Keith Cooper is a familiar face on Centauri Dreams, both through his own essays and the dialogues he and I have engaged in on interstellar topics. Keith is the editor of Astronomy Now and the author of both The Contact Paradox: Challenging Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Bloomsbury Sigma), and Origins of the Universe: The Cosmic Microwave Background and the Search for Quantum Gravity (Icon Books) to be published later this year. The Contact Paradox is a richly detailed examination of the history and core concepts of SETI, inspiring a new set of conversations, of which this is the first. With the recent expansion of the search through Breakthrough Listen, where does SETI stand both in terms of its likelihood of success and its perception among the general public?

  • Paul Gilster

Keith, we’re 60 years into SETI and no contact yet, though there are a few tantalizing things like the WOW! signal to hold our attention. Given that you have just given us an exhaustive study of the field and mined its philosophical implications, what’s your take on how this lack of results is playing with the general public? Are we more or less ready today than we were in the days of Project Ozma to receive news of a true contact signal?

And despite what we saw in the film Contact, do you think the resultant clamor would be as widespread and insistent? Because to me, one of the great paradoxes about the whole idea of contact is that the public seems to get fired up for the idea in film and books, but relatively uninterested in the actual work that’s going on. Or am I misjudging this?

  • Keith Cooper

What a lot of people don’t realise is just how big space is. Our Galaxy is home to somewhere between 100 billion and 200 billion stars. Yet, until Yuri Milner’s $100 million Breakthrough Listen project, we had looked and listened, in detail, at about a thousand of those stars. And when I say listened closely, I mean we pointed a telescope at each of those stars for half an hour or so. Even Breakthrough Listen, which will survey a million stars in detail, finds the odds stacked against it. Let’s imagine there are 10,000 technological species in our Galaxy. That sounds like a lot, but on average we’d have to search between 10 million and 20 million stars just to find one of those species.

And remember, we’re only listening for a short time. If they’re not transmitting during that time frame, then we won’t detect them, at least not with a radio telescope. Coupled with the fact that incidental radio leakage will be much harder to detect than we thought, then it’s little wonder that we’ve not found anyone out there yet. Of course, the public doesn’t see these nuances – they just see that we’ve been searching for 60 years and all we’ve found is negative or null results. So I’m not surprised that the public are often uninspired by SETI.

Some of this dissatisfaction might stem from the assumptions made in the early days of SETI, when it was assumed that ETI would be blasting out messages through powerful beacons that would be pretty obvious and easy to detect. Clearly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe that’s because they’re not out there, or maybe it’s because the pure, selfless altruism required to build such a huge, energy-hungry transmitter to beam messages to unknown species is not very common in nature. Certainly on Earth, in the animal kingdom, altruism usually operates either on the basis of protecting one’s kin, or via quid pro quo, neither of which lend themselves to encouraging interstellar communication.

So I think we – that is, both the public and the SETI scientific community – need to readjust our expectations a little bit.

Are we ready to receive a contact signal? I suspect that we think we are, but that’s different from truly being ready. Of course, it depends upon a number of variables, such as the nature of the contact, whether we can understand the message if one is sent, and whether the senders are located close in space to us or on the other side of the Galaxy. A signal detected from thousands of light years away and which we can’t decode the message content of, will have much less impact than one from, say, 20 or 30 light years away, and which we can decode the message content and perhaps even start to communicate with on a regular basis.

  • Paul Gilster

I’ll go further than that. To me, the optimum SETI signal to receive first would be one from an ancient civilization, maybe one way toward galactic center, which would make by virtue of its extreme distance a non-threatening experience. Or at least it would if we quickly went to work on expanding public understanding of the size of the Galaxy and the Universe itself, as you point out. An even more ancient signal from a different galaxy would be even better, as even the most rabid conspiracy theorist would have little sense of immediate threat.

I suppose the best scenario of all would be a detection that demonstrated other intelligent life somewhere far away in the cosmos, and then a century or so for humanity to digest the idea, working it not only into popular culture, but also into philosophy, art, so that it becomes a given in our school textbooks (or whatever we’ll use in the future in place of school textbooks). Then, if we’re going to receive a signal from a relatively nearby system, let it come after this period of acclimatization.

Great idea, right? As if we could script what happens when we’re talking about something as unknowable as SETI contact. I don’t even think we’d have to have a message we could decode at first, because the important thing would be the simple recognition of the fact that other civilizations are out there. On that score, maybe Dysonian SETI turns the trick with the demonstration of a technology at work around another star. The fact of its existence is what we have to get into our basic assumptions about the universe. I used to assume this would be easy and come soon, and while I do understand about all those stars out there, I’m still a bit puzzled that we haven’t turned up something. I’d call that no more than a personal bias, but there it is.

