≡ Menu

On SETI, International Law, and Realpolitik

When Ken Wisian and John Traphagan (University of Texas at Austin) published “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Realpolitik Consideration” (Space Policy, May 2020), they tackled a problem I hadn’t considered. We’ve often discussed Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) in these pages, pondering the pros and cons of broadcasting to the stars, but does SETI itself pose issues we are not considering? Moreover, could addressing these issues possibly point the way toward international protocols to address METI concerns?

Ken was kind enough to write a post summarizing the paper’s content, which appears below. A Major General in the USAF (now retired), Dr. Wisian is currently Associate Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, Jackson School of Geosciences at UT. He is also affiliated with the Center for Space Research and the Center for Planetary Systems Habitability at the university. A geophysicist whose main research is in geothermal energy systems, modeling, and instrumentation & data analysis, he is developing a conference on First Contact Protocols to take place at UT-Austin this fall, a follow-on to his recent session at TVIW 2019 in Wichita.

by Ken Wisian

The debate over the wisdom of active Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (METI), has been vigorously engaged for some time. The progenitor of METI and the more accepted passive Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been largely assumed to be of little or no risk. The reasons for this assumption appear to be:

1. It does not alert ETI to our existence and therefore we should not face a threat of invasion or destruction from aliens (if it is even practical to do so over interstellar distances)

2. The minor Earthbound threat from extremists (of various possible persuasions) who might not like the possibility of ETI’s existence conflicting with their “world view” would be no more than an annoyance.

Implicit in the above is the underlying assumption that the only realistic threat that could arise from METI or SETI is that from a hostile ETI. In other words, the threat is external to humanity. What this too simple reasoning overlooks is human history, particularly international affairs, conflicts and war. [1]

SETI as used here is the passive searching for electromagnetic signals from ETI. This is currently primarily considered to be in the form of radio or laser signal, deliberately sent to somewhere. The search for non-signal evidence (e.g. inadvertent laser propulsion leakage, etc) is not considered here, though it could tie in to the discussion in a distant, indirect manner. Note: an ETI artifact (e.g. a spaceship) could have similar import as a SETI detection discussed here.

So what harm could SETI do? Looking at current and historical international affairs, particularly great-power competition, the answer is readily apparent – competition for dominance. In international affairs, nations compete, sometimes violently, for position in the world. This can be for economic or military advantage, more land or control over the seas, or merely survival. Witness the South China Sea today, stealing the secrets to nuclear weapons in the 1940’s and 1950’s, or the Byzantine Empire engaging in industrial espionage to steal the secret to making silk from China.

Now contemplate the potential technology advances that could come with a SETI detection. This could range from downloading the “Encyclopedia Galactica” to establishing two-way dialogue that includes sharing technology. With the potential for revolutionary science and technology leaps, whether directly destructive or not, to say the great & super powers would be “interested” is a monumental understatement.

Now think about the potential advantage (read as domination-enabling) that could accrue to one country if they were the only beneficiaries of said technology advances. “How?” you ask. “Anyone can point a radio telescope to the sky” Not so fast. Unless the signal comes from within our own galactic back yard, most likely within the Solar System, it will take a relatively large, complicated industrial complex (physical plant) with very specialized personnel to run, in order to send and receive interstellar communications. This is the key fact that could lead to SETI/METI being the next “Great Game” [2] of international affairs.

Large, specialized complexes & associated personnel are limited in number and therefore subject to physical control. For the sake of argument, let’s say there are a dozen such facilities in the world. This is far less than the number of critical infrastructure sites the US and coalition forces decided had to be taken out in Iraq in the Gulf Wars in order to reduce their military capability – a very manageable target set size. Now you begin to see the problem; superpowers, seeing a potentially world-dominating advantage in monopolizing the ETI communication channel, might also see as feasible preserving their access to ETI while at the same time denying the same to all other countries.

