggesting.

  • David Brin November 13, 2013, 21:00

    Wojciech, I understand your complaints, but frankly reject them. You and others aggressively engaged in behavior that is tiresomely insulting and clichéd… then you claim to be an injured party.

    I had specifically asked for commenters to engage in curiosity and discussion, rather than shouting “of course!” assertions without doing any homework or numbers… and expressing contempt for anyone who asks for a wider and more tentative view.

    In fact, in your followup, you behave much better (!) by asking questions instead of declaring “of course.”

    You asked: “And how would an alien civilization know the difference between intentions of light signs and radio waves produced by us?”

    Since you ask, let me answer. Non-coherent broadcasts such as television signals and Cold War radars are nowhere near as penetrating as the public believes. Even when Earth was at its loudest, in the 1980s, all calculations show that our noise never went beyond one light year in any clear way. The chief exception has been planetary radars, sweeping across moons and asteroids, sent by giant dishes like Arecibo. These are narrow-beamed and coherent – like lasers. They can penetrate and be detected at hundreds of light years away!

    So you see, there is a very clear and decisive difference between stray spillover and directed beams.

    Charles… you raise an interesting point. What if alien probes are already in our system and they are currently “judging” us as to whether we deserve to burgeon forth or must be eliminated? That form of METI peril we cannot avoid. Indeed, I come very close to discussing this while dealing with dozens of alien probe concepts in EXISTENCE. One sub-category would be if such probes are already meddling in our media, psychology or politics. Could Rupert Murdoch be coached by an inimical alien probe?

    Wait… I actually said that on the web? Noooooooo!

  • Kamal Ali November 13, 2013, 22:36

    David Brin,

    First let me say that we like having you participate here at Centauri Dreams; it’s a honor to be in dialog with you, but I like others am surprised by your tone of late. And we have not seen it in other discussions where you’ve participated.

    I, in fact, do not have a favorite conclusion: I am baffled by the so-called Great Silence. The chain of reasoning I put forth is simply one model that I would like to be discussed in a cordial manner (and your comment about biosphere v technosphere is a useful start). It was not my intention to be all of the following: blithe, disdainful, snarky, discourteous, incurious and contemptuous. I’ll make sure my language is more contingent next time, although in my defense, my conclusion did clearly state it was only my opinion.

    In fact I don’t particularly like METI but mainly because of fear, it seems to have almost an infinite downside. I look forward to being educated on the logical or statistical basis from which it could be regarded as harmful.

    I do hope you will change your mind and post links about strategies about how ETCs may probe biospheres for technical markers and how processes of first contact may inadvertently go wrong. That would be a most positive contribution.


  • ljk November 13, 2013, 23:07

    Whether coacervate’s attempt at METI towards Alpha Centauri will work or not is not the point. The point is that he is attempting METI irregardless of the debate going on here and elsewhere whether it is a dangerous thing to do or not. I have little doubt that others with access to a radio telescope have done their same on their own initiative which are unknown to the general public.

    Human nature does not like to be bound in, even and sometimes specifically when it is thought to be meant for their own good. That can be a problem but it can also be our saving grace, when done against a tyrannical authority. I invite everyone to read the classic SF novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin to see what I am referring to: http://mises.org/books/we_zamiatin.pdf

    This does not mean I think that just because human nature is to often behave contrary to authority, be it human or the Universe in general, that society should just let everything run to chaos, please note. I am simply saying that for our species, at least, there will always be individuals or like-minded groups that will fight all those who would attempt to control them, benignly or otherwise. This will include sending METI, which will probably become easier to do as technology advances. Soon it may be that the backyard astronomers with his or her radio telescope can signal Alpha Centauri and be heard.

    Also note that in China, that nation is building the largest radio telescope on Earth, even bigger than Arecibo. While I have no evidence that they would do so, what if China decided to broadcast the glories of their nation into the Milky Way galaxy? Who could stop them? Would they even be taken seriously by other governments, whose politicians seem woefully lacking when it comes to cosmic perspectives.

  • David Brin November 14, 2013, 1:30

    In fact, I dealt with already-present lurker-listening probes not only in EXISTENCE, but at the “Invitation to ETI” site.


  • Doug M. November 14, 2013, 3:48

    “I know a dozen women who are active in this field”

    — ‘There is not actually a problem.’

    “Go alert some of the myriad bright women YOU know and invite them.”