Image: The Parkes 64m radio telescope in Parkes, New South Wales, Australia with the Milky Way overhead. Breakthrough Listen is now conducting a survey of the Milky Way galactic plane over 1.2 to 1.5 GHz and a targeted search of approximately 1000 nearby stars over the frequency range 0.7 to 4 GHz. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Daniel John Reardon.

  • Keith Cooper

It’s the greatest puzzle that there is. Radio SETI approaches things from the assumption that ET just sat at home belting out radio signals, and yet, as we know, the Universe is so old that ET has had ample time to reach us, or to build some kind of Dysonian artefact, or to do something to make their presence more obvious. And over the years we’ve all drawn our own conclusions as to why this does not seem to be the case – maybe they are here but hidden, watching us like we’re in some kind of cosmic zoo. Or maybe interstellar travel and building megastructures are more difficult than we envision. Perhaps they are all dead, or technological intelligence is rare, or they were never out there in the first place. We just don’t know. All we can do is look.

I think science fiction has also trained us to expect alien life to be out there – and I don’t mean that as a criticism of the genre. Indeed, in The Contact Paradox, I often use science fiction as allegory, largely because that’s where discussions about what form alien life may take and what might happen during contact have already taken place. So let me ask you this, Paul: From all the sf that you’ve read, are there any particular stories that stand out as a warning about the subtleties of contact?

  • Paul Gilster

I suppose my favorite of all the ‘first contact through SETI’ stories is James Gunn’s The Listeners (1972). Here we have multiple narrators working a text that is laden with interesting quotations. Gunn’s narrative methods go all the way back to Dos Passos and anticipate John Brunner (think Stand on Zanzibar, for example). It’s fascinating methodology, but beyond that, the tumult that greets the decoding of an image from Capella transforms into acceptance as we learn more about a culture that seems to be dying and await what may be the reply to a message humanity had finally decided to send in response. So The Listeners isn’t really a warning as much as an exploration of this tangled issue in all its complexity.

Of course, if we widen the topic to go beyond SETI and treat other forms of contact, I love what Stanislaw Lem did with Solaris (1961). A sentient ocean! I also have to say that I found David Brin’s Existence (2012) compelling. Here competing messages are delivered by something akin to Bracewell probes, reactivated after long dormancy. Which one do you believe, and how do you resolve deeply contradictory information? Very interesting stuff! I mean, how do we respond if we get a message, and then a second one saying “Don’t pay any attention to that first message?”

What are some of your choices? I could go on for a bit about favorite science fiction but I’d like to hear from you. I assume Sagan’s Contact (1985) is on your list, but how about dazzling ‘artifact’ contact, as in the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (1972)? And how do we fit in Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem (2008)? At first glance, I thought we were talking about Alpha Centauri, but the novel shows no familiarity with the actual Centauri system, while still being evocative and exotic. Here the consequences of contact are deeply disturbing.

  • Keith Cooper

I wish I were as well read as you are, Paul! I did read The Three Body Problem, but it didn’t strike a chord with me, which is a shame. For artefact contact, however, I have to mention the Arthur C. Clarke classic, Rendezvous with Rama (1973). One of the things I liked about that story is that it removed us from the purpose of Rama. We just happened to be bystanders, oblivious to Rama’s true intent and destination (at least until the sequel novels).

Clarke’s story feels relevant to SETI today, in which embracing the search for ‘technosignatures’ has allowed researchers to consider wider forms of detection than just radio signals. In particular, we’ve seen more speculation about finding alien spacecraft in our own Solar System – see Avi Loeb pondering whether 1I/’Oumuamua was a spacecraft (I don’t think it was), or Jim Benford’s paper about looking for lurkers.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, although it’s speculative and I really don’t expect us to find anything, I see no reason why we shouldn’t look for probes in the Solar System, just in case, and it would be done in a scientific manner. On the other hand, it sets SETI on a collision course with ufology, and I’d be interested to see how that would play out in the media and with the public.

It could also change how we think about contact. Communication over many light years via radio waves or optical signals is one thing, but if the SETI community agrees that it’s possible that there could be a probe in our Solar System, then that would bring things into the arena of direct contact. As a species, I don’t think we’re ready to produce a coherent response to a radio signal, and we are certainly not ready for direct contact.