While “Great Games” like this can sometimes be kept in the purely political realm, that is relatively rare. Competition of this sort often includes violent espionage or proxy wars and occasionally can escalate to direct super-power competition. Thus, an actual SETI detection could lead rapidly to the first true information war – a superpower war (with all the existential risk that carries) fought purely for control of knowledge.

Monopolizing communication with ETI could be the trigger for the first information-driven world war.

Realization of the risk that even passive SETI presents should drive further actions:

1. The development of realistic and binding international treaties on the handling of first contact protocols – admittedly a long-shot. The existing post-detection protocol is a very small and completely non-binding first step in this direction.

2. Formation of deliberately international SETI facilities with uninterruptible data sharing to partner countries (and/or the UN). These would also have interleaved internal chains of command from member countries. While this would be somewhat inefficient, the offset to risk is well worth the effort. A phase 2 to this would be a similar arrangement for METI. This would implicitly force the adoption of international standards and provide a process for METI.

3. Further (renewed?) discussion and research into SETI risk. This should bring in many disciplines that are often not involved deeply in the SETI/METI fields, from government policy to history to psychology and many others. In staring so hard at the very obvious risk of METI, we missed the risk from SETI alone. We need to turn around and explore that road before proceeding further down the highway to METI.


[1] What I am getting at here is that unfortunately, this is a stereotypical “ivory tower” point of view, too idealistic and disconnected from messy, illogical human affairs. I say this reluctantly as a “card-carrying” (i.e. Ph.D.) member of the academic world.

[2] I am definitely abusing the term “Great Game” in multiple ways. The term refers to the 19th competition between the British and Russian empires for control of Central and South Asia. It was a deadly serious and deadly game in actuality, but the term captures well the feeling of being in a fierce competition.

PG: Let me insert here this excerpt from the paper highlighting the question of international law and the issues it raises:

The potentially enormous value to nation states of monopolizing communication with ETI, for the purpose of technological dominance in human affairs, is a significant factor in understanding possible scenarios after a confirmed contact event and bears further thinking by scholars and policy specialists. History shows that in circumstances that states perceive as vital they will likely act in their perceived best interest in accordance with principles of realpolitik thinking. In these circumstances, international law is frequently not a strong constraint on the behavior of governments and a protocol developed by scientists on how to handle first contact is unlikely to be of any concern at all. This risk needs to be acknowledged and understood by the larger international community to include scientists active in SETI in addition to political leaders and international relations scholars.

The paper is Wisian and Traphagan, “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Realpolitik Consideration,” Space Policy May, 2000 (abstract).


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dwight Williams May 22, 2020, 15:27

    This strikes me as having eerie parallels to current political events regarding human access to space in general.

  • hiro May 22, 2020, 15:39

    Playing 3D Go with the ET version of AlphaZero Go seems impossible to win, it’s best not to play in the beginning.

  • Gary Wilson May 22, 2020, 16:13

    A fascinating idea Dr. Wisian. All of it seems all too valid. Superpower competition has been and will continue to be a major danger to world peace (such as it usually is). However, knowledge is power, so discussion of this concept is essential. Unfortunately superpowers do what they deem to be in their own “national interests” as if this doesn’t often cause repercussions that endanger everyone. The current state of world political affairs suggests that no unified response to the possibility of a single nation or group of nations monopolizing communication with ETI will occur. However the discussion of your thoughts will be invaluable and the more people who think about these things the better. Thank you for this invaluable contribution sir.

  • Alex Tolley May 22, 2020, 16:36

    The footnote #2 says it all:

    Science Fiction on the other hand is rich with well-thought-out contact scenarios and worthy of a deep dive on the subject. Examples range from H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898), to Carl Sagan’s Contact (1985), to David Brin’s Existence (2012).

    Fiction has covered possibly all the possible great power competition angles to deal with a real or even imagined SETI contact. If contact was deemed likely, this information war would be being actively carried out right now. Maybe it already is, but I think governments view the possibility as being very remote. If they didn’t there would be a lot more funding of the efforts.

