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METI: A Response to Steven Johnson

Yesterday’s post dwelt on an article by Steven Johnson in the New York Times Magazine that looked at the issue of broadcasting directed messages to the stars. The article attempted a balanced look, contrasting the goals of METI-oriented researchers like Douglas Vakoch with the concerns of METI opponents like David Brin, and fleshing out the issues through conversations with Frank Drake and anthropologist Kathryn Denning. Johnson’s treatment of the issue prompted a response from a number of METI critics, as seen below. The authors, all of them prominent in SETI/METI issues for many years, are listed at the end of the text.

We thank Steven Johnson for his thoughtful New York Times Magazine article, which makes it clear that there are two sides to the METI issue. We applaud his idea that humankind needs a mechanism for decision-making on long-term issues that could threaten our future.

As Johnson implies, deliberately calling ourselves to the attention of a technological civilization more advanced than ours is one of those issues. What we do now could affect our descendants.

As Johnson asks, who decides? Without an agreed approach, the decision to transmit might be made by whoever has a sufficiently powerful transmitter.

Astronomers have given us an additional reason for addressing this question: the discovery of thousands of planets in orbit around other stars, increasing the probability that life and intelligence have evolved elsewhere in our galaxy.

METI is not scientific exploration. It is an attempt to provoke a reaction from an alien civilization whose capabilities and intentions are not known to us.

The most likely motivation for alien intervention is not a wish to exploit Earth’s territory or resources, but the potential threat posed by a new space-faring civilization — us. Scientists and engineers already are designing Humankind’s first unmanned interstellar probes. Some might be visiting nearby stars less than a century from now.

Image: Taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope, this image shows the core of the great globular cluster Messier 13, to which a message was beamed in 1974. Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA.

Though altruism may be a noble goal, human history suggests that it rarely extends beyond one’s own species. We have not been very altruistic toward dolphins, whales, or chimpanzees.

What mechanism can we devise for what Johnson calls global oversight of METI? In the 1970s conferences at Asilomar assessed dangers from the then theoretical notion of genetic engineering. The resulting compromises improved laboratory safety while allowing continued research in this field under an agreed set of rules.

In the 1980s, some of us proposed a first step toward agreed rules through the document known informally as the First SETI Protocol, which calls for consultations before responding to a detected alien signal. (That protocol has been endorsed by most SETI researchers, but has not been adopted by government agencies.) An attempt to gain consensus on a second protocol calling for consultations before the transmission of powerful, human-initiated signals foundered on a basic disagreement that is mirrored in today’s METI debate.

Seventeen years ago, the International Academy of Astronautics presented a proposal to the United Nations for an international decision-making process for sending such communications. The U.N. noted the report and filed it.

Plans to send powerful targeted messages to nearby solar systems have brought this issue back to our attention. The underlying issue has not changed. As renowned Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu wrote, “I’ve always felt that extraterrestrial contact will be the greatest source of uncertainty for humanity’s future.” Let’s address that issue as rationally as we can.

Gregory Benford, astrophysicist and science fiction author

James Benford, radio astronomer

David Brin, astrophysicist and science fiction author

Catharine A. Conley, NASA Planetary Protection Officer

John Gertz, former chairman of the SETI Institute

Peter W. Madlem, former board member of the SETI Institute

Michael Michaud, former diplomat, author

John Rummel, former Director, NASA Planetary Protection Office

Dan Werthimer, radio astronomer


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nigel Seel July 21, 2017, 14:23

    Any sufficiently advanced alien society would care about humanity about as much as we care about a local wasp nest. Sometimes we let it survive, because it’s in our interests that the wasps do their thing (pest control) – which benefits us.

    Other times, not so much.

    And in this, we are not being backward, or under-evolved, or lacking civilizational maturity which future generations will fix. We are simply being optimally rational.

    If we do meet those aliens any time soon – and given our woeful interstellar capabilities we would be the technologically inferior party – we should hope that, like the wasps, our existence adds some value for them.

    Meanwhile I would hold off on all that signalin’ and hollerin’.

  • Andrei July 21, 2017, 15:22

    Our perspective on alien contacts are based on our cultural history.
    North Americans have a positive experience from their history of their contact, they waged war, land theft and even bioweapons (infected blankets) to eradicate the people they encountered.
    So their cultural history say that any contact will reap benefits.

    A Chinese will be more cautious, Cixin Liu provide an example of that. The conquest by Genghis Khan is still part of the Chinese heritage.

    And then there are people like mine, where the ‘first contact’ ended up completely disastrous, we lost our nation, and now live like beggars as a minority group on our land now owned by others and without property rights.
    And this against a human opponent with a technical and sociological advantage of just a few hundred years.

    So from my underdog perspective, to actively try to “provoke a reaction” from an alien civilization will far more likely have disaster consequences, than beneficial one.

  • Alex Tolley July 21, 2017, 16:12

    It has been established that any ETI we contact is likely to be very ancient and technologically advanced. We are likely to be as ants, wondering if we dare put out a pheromone trail. In reality, that is irrelevant. Humans will already know about the ant nest regardless of any communication.

    If ETI is out there, especially in our own galaxy, they may already know about us from their own explorations and monitoring. Sending a message is not going to make any difference to their response.

    The worries about cultural issues stems from human experience, where both human cultures are separated by an industrial revolution. The cultural, technological and economic gap between humans and ETI is going to dwarf anything in human experience. More likely the nearest equivalent would be experiencing a new godlike being, and we have plenty of history in how we deal with that.

    The main worry would be if ETI is not that advanced compared to us because L proves short. In which case the usual scifi tropes about First Contact may apply.

    It is time the anti-METI folks lay out their concerns for examonation, rather than hide behind particular concerns that may be very improbable. They also need to lay out a path that allows us to transmit eventually, as most of what I have read never gets to that stage because there is always some new threat based on human capabilities we can project.

    • Wojciech J July 22, 2017, 5:48

      Excellent comment. It is unlikely that a civilization would be on equal footing with us, as the differences in timescales of biological evolution and geological age would mean it would either be millions of years ahead of us or behind us.

    • Roberto Seven July 24, 2017, 9:25

      Good point.
      It may well be the case that our planet has been scrutinized by ETI in recent years in search for intelligent life, and they concluded that there is none.