Contact raises ethical dilemmas. There’s the obvious stuff, such as who has the right to speak for Earth, and indeed whether we should respond at all, or stay silent. I think there are other issues though. There may be information content in the detected signal, for example a message containing details of new technology, or new science, or new cultural artefacts.

However, we live in a world in which resources are not shared equally. Would the information contained within the signal be shared to the whole world, or will governments covet that information? If the technological secrets learned from the signal could change the world, for good or ill, who should we trust to manage those secrets?

These issues become amplified if contact is direct, such as finding one of Benford’s lurkers. Would we all agree that the probe should have its own sovereignty and keep our distance? Or would one or more nations or organisations seek to capture the probe for their own ends? How could we disseminate what we learn from the probe so that it benefits all humankind? And what if the probe doesn’t want to be captured, and defends itself?

My frustration with SETI is that we devote our efforts to trying to make contact, but then shun any serious discussion of what could happen during contact. The search and the discussion should be happening in tandem, so that we are ready should SETI find success, and I’m frankly puzzled that we don’t really do this. Paul, do you have any insight into why this might be?

  • Paul Gilster

You’ve got me. You and I are on a slightly different page when it comes to METI, for example (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence). But we both agree that while we search for possible evidence of ETI, we should be having this broad discussion about the implications of success. And if we’re talking about actually sending a signal without any knowledge whatsoever of what might be out there, then that discussion really should take priority, as far as I’m concerned. I’d be much more willing to accept the idea of sending signals if we came to an international consensus on the goal of METI and its possible consequences.

As to why we don’t do this, I hear a lot of things. Most people from the METI side argue that the cat is already out of the bag anyway, with various private attempts to send signals proliferating, and the assumption that ever more sophisticated technology will allow everyone from university scientists to the kid in the basement to send signals whenever they want. I can’t argue with that. But I don’t think the fact that we have sent messages means we should give up on the idea of discussing why we’re doing it and why it may or may not be a sound idea. I’m not convinced anyway that any signals yet sent have the likelihood of being received at interstellar distances.

But let’s leave METI alone for a moment. On the general matter of SETI and implications of receiving a signal or finding ETI in astronomical data, I think we’re a bit schizophrenic. When I talk about ‘we,’ I mean western societies, as I have no insights into how other traditions now view the implications of such knowledge. But in the post-Enlightenment tradition of places like my country and yours, contacting ETI is on one level accepted (I think this can be demonstrated in recent polling) while at the same time it is viewed as a mere plot device in movies.

This isn’t skepticism, because that implies an effort to analyze the issue. This is just a holdover of old paradigms. Changing them might take a silver disc touching down and Michael Rennie strolling out. On the day that happens, the world really would stand still.

Let’s add in the fact that we’re short-sighted in terms of working for results beyond the next dividend check (or episode of a favorite show). With long-term thinking in such perilously short supply (and let’s acknowledge the Long Now Foundation‘s heroic efforts at changing this), we have trouble thinking about how societies change over time with the influx of new knowledge.

Our own experience says that superior technologies arriving in places without warning can lead to calamity, whether intentional or not, which in and of itself should be a lesson as we ponder signals from the stars. A long view of civilization would recognize how fragile its assumptions can be when faced with sudden intervention, as any 500 year old Aztec might remind us.

Image: A 17th century CE oil painting depicting the Spanish Conquistadores led by Hernan Cortes besieging the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519 CE. (Jay I. Kislak Collection).

Keith, what’s your take on the ‘cat out of the bag’ argument with regard to METI? It seems to me to ignore the real prospect that we can change policy and shape behavior if we find it counterproductive, instead focusing on human powerlessness to control our impulses. Don’t we on the species level have agency here? How naive do you think I am on this topic?

  • Keith Cooper

That is the ‘contact paradox’ in a nutshell, isn’t it? This idea that we’re actively reaching out to ETI, yet we can’t agree on whether it’s safe to do so or not. That’s the purpose of my book, to try and put the discussion regarding contact in front of a wider audience.

In The Contact Paradox, I’m trying not to tell people what they should think about contact, although of course I give my own opinions on the matter. What I am asking is that people take the time to think more carefully about this issue, and about our assumptions, by embarking on having the broader debate.

Readers of Centauri Dreams might point out that they have that very debate in the comments section of this website on a frequent basis. And while that’s true to an extent, I think the debate, whether on this site or among researchers at conferences or even in the pages of science fiction, has barely scratched the surface. There are so many nuances and details to examine, so many assumptions to challenge, and it’s all too easy to slip back into the will they/won’t they invade discussion, which to me is a total straw-man argument.