    Realpolitik is one aspect. However we have an even longer history of religious wars where each protagonist thinks it has the support of its supreme deity/deities.

    One point I would make is that the paper assumes that contact would confer benefits to the nation[s] having access. That is not necessarily true, again as fiction has already explored. This also offers the opportunity to fake contact to disrupt opponents. We have a taste of that with disinformation and conspiracy theories, purportedly coming from authorities. Imagine if QAnon was replaced with a fake “Feline Overlord”. Would it be materially different from another religion, evangelized across the media?

  • Keith Cooper May 22, 2020, 17:11

    I’m writing this in a hurry, but:

    I think you and I touched on this in our last dialogue, Paul: https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2020/02/28/exploring-the-contact-paradox/, and myself in The Contact Paradox.

    Ok, let’s try and imagine the scenario. The likelihood might be that if we did detect a signal, it could take years or decades to decipher it, or maybe even never. But, let’s suppose that ET made it easier for us and we were able to decipher the message, and let’s suppose it contained some valuable information that governments and corporations would fight over, although I’d question why ET would be willing to give us that knowledge. Anyway, let’s suppose that happens, and there’s a race to make the detection, or to decipher the message first. Who could we trust with that information? Who would deserve it? If the information is world-changing or dangerous – a risky new technology, for example – should it be released to the public domain, or kept secret by the powers that be, packed away in a crate in the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark? And there’s always the slim chance of a Trojan horse attack embedded in a signal. And yes, will nations or corporations fight, steal, maybe even kill to get their hands on the information? These are fair questions, but I don’t think governments are asking them yet – I doubt they will even think to until a detection is made.

    One aspect that Ken Wisian hasn’t mentioned is that SETI has recently looked more into the possibility of a probe in our Solar System, discretely watching us. If a probe were to be found, then we’d have a real race to retrieve it, because it wouldn’t just be an indecipherable message, but real hardware. And the probe might want to defend itself too. And what rights should we bestow on the probe if it is a sovereign entity?

    These are all questions that SETI shies away from. Sometimes we’re so focused on the search we forget to look at the consequences of meeting success in the search.

    Or, like in the Star Trek TNG episode ‘The Chase’, all the different nations will fight each other to claim the knowledge contained in the message, only to find it’s something completely benign, and not what they thought it was. As Alex Tolley says, science fiction is filled with scenarios like this.

  • Antonio May 22, 2020, 18:15

    I don’t think this scenario is realistic. If, as you say, there were only a dozen SETI-capable infraestructures in the world, controlled by the 4-5 superpowers, destroying any of them would be a declaration of war, and none of them would dare to start a war with a peer or near peer (not a tiny enemy like Ukranie, Iran, Siria or North Korea).

    Think, for example, about the miriad spy satellites currently around Earth. Why no country dares to destroy any of the satellites spying it? Because the consequences would be too big to handle. None of the main powers want an open all-or-nothing war against any of the others. Politicians are stupid but not that stupid. One thing is fighting a war in a far shithole and other very different ting is having a war in your own backyard.

    • tesh May 23, 2020, 4:03

      Wouldn’t we be the “s***hole” in any contact scenario? If we do not obey, wouldn’t we be ripe for a front row, shock and awe demonstration.

      Unless we cosy up to the US/China/USSR equivalent we are the “s***hole”. I guess could could contact many in one go but is that likely?

      Our first contact will likely enslave/make us dependent on them. Fingers crossed their intentions are good but we all know where paths paved those slabs lead to.

      • Antonio May 25, 2020, 2:47

        That’s not the topic of the article nor my comment.

    • Gary Wilson May 23, 2020, 13:05

      I think history is full of examples of politicians being “that stupid” Antonio. Don’t overestimate them, especially right now. We are in a very dangerous time and just about anything might push the major powers into war. It’s not unrealistic at all to think a message or some other form of contact with aliens would push the paranoia to an even more dangerous level. It’s a very good thing indeed that the chances of this occurring at any particular moment in time appear to be very low.