    — ‘If there is a problem, it’s your job to fix it. It’s nothing to do with me. ‘

    “completely irrelevant snark of political correctness that was utterly un-germane… Stop trying to push your obsession onto us.”

    — ‘By pointing out the existence of a problem, you are violating the bounds of civility. So, the real problem here is you.’

    Doug M.

  • Brett Bellmore November 14, 2013, 6:59

    “How exactly are opponents of METI conceal our Earth’s atmosphere and city lights during the night visible to anyone interested? ”

    Personally, I’m relying on the inverse square law.

  • David Brin November 14, 2013, 11:08

    Kamal, thank you for coming back here in a mien of courtesy and curiosity. Here is a site that contains a plethora of material about various aspects of SETI, including my classic 1983 survey which remains the only review article on the subject ever published:

    As I said, detection of biospheres would seem likely. This eliminates a small set of “fermi hypotheses” but only a small set. Alien races who made such a catalogue would face a range of possible options: (1) to wait for neighboring biospheres to develop intelligence, and (1a) blare beacons into space for a billion years, just in case, (1b) target them with occasional “pings” – a program costing 7 or 8 orders of magnitude less, or (2a) visit them with sterile probes that sit and wait (see EXISTENCE) or (2b) visit them aggressively and/or colonize. And there are some others too.

    Think it out.

    ljk practical engineering – despite your assertion – is definitely something that matters. It means that one of the principal excuses of METI Zealots that “the horses have already left the bars” or “the cats are already out of the bag” is a meaningless falsehood. Earth remains non-observable as a tech civilization under the widest range of plausible regimes.

    Hence, those who try to use taxpayer built radio telescopes to cast forth Dorritos commercials in our name are not just adding to existing detectables, they are trying to change a primary observable characteristic of our planet, without pre-discussing it with anyone. That is arrogant, aggressive, and merits contempt… or at least mention in public as the behavior of cultists, not scientists.

    It is not too late to hold such discussions, and the reluctance of the zealots to do this proves which party are responsible adults and which are raving egotists who should not be given access to powerful tools in order to do their howls.

    No one contends that ina free society, any moratorium would last more than a generation, or probably even a decade. But in the last decade we have learned vast amounts about planets and the universe. One more and we may have actual clues about the Great Silence. In that case, quietly (and eagerly) listening might seem the prudent and sane thing to do.

    Finally, re Chinese SETI… wait a few months, then buy Ken Liu’s great translation of Liu Cixin’s THE THREE BODY PROBLEM. It is the best Chinese science fiction novel ever! And it deals precisely with your final paragraph.

    Thank you all for deciding to assert and debate, instead of proclaiming simplistic “of course!” declarations. I hope you will move on to in-depth curiosity and in-depth reading of the real complexity of this fascinating dilemma.

  • David Brin November 14, 2013, 11:16

    Doug M, the problem is definitely you. YOU are the obsessive and sanctimonious judger. I have spent my life doing educational outreach, which has included assertive participation in science programs for girls, including my 2nd degree black-belt, scientist at NYU daughter. I’ve been on scores of panels with female colleagues and am always glad they are there.

    Your leap to cast irrelevant stones simply is a way for you to wallow in endorphins from the worst drug high abused in American life. One that is somewhat more rife on the loony right, but that YOU now prove is a problem on the loony left as well: http://www.davidbrin.com/addiction.html

    I will not drag my female colleagues in SETI into this discussion here, giving you yet more power. They know about it, sniffed disdain and wisely decided to stay out. You on the other hand are the one compelled by litmus tests, so go satisfy yourself. Recruit some diversity! Put action where your snarky mouth is. I’ll not respond to you any more.

  • Securis November 14, 2013, 11:22

    @andy and Doug M.: Concerning the race/gender issue that’s what I came up with just from memory:

    Jill Tarter
    Athena Andreadis (has written articles on Centauri Dreams)
    Rachel Armstrong (has written articles on Centauri Dreams)
    Dava Newman (BioSuit)
    Mae Jemison and female colleagues (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_astronauts)
    Anousheh Ansari
    Neil deGrasse Tyson

    Still I think you are right by pointing out that the Space/Interstellar community should reach out more to women, to minorities, to young people and everyone else on this planet in general.