    • Ronald July 26, 2017, 9:44

      Very good comment indeed, and I fully agree. Paul’s articles on METI (i.e. the previous and this one) are excellent as always, and I enjoy the discussion, but I think the issue is virtually non-existent and the least of my worries. If advanced ETI exist anywhere in our MW galaxy, they will almost certainly know about our planet, as we will probably know about all habitable planets in our MW within a few centuries. And if they are capable of any type of interstellar travel, they will already have sent their exploration and observation probes.
      I do, BTW, not agree with those who assert that we are not interesting to an advanced ETI, on the contrary: I am convinced that such an ETI would be highly interested in our form of (primitive) intelligence and budding civilization, as we are in studying apes.
      The real issue is, I think, Fermi’s Paradox and finding the explanation for it. Also see my comment under Robert L.’s comment.

    • David M. July 26, 2017, 14:20

      Alex, You do make a good point. Though, I think, you are giving short shrift to vital information that has already been explained to you. The concerns of the “anti-METI” already HAVE been laid out before you. You choose to ignore them. You are to eager and therefore not ready for this next step.

      There is also a very wide gulf between being watched and observed versus sending out a signal to the watchers that their cover is blown. They may have to enact THEIR protocol that says when made, leave no witnesses. Maybe that’s silly, but so is your scenario that they already know we are here and are therefore peaceful or would have wiped us out already. Utter nonsense!

      The truth is you/we don’t know. We can sit here until eternity ends, making up great little stories about why aliens haven’t contacted us. Rushing to transmit, on purpose and without knowing the consequences, is rash and immature. The most likely reason they haven’t called us, yet, maybe simply because they don’t want to.

      • Alex Tolley July 26, 2017, 20:12

        I should clarify. My objection to anti-METI isn’t that I think the concerns are wrong, but rather that there is no way to exit teh anti-METI position. There will always be some excuse to wait further based on new knowledge and technologies. Wait a century, fine. But a millenium ? More? I would like to read about some exit points. If you have a good reference, please post it.

        The reason I say they must be peaceful, or perhaps uninterested, is that unless we are extremely lucky, any advanced ETI is likely to be millions, if not billions of years more advanced than we are. Unless there is some technological limit, they will be unimaginably more powerful than we are. They will also have had plenty of time to completely colonize the galaxy or seed it with replicators and monitoring devices. So if they exist, they know we are here. They could make any arbitrary decision to eliminate us. But they haven’t. Why not?

        Absolutely we don’t know. So why even attempt to try to create restrictions that will be breached by changes in our various societies over the next century or millenium. It is as futile as stopping weapons development. Despite bans on nukes, chemical and biological weapons, not to mention seeding landmines, countries, including the US, continue to do so either openly or clandestinely. The way teh US is going, we might yet get some Nehemiah Scudder who thinks that calling out to “God” should be attempted with all the resources we can bear.

  • DCM July 21, 2017, 16:31

    Makes good sense. Listen but don’t call.

    Yes, this is optimally rational since we don’t know what’s out there. We don’t know what they’re like.
    Remember we even misunderstand strange humans. When Cortez started across Mexico Moctezuma kept sending him gold and silver along with other gifts, assuming that it would induce him to turn around and leave.
    The ideas usually presented about this stem from the resistance to the Vietnam War, the effort to get the US to withdraw, which eventually worked because we were more powerful. See how well tolerance and understanding work with the “refugees” in Europe.

  • Rob Flores July 21, 2017, 16:45

    One of the most irritating Endings to any SF I’ve encountered and
    relates to this discussion. CHILDREN OF TIME. its a good novel
    until the end.

    The ending SPOILER section. Skip to discussion below this if
    you have not read it.

    Great build of a civilization, on a off world planet
    humans though would ready and terraformed for them. It turns out something else is awaiting them. It comes
    about because spider line of creatures sent by the terraformers evolves beyond it’s confines. The story is engrossing a well told BUT…

    End Spoiler.

    at end humanity accepts ‘warm’ embrace of outside guidance
    of civilization for the greater good.

    I think some of the pro-Meta people think this way,
    They want to find someone else to take
    full responsibility for mankind.

    • Alex Tolley July 21, 2017, 19:05

      Some METI folks might be hoping for benevolent ETI, while others either don’t think there is anything out there to worry about or that what is out there won’t be fooled by us not sending out a “yahoo!” to the universe.

      If we want to be quiet, we need to be really quiet. That means no use of energy beams in deep space radars ar asteroid deflectors. It means hiding any visible presence of our civilization from advanced telescopes, including spectroscopically detectable pollution, straight lines, etc, etc.

      using Nigel’s wasp analogy, staying inside the nest won’t stop me from spraying it when I see it. David Brin has made the analogy that you don’t shout out or make a noise in the jungle as that attracts predators. But in reality, that is what all animals do to find mates – indeed they often create very gaudy displays driven by sex selection to attract mates, use complex vocalizations, and even illuminate themselves. If ETI is as overwhelming as a forest fire, hiding isn’t going to do any good. Survival is best managed by being dispersed geographically. IOW, humans need to spread out to the stars. That may make us more visible, but it will aid our species survival.

      • ljk July 25, 2017, 11:24

        Yes – ever been in a quiet jungle or forest? Me neither.

        The oceans are also noisy as heck, we just don’t listen. And space is already very noisy on a natural cosmic level, again we just aren’t listening right.

      • David M. July 26, 2017, 14:24

        I disagree Alex. If they know we are here, then they know. If that’s the case, then some sort of equilibrium is occurring that could be dependent on us keeping our silence until spoken to.

        Again, you rush where wisdom says goes slow. You are unwise.

        • Alex Tolley July 26, 2017, 20:20

          Or there is no equilibrium. They may be the black cat in the dark room that isn’t there. I find the anti-METI argument not dissimilar to those who fear to blaspheme in case of retribution.

  • DJ Kaplan July 21, 2017, 17:08

    “METI is not scientific exploration.”
    With respect, I’d differ with that. It’s an experiment, i.e., here’s a question or assumption that we’d like to test, and let’s do this one thing and see what happens.