      • Alex Tolley May 23, 2020, 17:08

        With China now having the largest radio telescope, can you imagine the US response of if China announced that they had received a transmission that appeared to be a textbook on advanced physics and technology? That the Chinese thought this would advance their industrial technology base well ahead of the rest of the world? That not only would they no longer need Western technology, but they would be the sole source of this advanced technology and would decide who would have access to it and on what terms? That some technologies, such as a revolutionary space drive would be kept for the sole use of China to allow it to dominate and exploit the solar system?

        Hardly bears thinking about.

        • Gary Wilson May 23, 2020, 21:04

          I wouldn’t want any nation or group of nations to have that kind of technological advantage Alex, not just China. No group can be trusted with that kind of power (knowing what they say about power and corruption). My college history teacher argued 40 years ago that the world absolutely had to remove the concept of nation states to ensure long term survival of the human race. He escaped from Austria and fought with the Black Watch against the Nazis, and survived Dieppe, so he knew what he was talking about. I see no reason given current circumstances to think that he was wrong. Alien technology, if in the hands of a single power would definitely push us over the edge and into war again.

          • Gary Wilson May 24, 2020, 16:28

            In fact I now realize I have fused memories of two people I once knew together. My college History teacher, Dr. Porges who did escape from Austria and fight for the Allies and my French teacher in high school whose name I can’t remember but who fought as a member of the Black Watch at Dieppe and obviously survived the war. It’s a bit frightening to realize how memory can play tricks. As for two world wars with a Depression in between (and a pandemic) right now we have a Depression and a pandemic and an extremely unstable world of nation states. If we threw in First Contact it would be total chaos and a potential world war. The outcome would depend on not using nuclear weapons and realizing the futility of such an event fairly quickly.

          • hiro May 24, 2020, 16:49

            After reading The Hercules Text during the quarantine, one concludes that those who could control the spacetime curvature would control the whole universe. The current politics around the world is toxic that something less advanced like anti-aging formulae can force different groups of the elite fighting to death (the horror of everyone becomes immortal is another different problem in itself). The other extremes could be blueprints of nuclear fusion reaction, quantum AI, and wormhole tech (if it really exists) will definitely destroy the balance of powers on this planet and the planet itself can be destroyed (by relativistic objects) if certain religious groups after moving to other worlds decide that the population on this planet is corrupted and need to be wiped out completely due to “religious reasons”.

        • Robin Datta May 23, 2020, 23:23

          “US response of if China announced that they had received a transmission”…

          But would China be so stupid? Let’s keep in mind that ethnic Chinese outclass whites (and browns and blacks) in US academia.

          Could first contact be by cryptanalysts in some secretive agency of some government, working on some overlooked phenomenon such as fast radio bursts?

      • Antonio May 25, 2020, 2:50

        Can you provide a single example of two superpowers engaging in direct war against each other in, say, the last 200 years?

        • Alex Tolley May 25, 2020, 10:26

          England vs France (Napoleonic wars), Germany vs England & France (WW1, WW2), Russia vs USA (cold war…possibly revived).

          Read Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”. His data shows that war tends to occur when an upcoming power’s GDP equals that of the current hegemon.
          Depending on how you measure GDP – exchange-rate or purchasing power parity, China is either approaching, or has surpassed US GDP. That is why there are plenty of signs that China is flexing its military muscles. As with the US pushing Japan into war by restricting access to key resources, the US today is again doing the same to China. Interestingly, the US is also following a similar economic policy as the underdog Nazi Germany in the 1930s, especially in trade arrangements. (I hope that is just the outlook of the current administration and will revert to “normal” when it has gone.)