  • Abraham Samma November 14, 2013, 12:00

    Very interesting essay and the discussion was as interesting as it was sometimes comical. I honestly haven’t had this much fun on this site in a while! Thanks go to Paul for not cutting this discussion short even when it looked it was getting out of hand.

    David Brin, you cannot imagine how relieved I am that such people with your perspective on METI exist. Nick’s essay, though good, was in a way made complete by yours. I salute you sir.

  • Dispatcher November 14, 2013, 14:39

    “Indeed, no one on this planet has pursued Otherness and exploration of the topic of the alien more relentlessly than I have, in both fiction and in science.”

    That’s certainly broad and sweeping. While nobody in good conscience would dispute or minimize your efforts, I suspect (and I hope) that others (be they authors or philosophers or scientists) disagree with you on that statement.

    At least you are passionate about the topic!

  • Wojciech J November 14, 2013, 15:29

    “Since you ask, let me answer. Non-coherent broadcasts such as television signals and Cold War radars are nowhere near as penetrating as the public believes. Even when Earth was at its loudest, in the 1980s, all calculations show that our noise never went beyond one light year in any clear way. The chief exception has been planetary radars, sweeping across moons and asteroids, sent by giant dishes like Arecibo. These are narrow-beamed and coherent – like lasers. They can penetrate and be detected at hundreds of light years away!”

    Radio signals are brief and sporadic, not really the best way to detect alien civilization. Artificial structures and energy signatures of global civilization are mostly impossible to conceal in wider space context. Thus I don’t see a reason why would a civilization seek any other using this method(and yes I believe SETI is deeply flawed). Our civilization-a relatively small and non-space faring one-already has designs of telescopes which would be able to detect alien biospheres and signs of technological activity. A civilization capable of navigating the interstellar space would have much more advanced designs than ours. It’s simply unlikely that it wouldn’t have a catalog of planets with both life and technological civilizations.
    Conservatively speaking-we have been emitting light signals from our surface during the night that can be detectable since 200 years at least(and I wouldn’t discount places like Rome being detectable as well), this was the strongest and continuous METI signal that will continue.

    “Alien races who made such a catalogue would face a range of possible options: (1) to wait for neighboring biospheres to develop intelligence, and (1a) blare beacons into space for a billion years, just in case, (1b) target them with occasional “pings” – a program costing 7 or 8 orders of magnitude less, or (2a) visit them with sterile probes that sit and wait (see EXISTENCE) or (2b) visit them aggressively and/or colonize. And there are some others too.”
    They wouldn’t need to ping or visit to know we exist. A biosphere vegetation cover is as visible as city during the night using optical observation by tools like hypertelescopes.
    The whole debate unfortunately is pointless and seems to be led by people still stuck in “radio signals mentality”(just as majority of SETI). Radio signals are not the best detectable source of information, basic imagining is. We already have designs being capable of observing and taking images of biospheres, continents and by implication things like night lights on other planets.

    “(BTW, this implies that, yes, they could currently be aware of Earth’s biosphere; this implication does NOT preclude possible hostile intentions once they learn of our technological civilization”
    If they would know of our biosphere, then they would also know of existence of technological civilization. Our technosignatures are just as visible as vegetation cover of Earth these days.

    In the end I don’t worry though. Most likely the nearest civilization is 5000 thousand light years away and dead or vanished since millions of years. If we are lucky we will find some signs of mega-engineering using telescopes but that’s it. I do not worry though about detecting life in the galaxy which seems to be far widespread than technological intelligence.

  • ljk November 14, 2013, 15:38

    David Brin said on November 14, 2013 at 11:08:

    “ljk practical engineering – despite your assertion – is definitely something that matters.”

    I was not dismissing engineering, I was simply pointing out that some people are going to go against societal order no matter what the consequences. I too would prefer more listening and looking that shouting, or at least if there is going to be some cosmic shouting that it is done with a lot of thought and collaboration first.

    However, as we have seen, most of the general public METI projects have been anything but thoughtful and scientific. Even NASA got involved in beaming a Beatles song into the galaxy. So how do we stop them? And no, I am not asking this rhetorically.

    About that Doritos commercial sent to another star system, that was done to help generate money for struggling United Kingdom astronomy and science:


    So how do we approach this type of METI when professional scientists were actively involved in its happening? I am also concerned if the aliens who may detect the commercial look like a Doritos chip, for at the end of the ad one of them is joyfully eaten by a human.