    • H. Floyd July 21, 2017, 23:50

      That’s an excellent point. I have been thinking about that bold sentence all afternoon. But I think it’s actually the core of their critique.

      To be scientifically valid, an experiment does require some continuity between act and observation. What Earthling will meaningfully interpret the results of this overture on some unforeseeable afternoon 5,000 years from now? 50,000 years from now? Half a million? The obvious, incomprehensible gap between METI’s cause and effect raises legitimate questions about what’s really motivating the effort.

      Please don’t misunderstand. The ambition here is altogether human — I really do understand it. It’s thrilling. But we don’t do a lot of multigenerational experiments yet, and this ethical drill is still new to us. Imagine if the time between trigger and detonation of the first atom bomb was 500 years. As mighty as some of the Manhattan men might still have felt, they wouldn’t have learned much. And the surprised residents of New Mexico, going about their business in July 2445, would consider it a serious dick move. By that point it’s not science anymore, but just another one of our species’ peculiar monuments to the mortal ego.

      • Alex Tolley July 22, 2017, 12:27

        but just another one of our species’ peculiar monuments to the mortal ego.

        And on the pedestal these words appear:
        ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
        Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

        • ljk July 25, 2017, 11:27

          Items lofted into space and given at least some protection will last millions if not billions of years. The outward-facing sides of the Voyager Interstellar Records with their thin covers are projected to last at least one billion years in interstellar space and that is a conservative estimate. The sides facing the probes will last far longer.

          More here:


  • Astronist July 21, 2017, 17:25

    “deliberately calling ourselves to the attention of a technological civilization more advanced than ours is one of those [long-term] issues [that could threaten our future]” – But doing that is not possible at present, because no such civilisations are known. The probability of making ourselves known to such a hypothetical entity by sending messages essentially at random to nearby stars can be estimated, and is on the order of one in a trillion per star. The only way to make the probability larger is to deprive all civilisations of interstellar travel, and thus of the capability to present us with any material threat.


  • Ross Turner July 21, 2017, 18:15

    Agree that it makes no sense to broadcast. We can’t assume anything at this point, given we have no data on any other kind of life. Better to err on the side of caution and we gain nothing by broadcasting and announcing our presence. If there is a nearby advanced civilization, they probably already know about us, and if they exist and have not contacted us directly, that should tell us either they aren’t interested, or are leaving us alone for some other reason. If there are no other advanced civilizations close enough to receive a signal, sending one is a waste of time and energy in that case as well. Why not continue to monitor and observe, get the facts and details about our local galactic environment, then decide what to do. Why the rush to announce our presence?

    • DCM July 22, 2017, 3:15

      Right. Expand and strengthen our nest.

    • Securis July 22, 2017, 6:20

      Exactly. Why the rush? I’d understand the wish to send a message if we had a target. But we don’t have a target let alone a sufficient message. Sending out signals at random is a waste of time and resources that could be spend on looking and listening to find a worthwhile target.

      • Michael July 22, 2017, 16:24

        My worry is people/businesses will try to make money out of it.

        • Rickey July 24, 2017, 15:32

          What would be the problem if people or businesses found a way to monetize SETI or METI? It would bring more funding into the process which could advance research and development ie: SpaceX etc

          • ljk July 25, 2017, 9:09

            Exactly. When Europe began exploring the New World it was not done by a bunch of altruistic scientists, it was done by nations looking to make money and gain new territory. Just as the real reason Apollo and the rest of the early Space Age happened was due to Cold War geopolitics. Science often had to ride in the back seat and take table scraps. We would still be talking about sending humans to the Moon otherwise, just as is happening now with Mars.

          • Michael July 25, 2017, 10:19

            If money is at stake then anything can be sent ! if an alien race misinterprets that message then what.

    • Matt M. July 23, 2017, 20:16

      Overall, I don’t see any reasonable point in METI’s activities, just some vague philosophical reasons. I’m also skeptical about the presence of alien civilizations close to Earth. Maybe they exist, but so far away that the contact is practically impossible, unless we get the FTL tech somehow. There’s no rush indeed.

      • ljk July 25, 2017, 9:12

        This assumes human civilization will last a long time, or that society will turn against technology or science. Or worse, that governments will use it to create totalitarian dictatorships. Then we won’t be able to talk to anyone.

  • Ron July 21, 2017, 18:25

    One thing for certain, if ET does exist, they know we are here.
    They have also known it for some time.
    I am not referring to the proverbial radio and TV programs of the last hundred years.
    The gases in our atmosphere are a absolute give-away.
    Had an advanced ET did a spectrograph on our planet several hundred million years ago they would have known there was at least biological life here.
    Thus a good candidate to watch for the emergence of intelligent life.
    They would have know a long time ago some sort of intelligence was evolving.
    I honestly do not think we have to signal our presence.
    A alien society just advanced not much more than a hundred years beyond should be quite aware of our existence.
    Although, there may be a problem with a contact.
    We so often assume a ET is biological or a cyborg type of entity and that it is aware.
    However, what if an ET is extremely intelligent but has no conciseness.
    May seem preposterous, but well within the limits to have only intelligence without awareness.
    Where this would lead I have no idea; a conscious being interacting with a none conscious being.

    The other issue is the star system the message was sent to is 22.2kly away (44.4kly) return at light speed.
    By the time the message arrives there we are 22,200 years advanced from this point in time.

    If we could survive to that point or even a lot less we would be relatively safe from ET and from ourselves.

    • DCM July 22, 2017, 3:17

      Why, if ET must know about us if they exist don’t we know about them?

      • Alex Tolley July 22, 2017, 12:29

        Technological asymmetry.

        • DCM July 22, 2017, 16:18

          We could be ahead of everybody else, at least everybody within reach. No negative assumptions about us, please; they’re tiresome from overuse and we simply don’t know.

          • Alex Tolley July 22, 2017, 19:48

            If we are the advanced species, then we have nothing to worry about, and the fear of advanced ETI species is unfounded. The anti-METI concern is because it is expected we would be the primitive species.

            It may well be we are the first intelligent technological, star faring species. If so, we should boldly go where no Terran has gone before.

    • hiro July 22, 2017, 17:09

      Extraterrestrial octopus: my life is short, I want sex.
      AI: we don’t have long distance relationship with idiots.