          The Cold War was the mid to late 20th century version of the 19th century “Great Game”. The former tried to avoid all but skirmishes, e.g. Crimea. The Cold War was more direct but avoided direct war with nuclear posturing. We had come to within eyeblinks of nuclear exchange twice during that time. Fortunately, sanity prevailed, with Russia being the nation that avoided the conflict on both occasions. We might not be so lucky next time.

          • Antonio May 26, 2020, 9:39

            “England vs France (Napoleonic wars)”

            It was more all vs France than England vs France, and it was more than 200 years ago (by not much, I know).

            “(WW1, WW2)”

            Those were wars of a superpower against itself (Europe) with external intervention instead of direct wars between superpowers.

            “Russia vs USA (cold war…possibly revived).”

            Not a direct war. It’s the kind of third country wars I talked about in my first comment.

  • Winchell Chung May 22, 2020, 19:07

    I remember reading in an ancient science essay (probably by Arthur C. Clarke) musing about the unexpected power of SETI.
    He said something to the effect that it was a sobering though that the global balance of power could be altered by a few milliwatts of radio signals arriving from an alien civilization

    • Ken Wisian May 24, 2020, 18:25

      If anyone can track down that Arthur Clarke quote, please post it.

  • Ken Wisian May 22, 2020, 19:57

    Al (and Gary)

    Your comments are spot on – thanks. In the journal paper John Traphagan and I do largely echo your comments regarding superpower behavior and the possibly false assumption of benefit to “owning” the communication channels.

    We hope this article sparks vigorous discussion in the community.

  • Thomas W. Hair May 23, 2020, 0:28

    Why do we have to keep going over the METI thing again and again?
    If they are out there at all, they are ancient and nearly omniscient. They would have the ability to either explore or observe from a distance nearly every solar system in the Milky Way in great detail. They would know this planet, even with thousands of years of time delay in their observations, harbors something special. Don’t worry about waking the aliens, because if they actually exist they already know our address.

    • Mike Serfas May 23, 2020, 13:37

      I don’t think it’s right to dismiss METI risks. A front-running explanation for the Fermi paradox is that civilizations routinely destroy themselves before or soon after reaching the level of technology where they can send messages to the cosmos. Another is that sending communications leads them to be destroyed by (in essence) predators. In both these scenarios, alien civilizations capable of making contact are very rare, and very new, and very likely a danger to anyone who would contact them.

      This logic works in reverse for passive SETI. If our civilization is at a stage where it is already in great danger, then any stray signal that would reveal what form this danger takes could be of immense importance. Even if the end cannot be avoided, delaying it by a few years can be a very good deed.

      Even so, one can certainly postulate risks for passive SETI. For example, consider what is probably a vulgar misinterpretation of the nature of “observation” and how it affects quantum phenomena…. How confident are we really that if we successfully receive a bit from an alien transmission and resolve it into one of two possible quantum states, this does not produce a potentially measurable effect (for a civilization with highly advanced physics) at the time and place where it was originally transmitted?

      • Brett P Bellmore May 25, 2020, 9:12

        Fairly confident; That’s not, frustratingly, how quantum entanglement works. You can create two particles, including photons, whose states are entangled, and when you measure one, it guarantees what result you’ll get if you measure the other, but the key point here is that when you do the first measurement, you get a *random* result; You’re measuring the state, not setting it.

        So the second measurement may be correlated to the first, but it’s still random, and the only way to see the correlation is for the two places doing the measurements to compare their results. And to get even that they have to be measuring the same way; If at one end you measure left-right polarization, say, and at the other end you measure up-down polarization, there’s no correlation, and you’ve blown your one and only chance to do the measurement.

        Now, this account may well be false, but only if our current understanding of physics is false. (It probably is, but would have to be *relevantly* false.) And once you assume our current understanding of physics is wrong, well, you’ve opened the door to almost anything. You might as well just worry that an alien civilization has magical powers.