To compound this, while the few reviews that The Contact Paradox has received so far have been nice, I am seeing a misunderstanding arise in those reviews that once again brings the debate back down to the question of whether ETI will be hostile or not. Yet the point I am making in the book is that even if ETI is benign, contact could potentially still go badly, through misunderstandings, or through the introduction of disruptive technology or culture.

Let me give you a hypothetical example based on a science-fiction technology. Imagine we made contact with ETI, and they saw the problems we face on Earth currently, such as poverty, disease and climate change. So they give us some of their technology – a replicator, like that in Star Trek, capable of making anything from the raw materials of atoms. Let’s also assume that the quandaries that I mentioned earlier, about who takes possession of that technology and whether they horde it, don’t apply. Instead, for the purpose of this argument, let’s assume that soon enough the technology is patented by a company on Earth and rolled out into society to the point that replicators became as common a sight in people’s homes as microwave ovens.

Just imagine what that could do! There would be no need for people to starve or suffer from drought – the replicators could make all the food and water we’d ever need. Medicine could be created on the spot, helping people in less wealthy countries who can’t ordinarily get access to life-saving drugs. And by taking away the need for industry and farming, we’d cut down our carbon emissions drastically. So all good, right?

But let’s flip the coin and look at the other side. All those people all across the world who work in manufacturing and farming would suddenly be out of a job, and with people wanting for nothing, the economy would crash completely, and international trade would become non-existent – after all, why import cocoa beans when you can just make them in your replicator at home? We’d have a sudden obesity crisis, because when faced with an abundance of resources, history tells us that it is often human nature to take too much. We’d see a drugs epidemic like never before, and people with malicious intent would be able to replicate weapons out of thin air. Readers could probably imagine other disruptive consequences of such a technology.

It’s only a thought experiment, but it’s a useful allegory showing that there are pros and cons to the consequences of contact. What we as a society have to do is decide whether the pros outweigh the cons, and to be prepared for the disruptive consequences. We can get some idea of what to expect by looking at contact between different societies on Earth throughout history. Instead of the replicator, consider historical contact events where gunpowder, or fast food, or religion, or the combustion engine have been given to societies that lacked them. What were the consequences in those situations?

This is the discussion that we’re not currently having when we do METI. There’s no risk assessment, just a bunch of ill-thought-out assumptions masquerading as a rationale for attempting contact before we’re ready.

There’s still time though. ETI would really have to be scrutinising us closely to detect our leakage or deliberate signals so far, and if they’re doing that then they would surely already know we are here. So I don’t think the ‘cat is out of the bag’ just yet, which means there is still time to have this discussion, and more importantly to prepare. Because long-term I don’t think we should stay silent, although I do think we need to be cautious, and learn what is out there first, and get ready for it, before we raise our voice. And if it turns out that no one is out there, then we’ve not wasted our time, because I think this discussion can teach us much about ourselves too.

  • Paul Gilster

We’re on the same wavelength there, Keith. I’m not against the idea of communicating with ETI if we receive a signal, but only within the context you suggest, which means thinking long and hard about what we want to do, making a decision based on international consultation, and realizing that any such contact would have ramifications that have to be carefully considered. On balance, we might just decide to stay silent until we gathered further information.

I do think many people have simply not considered this realistically. I was talking to a friend the other day whose reaction was typical. He had been asking me about SETI from a layman’s perspective, and I was telling him a bit about current efforts like Breakthrough Listen. But when I added that we needed to be cautious about how we responded, if we responded, to any reception, he was incredulous, then thoughtful. “I’ve just never thought about that,” he said. “I guess it just seems like science fiction. But of course I realize it isn’t.”

So we’re right back to paradox. If we have knowledge of the size of the galaxy — indeed, of the visible cosmos — why do we not see more public understanding of the implications? I think people could absorb the idea of a SETI reception without huge disruption, but it will force a cultural shift that turns what had been fiction into the realm of possibility.

But maybe we should now identify the broad context within which this shift can occur. In the beginning of your book, Keith, you say this: “Understanding altruism may ultimately be the single most significant factor in our quest to make contact with other intelligent life in the Universe.”

I think this is exactly right, and the next time we talk, I’d like us to dig into why this statement is true, and its ramifications for how we deal with not only extraterrestrial contact but our own civilization. Along with this, let’s get into that thorny question of ‘deep time’ and how our species sees itself in the cosmos.