      ^ The answer to Fermi’s paradox.

  • Alexander Zaitsev July 22, 2017, 5:52

    Very interesting opinion of Seth Shostak: “But I, for one, would hesitate to let a paranoia based on nothing more than conjecture shackle the activities of our children and our children’s children. The universe beckons, and we can do better than to declare that future generations should endlessly tremble at the sight of the stars”. It was published in New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/28/opinion/sunday/messaging-the-stars.html

    • Alex Tolley July 22, 2017, 12:58

      I find myself in total agreement with Shostak.

      Shostak may be wrong that alien receivers are many light years away. They could be very close, in our solar system, possibly even on Earth. So it is possible that we could hold a real-time conversation.

      I don’t think we can broadcast “the internet” in a few days, it is too large. Even fragments would need information to explain how to decode the signals to construct text and images. Better to provide curated packets with instructions to start. A frame by frame video (mimicking celluloid film) with size and timing information would be far better than sending an MP4 file.

      • hiro July 22, 2017, 17:27

        It’s a big waste to write a long report about us. Any advanced civilization only needs to know:
        Does that habitable planet of this star system have intelligent species? Yes/No.
        Does this species have capabilities to travel outside its star system? Yes/No.

        By using several pairs of entangled photon that were kept inside a bus size device orbiting > 600 AU from Sol (we still can’t detect such object in this region). Doing “weak measurements” of the properties of those entangled photons in someone’s homeworld would give out the Yes/No answers about the current states of our species without knowing what KK wearing today or next week (not interested anyway).

        FTL communications fail because mother nature doesn’t like FTL poems but a “semiclassical half-peep” is allowed.

        • Zachary July 23, 2017, 1:10

          Can you elaborate on this? What measurements could they make of entangled photons to enable them to know if intelligent species were around or that they had interstellar capabilities?

          • ericSECT July 24, 2017, 7:44

            Yes, Hiro, please elaborate on this FTL communication. Does this not violate causality if so?

            • hiro July 24, 2017, 16:07

              The same way CTC computing has zero power to change the past, there is some type of information which violates causality is still allowed to exist. Here is an extreme example, let’s say some group of people get bored playing entangled photons in space and decide to do an experiment in time secretly, during the set up both photons change their properties without any action in the present, this mean the future version (somehow) pokes into the current ones; one might speculate about the event without knowing who “did” it and when in the future, a small piece of information may affect some thinking locally but outsiders think those in the lab smoked weed (illegally) hence the delusion.

              The concept of physical future time travelers is a big waste of resources, a simpler solution is to suppress the memories of people in the present and then load the memories of people in the future; thus we have “normal people” walking around with abnormal minds.

  • Wojciech J July 22, 2017, 6:00

    The idea that METI would be a danger of any sort is based on outdated concepts about space exploration and alien life.

    Any possible civilization would be millions if not billions of years ahead of us in development as it would come from a world on a vastly different timescale in regards to evolution. Of course there is a possibility of “civilization” millions of years behind us, which is stuck in early stone age, but that one isn’t of importance here.

    A civilization even advanced more than 1000 years ahead of us would be capable of conducting a survey of all inhabitable planets in their galaxy if not more, just by using telescopes. It would already be aware of our biosphere, possibility of intelligent life and if it would be interested in any form of contact it would set up proper mechanisms for detection, regardless of the attempts of less developed civilization to hide itself.

    Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu did write that “universe is a dark forest” but this is simply wrong. The universe is a empty desert in which each Earth-like biosphere is a tower of light visible to anyone who looks on the horizon with proper tools.

    As others remarked, if such civilizations exist they already know of our presence, they probably don’t care or don’t want to make contact. Perhaps a civilization is unique and they prefer us to develop on our own, perhaps they don’t exist at all, perhaps civilizations like us are commonplace like flies in the garden and burn out within a couple of thousands of years without anything of significance being created. Perhaps civilizations arise to such complexity that biological is replaced by mechanical until they become machines themselves embedded in structure of the universe and ours is a pointless and ignorant existence to ours. There are many possible answers and while I have my preferences as to which one is likely(civilizations very rare, not interested in cultural interference and machine like) it is not of importance here.

    The simple fact remains that we already can scan the nearby stars for life, imagine what we will be able to do in 50-100 years time. Imagine what we will be able to do in 1000 years, imagine what we will be doing in 1 million.
    Fearing alien contact because they might be our “Klingons” from Star Trek or even our “Borg” is very romantic but if you examine possibilities closely has little basis in what is realistically possible.

  • James Stilwell July 22, 2017, 10:00

    Life preys on life…on earth as it is in heaven…if we’re lucky the next intelligent civilization is 10,000 light years away…and if we’re really lucky their finest brains can’t break the FTL barrier despite a 1000 years of trying…

    • Alex Tolley July 22, 2017, 12:37

      We nurture life with zoos, wildlife refuges, parks. We create gardens and care for pets. One argument for a space-based industry was to remove polluting activities from earth to let the planet become a haven for diverse ecosystems again. We are experimenting with factory meat production to eventually eliminate the slaughter of animals for meat.

      There is no a priori reason to assume that technological life is predatory or “red in tooth and claw”.

      • Michael July 22, 2017, 16:37

        ‘There is no a priori reason to assume that technological life is predatory or “red in tooth and claw”.’

        And there no reason to assume otherwise as well.

        The curse of the sample of one.

        My view is that we keep quiet until we are better positioned in our solar system or nearest stars. It is also unlikely that there are exo-civilisation out there that are millions of years ahead of us or they would have been here by now.

        • Alex Tolley July 22, 2017, 19:55

          Or they are out there but are not predatory. They are building their highways far from our anthill. They may even be careful that they don’t mess up our local stellar environment.

          Even Vogons weren’t predatory, just uncaring.

          If someone is considering building an interstellar bypass that would destroy the Earth, perhaps we should send a signal to demand an environmental impact statement, in case they missed our presence when they last did a site survey. ;)

        • DCM July 26, 2017, 3:14

          Your view is correct.