      • Wojciech J May 25, 2020, 15:37

        Our biosphere and even cities have been sending METI signals into space already. Ancient and interstellar travel capable civilisation could easily detect our world with telescopes that are barely 30-50 years ahead of our current technology.

        • Thomas W. Hair May 25, 2020, 21:51

          Right on Woj, our exoplanet search will advanced over time to encompass large parts of the galaxy. Clever folks are already doing things we could only imagine in the 1980’s. We can only speculate in a gross way what an ancient intelligence is capable of doing and we would probable still be off by several orders of magnitude. But if they exist at all, then they know we are here.

          • Mike Serfas May 27, 2020, 1:44

            That’s a very reasonable argument. But if we are so confident that aliens already know about us by intercepting our communications … why bother to send them messages?

    • Antonio May 25, 2020, 10:47

      Yeah, METI fears are totally non-sense. AntiMETI arguments say more about the people that produce them than about ETIs.

      • Thomas W. Hair May 25, 2020, 15:50

        Could not agree more Antonio. All you get from them is Cassandra-like hand wringing and a vague politico-nihilistic message about how screwed up the human race is. We are not about to self-destruct, populations are stabilizing, the environment will adapt and persevere, and we live in the most peaceful time in human history. Too much information in this information age causes quite a number of folks to go straight to confirmation bias. If they are out there, then they already know we are here. So chill my antiMETI friends.

        • Ron S. May 25, 2020, 19:49

          Antonio: “AntiMETI arguments say more about the people that produce them than about ETIs.”

          Thomas: “Cassandra-like hand wringing”

          Ad hominem is not valid argumentation. Attempting to demean those you disagree with says more about you than them. There are well-formed arguments on both sides of the METI question and both deserve a degree of respect.

          While I find the topic interesting and occasionally pay attention to it I am neither pro-METI nor anti-METI.

          • Thomas W. Hair May 25, 2020, 21:27

            Ron, I think my comments were a bit too biting (sorry for that), but they are not ad hominem since they are not against the man but only against the man’s ideas. However, using the ad hominen defense when another points out a weakness in my argument is somewhere I choose not to go. I just think when dealing with a billion year old intelligence (if it exists at all) the METI argument has been moot since at least the Cambrian.

            • Ron S. May 27, 2020, 8:22

              No apology necessary, Thomas. I am simply frustrated by the excess emotion METI seems to excite in many people. I believe the topic merits better. Consider, would you want to be labelled a “Cassandra” by a person who wishes to dispute your position? It demeans you and fails to address the points you are making. On the other side there are similar slurs, such as “naive!” METI would benefit from less heat and more light.

              • Mike Serfas May 27, 2020, 10:43

                I’ve been around since the golden age of the internet, so this sort of give-and-take doesn’t bother me. But I do feel like there are different standards for SETI than with some other scientific expenditures.

                For example, imagine someone wanted to solve the coronavirus problem. The genome was known back in January – so just chop out the E protein, an ion channel which is believed to be a target of azithromycin, infect some grad students with the altered virus and see if that attenuates it enough that people don’t die. Bing, bam, boom – an infectious vaccine people can pass on to their friends at block parties. True, there is a big chance the virus would either not infect people or be just as infectious as before. Possibly it even would be worse, though you can make a first-principles argument that if the virus could spontaneously delete the gene to become worse then it would have by now anyway. These drawbacks seem reminiscent of the drawbacks here, but (like SETI) might be countered by the argument that if we had cured coronavirus worldwide last March we’d have been very much better off.

                Now, it might be that the best approach lies somewhere in the middle, but at the moment there are many “outstanding” ideas in the physical sciences that are just barely denied funding. To talk about large national SETI projects that are unlikely to succeed and could lead to unexpected problems ought to arouse some skepticism.

                Of course, by the criteria typically used for military actions or farm subsidies, SETI is still a really good deal.