      • James Stilwell July 22, 2017, 17:16

        Memphis Meats can’t come to my store soon enough…Let’s hope all intelligent life has the instincts of humankind…Perhaps all spacefaring life has progressed far beyond the Territorial Imperative…But there may be a good reason why the stars are so very far apart…

        • David July 24, 2017, 23:03

          Hampton Creek says it will be out next year. I hope . Its one of the few exciting technologies we have emerging along with breakthrough starshot and DNA repair.

  • Michael Fidler July 22, 2017, 15:21

    Well the way I see it we should be looking closely at the star systems within 60 and possible 100 light years since they would be the one’s that have already received our radio and microwave transmissions. We will be seeing return transmission from those stars with civilizations that are now witin 30 to 50 light years if they are listening on those frequencies. ( return time for their signals )

  • Robert L July 22, 2017, 17:01

    One of Douglas Adams’ best gags was his description of 1980s humanity as a species “so amazingly primitive they still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea.” A lot of thinking and writing about ETI falls into this trap of thinking that the scientific progression “onwards and upwards” of alien species will be pretty much on the same lines as our actual and projected progress – radio for us to do SETI by, radio telescopes to capture METI, rockets, spaceflight, ftl drives; and that these developments will be harnessed to the purpose to which we put this sort of stuff, which is extending our dominion over far more territory than we need or have a use for. This is I think because we have an “Ascent of Man” picture in our heads which stipulates that what man does is by definition the omega point to which multicellular life aspires. This is not necessarily different from a cow thinking that chewing the cud is the ultimate end of existence and that dominant alien species will have evolved rumen- and reticulum- and omasum- and abomasum- analogues in order to get busy on the grass-analogues of their native planets.

    What we mean by civilisation is partly scientific and engineering know how – we go to the moon because we know enough math and physics to build a rocket and point it in the right direction – and partly all the humanities stuff – beauty and truth and Plato and Beethoven. Is any of this universally meaningful though? A harsh answer would be that beauty and truth and courage and justice are parochial concepts rooted in our evolved sexual and aggressive instincts and not generaliseable between species; no one should expect an alien to recognise the concept of beauty, let alone to find it in Michelangelo’s David or in a story about two groups of men spending ten years killing each other over the theft of a woman. As for science, the inverse square law and the Higgs boson were always there. We have developed a very incomplete picture of how they and everything else fits together, but even if the picture were complete and perfect it’s still just a picture – we have done what a mirror does, or a parrot. It has been tremendously difficult, but so would building the world’s tallest house of cards be. In neither case is it obvious that the default goal of alien intelligences would be to do what we have done.

    Relevant here is the reception of Stephen Jay Gould’s excellent “Wonderful Life” with its overarching point that if you run the tape of life again but with changes – say the KT extinction event doesn’t happen – then humanity doesn’t evolve and nothing else takes its place, and no one invents the radio or the rocket. This conclusion is widely rejected because of convergent evolution, but that argument is a poor one because convergence on humanity shows no signs of happening – nothing is converging on radio-invention in the way that bats and birds and bees have converged on wings. The existence of mankind should not be a bar to convergence on humanity’s attributes: bats did not fail to evolve flight because the birds had staked out that territory. The fallacy is in thinking that “being civilized” is as obvious a good as being able to fly, whereas it may be that we are just oddballs. The claim that no other life form in the universe is going to end up like us is not exceptionalism or a breach of the principle of mediocrity: something can be unique without being interesting or important: here is a random number I have just generated: 604536097648438 – unique but not obviously interesting. And so perhaps are we (except to ourselves). Even if there is multicellular life on every habitable zone planet in the galaxy, it does not follow that all of it or any of it is converging or has or will converge on radio waves and space ships.

    • James Stilwell July 22, 2017, 17:33

      Robert I.
      This post needs to be published in Scientific American…starting on the cover and continuing on page three…It might be risky to assume alien life has the instincts of humanity…better to be safe rather than sorry…that is the point of science fiction…to make the reader aware of surprises beyond the imagination…Of course METI messages are going to be sent to the stars…METI will follow their curiosity…It’s only human…These arguments may be pointless…

    • Ron S. July 22, 2017, 20:17

      “604536097648438 – unique but not obviously interesting:

      Well, its only prime factors are 2 and 302268048824219. Divide by 2 and you have a great big prime number. Nice random pick you have there. Do you do lottery tickets?

      • Robert L July 23, 2017, 16:11

        LOL. I took the number off an internet RNG, with the intention of adding 1 to the result if it came out odd, precisely to avoid interesting primes. Having been put through that filter probably precludes it from being truly random.

        • Ron S. July 24, 2017, 9:22

          I exaggerated a little for the fun of it. The probability that a random integer is prime ~1/ln(p). That’s about 3% in this case, or 6% when I explicitly removed the 2 factor. So not really that unlikely. But I was surprised when my aging quad-core PC running a very simple factorization algorithm took just a few seconds to find the factors of a 15 digit number.

          I have some residual interest in these things from my university days when I briefly branched out to study number theory in what was already a math heavy course load. I learned my mistake and returned to more practical stuff.

    • Ronald July 26, 2017, 10:27

      Excellent comment, and I think exactly the real crux. High intelligence is extremely rare even in Earth’s history. What makes matters worse, even when it arose, intelligence never (before) kept increasing through time until the level of self-awareness and technology was reached, as for instance the old lineages of molluscs and reptiles have shown.
      Life itself does not require advanced and increasing intelligence to survive, as bacteria and insects overwhelmingly prove.
      It seems likely that big complex brains and resulting advanced intelligence and techno civilization are highly exceptional flukes in the history of life, rather than an inevitable outcome. One possible, but very rare and expensive strategy for survival. Pretty much like an elephant’s truck….

      • Ronald July 27, 2017, 12:16

        Of course I meant elephant’s trunk, not truck (auto-correct).
        Let me elaborate a bit more. As I have argued before, the number of habitable earthlike planets around solar type stars in (the galactic disc of) our MW galaxy may be large, but not infinite. Guesstimates very from tens of millions to several billion, with a few hundred million a reasonable mean. That seems like a lot, but it is not really, if you first want to get life started (abiogenesis), then complex (Eukaryote, multi-celled) life, then intelligence, then high intelligence, then a techno civilization, which then also has to overlap in existence with us.
        One can do a thought experiment with some simple statistics with, for instance, a factor of 10x smaller for each successive step, starting from 300 million orso, even assuming that all those have life started. And in each possible scenario one ends up with a VERY small number of coexisting civilizations. I think that this is the true, simple and sobering explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, the extreme rarity of higher intelligence and civilization.

  • Thomas Hair July 23, 2017, 0:02

    I think this is much ado about nothing egged on by our shared love of great sci-fi. If we are not alone in the visible universe, and we may be unique or nearly so, then there must be very ancient intelligence with the ability within our own galaxy to observe our fecund world. I understand the observation post of this possibly billion plus year old intelligence would be observing our world from a light speed limited span of possibly ten of thousands of years, long before we ever were who are today, but they would certainly have learned through mega-millions of years of such observations to make very accurate predictions about which of these fecund worlds such as ours that could probably produce the same, or some scientifically feasible facsimile, conditions which allowed them to search for us. We are on the cusp of being able to directly view exoplanet atmospheres and within this century making direct observations of terrestrial worlds like or own. It is naive to compare our 5,000 year human history to that of an intelligence that may be 5,000,000,000 years old. If they exist, then they already know we are here, or highly suspect it…so stop worrying about it. I promise you they won’t come and try and steal our water.

  • Robert G July 23, 2017, 11:55

    Could we put together a serious invasion fleet to attack another star system? Consider a few ‘for instances’.

    Could we (a) militarily take one over via landing beachheads, human or robot troops, bomber planes, nuclear bombardment from orbit, orbiting maser weaponry etc.? Achievable via (1) directly sending hardware and perhaps personnel from Sol, or (2) by sending automated hardware that parks itself on a cold outer moon to manufacture what is necessary?

    What about using biology to either (b) kill off every different species of life on the remote planet via engineered viruses or bacteria or (c) replace the native ecosystem with biologicals developed on Earth? Biology could be placed in a much smaller craft.

    It seems to me that biological option (b) is probably flat impossible however clever our biologists get even with excellent information about the in-place biology, and (c) is a very, very long way off scientifically, again on the biology side. Sending the large quantities of hardware needed for (a1) would require a vastly greater presence in space than we currently have, coupled to a far larger solar economy. If we get to a place where option (a2) is a serious possibility, I think our mastery of the required tech implies we would again have a very large off-Earth footprint. All of these possibilities seem a fairly long way out from where we are now. Perhaps in the long view they are not too hard though.

    But now consider our ability to actually *find* somebody we might consider invading.

    The Gaia satellite stationed at Earth-Sol L2 is right now collecting the positions, velocities and rough-draft spectra of a billion stars, one percent of the galaxy.

    Other telescopes in space and on the ground are collecting large scale data on the existence of planets around a fraction of those stars. We are already confident that nearly all stars have planetary systems.

    The James Webb telescope due to be hauled up next year should give us much expanded data on planetary atmospheres. Our data about atmospheres is currently extremely limited, but this situation will change over the coming decade.

    With increased access to space, it is not hard to conceive in the near future very large space telescopes capable of directly imaging remote worlds.

    If we can observe something about one star, then we can in principle scale the technology to rapidly observe it about many, many stars.

    In each case, our information is expanding from total zero knowledge, to small numbers of individual cases, to larger numbers and a grasp of what is ‘normal’, to huge datasets enabling us to confidently pinpoint true outliers.

    If respiring life of some description is common in the galaxy, we should know inside of two decades. If it is, we will begin to develop an idea of what the best places are to look, refining and speeding the search and optimising our use of the more narrow-view/time expensive instruments. Over time we should be able to develop this into a funnel like process for efficiently searching the galaxy for life. The more data we put through it, and the more we think imaginatively about the results, the more statistically efficient we will be able to make this and the better our hypothesis rejection on technological signatures. We are looking at a filter funnel that moves from broad-brush, cheap data through successively higher levels of detail, each more money/time expensive than the last. Rather like pharma companies’ drug discovery pipelines.

    And all of this will happen long before we are in any position to mount an interstellar expedition or invasion. Or even tiny survey probes to any but the most nearby stars.

    If technological civilisations are out there, we won’t need their active participation to find them. We won’t even necessarily need to know what to look for in a positive sense, because any far outlier in a big dataset will give us the prompt we need to look and think carefully. The methods for putting this search together in the immediately forseeable future are already fairly clear, and a good deal of the hardware is already in existence or on the drawing board.

    If ET presents a threat upon detecting our technology signature then we are *already* under threat, as we cannot recall centuries worth of light waves radiating outwards from our world. ET will already have an equivalent funnel pipeline if they have any interest in other life and are in a technological position to pose any sort of threat. It would not require active advertising on our part. Our message sending does nothing whatever to increase the threat level from aggressor technological civilisations.

    Further, if any threat actor has had a long stretch of time to work across the galaxy they could already have hardware parked in our solar system monitoring us at short range. Again, our messaging would do nothing whatever to increase our risk.

    The more interesting question is whether METI can do anything to *decrease* our risk. I think this is the part where we need to start applying some cleverness to work out good answers.

    • ljk July 24, 2017, 9:28

      I think you and anyone else reading this thread will find the following most interesting and useful:


      • Rob Flores July 24, 2017, 11:19

        You don’t have to invade, You just create a factory for automated spaceships and place these ships in an array
        of 50 LY across the galaxy, Detect a signal and launch
        your “death ship” at the source with engines capable of relativistic speeds. COMPETITION ELMINATED,
        Before they have a substancial space infrastructure.

      • Thomas Hair July 24, 2017, 11:22

        I respect your thirst for this subject ljk, but the speculations presented on this link have been rehashed some much that you could make hash browns out of those ideas. Any anecdote, cliché, or even elegantly logical statement we make about this subject takes an enormously distant back seat to the fact that we are trying to read the thoughts of an intellect that may be half the age of the universe. In all of my scholarly work on this subject I always try to speculate less and contemplate more.

        • ljk July 24, 2017, 12:49

          I ask this with all due sincerity here: What is the difference between speculation and contemplation when it comes to aliens and their thoughts and intentions?