  • AlexTru May 23, 2020, 2:35

    Authors want to explain a possible troubles of SETI efforts, but finally we can understand from argumentation that real problem begins on communication stage – i.e. today it is called METI.
    Yes , METI can be dangerous , without any relation to Real Politic…
    After more than 50 years of fruitless SETI searches, we could conclude that we are not able to detect any ETI in our “close” cosmic neighborhood (Thens light years distance), for sure if we do not know how to detect signal, our ability to communicate with ETI multiple orders lower.
    It is scientific fact – that using every known today (to human) communication method when applied to cosmic distances dictate that dual side communication with ETI will take thens of years for one packet pf messages exchange. During this period our civilization will suffer from significant changes in all area, including the fact who will be “Great Powers” after one cycle of message exchange.
    sorry, but it is not Real Politic in any way .
    I am sure that SETI should and can exists only in form of Amateur Radio structure , it is hobby, not science in any way , and no government should found any of SETI projects. This way SETI will stay far away of “Great Power” wars and “Real Politic“.
    I am sure, that SETI as it is today is exactly like old alchemic searches of philosopher’s stone , no more.

  • Law Wong May 23, 2020, 4:37

    Entire science fiction novels have been written on the basic premise (albeit often with contact and communication with physical interfaces rather than radio astronomy).

    Saturn Run is the most recent, 2010 Odyssey Two touches on similar themes, and Europa Strike (Ian Douglas) talks about a war triggered by a SETI discovery of a Bracewell Probe.

  • Gary Wilson May 23, 2020, 13:12

    One thing Earth needs is an international agency with real teeth. They could oversee any contact with ET that occurred. The contact itself will lead to repercussions we might not even be able to imagine. The United Nations doesn’t work. The Security Council concept is deeply flawed. I can’t see a path forward for establishing a UN with real power. The great powers won’t allow it to happen. One possibility would be societal collapse leading to a new paradigm for government. We seem to be at a particularly dangerous moment and we may already be headed for a paradigm shift in governance. Think of the time from 1914 to 1945 as a possible analogue (with pandemic included eerily).

    • tesh May 23, 2020, 13:46

      I’m not certain a paradigm shift will come, is close to coming or wanted. Too many people are sufficiently placated by what they have access to than those sufficiently disenfranchised to act. If there was a rising up, it would be led by those easily placated by a few trinkets won, than those that might effect a shift, and things would revert to a slightly uglier/altered previous status quo.

      A depression straddling two world wars now would send any surviving humans back to the stone age.

    • Antonio May 25, 2020, 2:54

      “I can’t see a path forward for establishing a UN with real power.”

      I think Mars colonization will do that. But that is a bit far away in the future, of course.

      • James Jason Wentworth May 29, 2020, 18:35

        That, Antonio (settling other worlds, and/or building space colonies, in our Solar System), might make a United Earth a realistic possibility. Arthur C. Clarke wrote that a world federation *without* “outside” nations (other worlds) to relate to would be inherently unstable, subject to either rapid, violent disintegration or longer-term quiet crumbling into ruin, from within, and:

        The “others” (settled planets, moons, and asteroids, O’Neill and Kalpana type space colonies) need not be–and one would not want them to be–adversaries, but like states and provinces within countries (and allied nations), they and the Earth would culturally and economically support and “work off” each other, the only competition being friendly economic competition (“We can do X more cheaply”), sports competition, etc.

    • Brett P Bellmore May 25, 2020, 9:20

      In a world where the worst human rights offenders end up with seats on the human rights council, it’s not at all clear to me that a UN with real power is actually a good idea. Maybe we should wait until we learn how to create non-corrupt international organizations before investing them with much power.

  • ljk May 23, 2020, 15:49

    The idea of nations racing ahead to be the first to have a successful SETI effort is not theoretical:


    As we have seen with the pandemic, humans can turn anything, even a virus, into a political game. The same will apply to SETI and METI now that the Chinese are seriously into it: The search for alien beings and especially their technology and any advanced knowledge will go from a fringe viewpoint to everyone wanting a piece of the action.