      • Robert G July 26, 2017, 8:37

        Brilliant! Thank you for this link!

  • david lewis July 24, 2017, 11:01

    Sure, ET did their surveys, but they’re rabid capitalists who keep their data behind pay walls. No one cares to pay good money to see if some ball of rock has some useless slime on it. It’s not as though we’re people with rights and all that – we can’t write a trillion line computer program in under five nanoseconds from the picosecond we’re born so we’re just dumb prokaryote to them. Killing prokaryote isn’t a crime and we don’t worry about their feelings. However, if we just happen to be in the midst of polluting a resource they want then look out once someone does realize we’re here.

  • Harry R Ray July 24, 2017, 17:11

    Has anybody considered anti-METI(i.e., how far would a paranoid super-advanced civilization go to try and make their megastructures LOOK LIKE natural phemonena)? CASE IN POINT: Boyajian’s Star(KEEP IN MIND, THIS IS JUST A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: NO “OPINION” IS INFERRED HERE)! Photometric light curves catch our attention. Followup studies indicate FADING as well as dipping. ET KNOWS this will happen, and prepares a “defense”. ET assumes that “aliens” will ALWAYS be on the BOTTOM of our list of possible solutions. Enter “nanobot” dust. When a megastructure transits, enough “nanobot” dust is present to make it APPEAR “dippier in B than in R”. CASE CFLOSED: NATURAL CAUSE! But then SOMETHING ELSE happens RIGHT AFTER the “dippier in B than in R” dips that has TWO COMPLETELY DIFFERENT EXPLANATIONS depending ENTIRELY on HOW the data is MODELED! ONE explanation is a 20 day FLATLINE FADE(probably natural) if just a few OUTLIER “B” and “R” data points are ELIMINATED, making the “fade” APPEAR achromatic, with a NATURAL internal event as the probable cause. The OTHER explanation(leaving the OUTLIERS IN PLACE) would be an IMPOSSIBLE “dip” that is dippier in R than in B! PET would ASSUME that we would choose explanation “ONE”. END OF THOUGHT EXPERIMENT! BUT: Don’t go away just yet. Look at the LATEST WTF update(pay PARTICULAR attention to the GRAPH)and let me know what YOU think.

    • hiro July 24, 2017, 21:59

      How to hunt a tiger: tying a goat to a large tree, then climb up and wait for a tiger with an AK47.

      • ljk July 25, 2017, 11:05

        Tabby’s Star is 1,500 light years from the Sol system. Unless they have FTL starships and FTL methods of communication, they won’t know about us for centuries – assuming they are even listening for radio transmissions from clearly inferior species. And if they are ETI building a Dyson Shell, what would such beings either want or have to fear from us?

        • Michael July 25, 2017, 16:41

          We are mostly harmless.

        • hiro July 25, 2017, 18:32

          I exterminated spiders & ants that wanted to sleep with me on my bed, no hard feeling really even though some of them were very small and harmless.

          Actually, something similar to Zika virus in global scale works even better than relativistic rockets/spaceships; at least other outsiders never knew anything.

          • ljk July 26, 2017, 9:33

            Give me a real reason why one advanced ETI would want to exterminate another species, especially a less sophisticated one, that is so far away from it and the two have not had any interactions before?

            I can think of just one and that is the possibility of removing future competition for galactic resources. However, with 400 billion star systems in the Milky Way galaxy and many of them probably not being inhabited, is there not more than enough for everyone?

            • Rob Flores July 26, 2017, 14:27

              Unfortunately, the more the prolonged silence,
              more likely are the extreme possibilities.

              No Messages = No One out there, in this galaxy at least.

              No Messages = There is one species out here
              that books no competition

              For the Hostiles it may not be a matter of space or resources, it maybe a religious POV i.e. other alien sentience is an affront to them. All it takes is ONE
              alien species to have this POV in this galaxy and it would explain many things.

              • ljk July 27, 2017, 8:48

                Did you ever consider that one alien species that does not tolerate others in the galaxy could one day be humanity?

              • Ronald July 28, 2017, 12:00

                Rob, I like your ‘extreme possibilities’, also see my comments above, with regard to rarity of high intelligence and civilization in the MW galaxy.
                Because of this probable rarity, it is very unlikely that two (relatively short-lived) techno civilizations in our MW galaxy overlap in time, maybe less than 1% or 0.1% or something on that order. The only reasonable chance of encountering another civilization is, if that civilization is exceptionally long-lived. In which case it probably not only managed to survive but also to spread across our MW galaxy.
                Therefore, taking this assumption to its extreme, we are left with two possibilities:
                1) We are presently the only technological civilization in the MW galaxy.
                2) There is another (one other) galaxy-wide civilization, or at the most a few related ones. Which, for some unknown reason, does not directly communicate with us.

                A larger number of budding civilizations seems romantic but very unlikely.

                I myself guess for option 1.

            • hiro July 26, 2017, 17:00

              Fighting over galactic resources is never a reason, it’s more like humans vs Xeelee, the weak one wants to be numero uno in the region similar to a certain group of human beings here on this planet. On another hand, an ant that is crossing railroad gets whacked for no reason; hopefully we are smarter than that.

              Then there is still the galactic bully problem, a smarter & stronger races usually look down on the lower ones (we have this problem on this planet too), sometimes it’s more than bullying maybe a galactic sanction and this might explain the great silence or “interstellar racial segregation”.

              • ljk July 27, 2017, 8:47

                Are we sure that a more advanced ETI will “look down upon” a less advanced society?

                And I do not see your reason why two interstellar species with starship capabilities might not compete for galactic resources.

                Yes we could get whacked like an ant from an indifferent Universe via supernovae, gamma ray burst, etc., but as for deliberate whacking by an ETI, they would need a reason to go so far out of their way to hit us, right?

                For whatever reason an ETI might want to harm us – and I do not care how alien their mindset and motivations may be – they will need to gather considerable resources, time, and knowledge to do so. Plus I assume they will need the cooperation and agreement of a fair portion of their race to conduct such an activity.

                I just want you and others to consider what is really involved in going after other species from other star systems. Unless they are like gods, such ETI will need good reasons and a lot of support to invade another system light years away.

                • hiro July 27, 2017, 15:41

                  In around 2-3 years from the present, we might have a clue whether galactic resources are important to advanced civilizations which have existed for millions or billions of year. Mathematics without “physical evidences to back up” is more or less hard SF, consistent in math but not in reality; let’s delay this debate further in the future.

                  In the past > 200 years ago, gold was considered extremely important, now it might not be even in top 10; galactic resources are the same, they are more than enough to support several civilizations at the same time, the problem is that some bastards that want to dominate everything in the universe seek total control for some perverted reasons.

        • hiro July 25, 2017, 18:57

          I guess your definition of FTL communication includes audios, pictures/images and HD videos right?

          I “define” FTL quasi-communication as 1-2 qubit(s) yes/no answer, highly selected info moves one way with other additional restrictions, this version is more stable against decoherence because the system is much simpler.

          About causality, there is a big different between sending assassins to hunt down a certain person in the past vs an artificial observer giving yes/no answer about whether that certain person was dead or alive during that period of time. Extracting partial/incomplete information from a record in the past could be possible but changing the record itself is highly non-trivial….

  • Harry R Ray July 25, 2017, 10:34

    UPDATE: d39 is up on WTF. The SEPARATION between the LAST TWO(one is “R”, the other is “B”)is JUST PLAIN REDICULOUS!!! What really surprises me is that NOTHING HAS BEEN SAID ABOUT THIS on the sub-reddit http://www.reddit.com/r/KIC8462852. ANY SUBSCRIBERS who ALSO are readers of THIS website(EricSECT, etc): Any idea WHY nothing has been made of this yet?

    • Robert G July 26, 2017, 8:30

      When you say “d39 is up on WTF”, which website do you mean? I’ve been having a dig on the web for recent info and not getting very far.

      Any pointers appreciated! Thanks.

      • Robert G July 26, 2017, 8:48

        Ok. Found it myself a little way down on one of the reddit threads:


        Thanks for the heads-up!

        • Harry R Ray July 26, 2017, 9:24

          I ONLY post comments on “open” websites(like THIS ONE and AstroWright), unlike the sub-reddits for which you have to SUBSCRIBE. If you happen to subscribe to https://www.reddit.com/r/KIC8462852, or if wou happen to KNOW someone who DOES, please pass this information along.

    • Harry R Ray August 1, 2017, 17:05

      According to Tabitha Boyajian, Dip Three ended eighty days AFTER Dip One BEGAN. Is this a STRONG INDICATION that we were REWITNESSING the events causing the dips in the LAST EIGHTY DAYS of the Kepler MAIN MISSION, or is this just another co-incedence? If it IS no co-incedence, then we should be NOW rewitnessing the events in first few days of the Kepler main mission. ALSO: IT IS OFFICIAL: The “Elsie” dip, being “dippier in B than in R” is now believed to be primarily composed of “sub-micron” grains of dust. However, the “Celeste” dip appears NEARLY ACHROMATIC, indicating objects CONSIDERABLY LARGER THAN DUST! No comment yet from Boyajian et al on the third(as yet unamed)dip. It is now obvious, that EXCEPT for the INGRESS, THAT DIP WAS CLEARLY dippier in R than in B, because the last few days have been achromatic, indicating VALID DATA, instead of a problem with the LGO/OGG telescope. What this means is totally up in the air, However, to me, it is VERY TELLING that three distinct events in a relatively short time frame should be caused by THREE COMPLETELY DISTINCT CLASSES OF OBJECTS!!! Robert G(or anyone else), ANY IDEAS?

  • David M. July 26, 2017, 14:31

    It’s cute and oh so romantic a thought to rush and transmit and hurl our voices at the abyss, a cry in the wilderness? But also so immature. A zero sum gain, at best. For once, listen to the scientists that know what they are talking about.

    • ljk July 27, 2017, 9:07

      Humans are indeed an immature species, having only just recently stopped thinking that digital watches are really neat devices. There are also 7.5 billion of us and rising, the vast majority of which are stuck on one finite planet, of which only 25 percent is dry land.

      As we can see every day in the news all day long, trying to control that many individual intelligences with their own mindsets and different cultures and beliefs should make a thoughtful person amazed that we achieved civilization at all and have not yet bombed ourselves back into the stone age or worse.

      So what are we going to do about those who do want to send messages into the void? How about all those regular transmissions that have already gone into deep space since the invention of the radio and radar? We already have a bubble of electromagnetic radiation about 200 light years across that continues to expand at the speed of light and radio waves.

      You should realize that while there are scientists who oppose METI, there are plenty who do not. We also have organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA) who have recently conducted their own METI without consulting anyone and publicly showing no real concern over an alien invasion resulting from their cry into the wilderness.

      And then there is China with their brand new giant radio telescope called FAST which could do some serious radio METI if they chose to, and who would be able to stop them?

      We cannot control everyone on Earth with a transmitter and if we could, that would be a serious breach of basic human rights. Better if we stop doing the equivalent of hiding under our beds and wake up to the real Cosmos we live in. We need to improve our understanding of who and what are out there and plan accordingly. Because if the Universe wants to intrude on our domain in one form or another it will and it won’t be concerned with whether we are mature enough for such an encounter or not.

  • ljk July 28, 2017, 12:42

    China Recreating the Cosmos With World’s Most Powerful Supercomputer –“Will Assist the New Giant FAST Radio Telescope in Search for Alien Life”


  • ljk July 31, 2017, 9:01

    A Q&A with Frank Drake:


    To quote:

    SailingSmitty asked where Drake sat on the spectrum of trying to contact aliens vs awaiting contact from them — essentially, whether he is currently aligned with the Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) or SETI, which searches instead. In response, he stated, “I believe it is a waste of time and resources to transmit messages to alien life until we have actually detected alien life and know something about them.”

    Perhaps more interestingly, though, he continued, “Also, I do not believe it is dangerous to transmit signals because there is not a very great benefit for them to attack us.” This contrasts with other expert views.

  • ljk September 19, 2017, 10:05

    The media sure likes to play up the threat angle of METI, largely for their benefit to sell papers (is that an outdated term now?), but also some of it comes from their own ignorance and fears on the subject, fed in large part by decades of aliens as marauding invaders and conquerors stories.