    In the process, watch our greed, ignorance, and fear potentially demolish our chances of becoming part of a galactic community or even just uplifting ourselves. Whether we are alone or not, we are no longer some isolated species but part of a much larger picture that most humans still do not seem to grasp. It may take more than a pandemic to wake us up collectively, if it isn’t too late by then.

  • Michelangelo Pantaleoni May 24, 2020, 8:21

    Viewing this from “the other side”, means that we should be carefull in our METI efforts just to not make different ET political entities to fight each other and harm them just by means of communication. We should craft our messages in such a way that they contain either irrelevent information that could potentially be explioted for conflict, or information that incentivizes public sharing somehow.

    Maybe the inhability to come up with such a harmless message is a reason for ET not contacting us yet? Another solution to the Fermi Paradox there.

    • AlexTru May 25, 2020, 6:03

      I suppose it is the time to rebrand “Fermi Paradox” to Fermi Fact…
      A real paradox will be when some SETI affiliated antity receive a first (and real) signal from ETI :-)

  • Ken Wisian May 25, 2020, 9:44

    Thanks all for a great discussion pro & con

  • Jason Wright May 25, 2020, 9:48

    The article would be much stronger if the author had consulted some SETI experts, because it is based on some very dubious assumptions about the nature of contact.

    The author seems to think is clear that once a signal is identified:

    1) Only around “a dozen” facilities in the world will be able to receive the signal, and that states will be able to somehow restrict this capability from other states. The author thinks this covers both laser and radio.

    2) That it will be possible to send a signal to the ETI transmitter, and that this capability will have perceived advantages to states.

    While there are some contact scenarios where these assumptions are valid, they are rather narrow.

    First, modern radio telescopes are large and expensive because they are general purpose instruments. They can often point in any direction, and have a suite of specialized instrumentation designed to operate over a huge range of frequencies.

    But once a signal is discovered, the requirements to pick it up shrink dramatically. Only a single receiver is required, and its bandwidth need be no wider than the signal itself. The telescope need only point at the parts of the sky where the signal comes from, so it need only have a single drive motor. And the size of the dish need not be enormous, unless the signal just happens to be of a strength that large telescopes can decode it but small ones cannot, which is possible but a priori unlikely.

    Indeed, there are an enormous number of radio dishes designed to communicate with Earth satellites that could easily be repurposed for such an effort, and can even be combined to achieve sensitivities similar to a single very large telescope, if signal strength is an issue. And there is no shortage of radio engineers and communications experts around the world that can solve the problem quickly and easily. The scale of such a project is probably of order tens of thousands to millions of dollars, depending on the strength and kind of signal involved. The number of actors that could do this worldwide is huge. Also, such efforts would be indistinguishable from normal radio astronomy or satellite communications, so very hard to curtail without ending those industries.

    The situation is similar for a laser signal: if it is a laser “flash” then the difficulty is primarily in very fast detectors that can pick it up. Here, the technology is not as mature, and if the flashes are *extremely* fast it is possible that the necessary technology could be controlled but, again, this assumes a very particular kind of laser signal. And, again, there are an enormous number of optical telescopes which will have similar sensitivity to optical flashes as existing optical SETI experiments (which, again, are only expensive because they search a huge fraction of the sky for signals of unknown duration).

    Finally, there is the issue of two-way communication: unless the signal is coming from within the solar system or the very closest stars, the “ping time” back and forth is at least a decade, and likely much longer. There is no “conversation” in this case: the first response to our communications would be ten years down the line! So the real dangers are transmitters within the solar system or signals that contain useful information without the need for us to send signals.

    In summary, the concerns expressed in this article apply to a narrow range of contact scenarios in which the signal is, somehow, only accessible to those with highly specialized equipment or from a transmitter within the solar system. The first seems highly unlikely; I do not know to evaluate the second, but note that such signals are not searched for routinely in the radio, anway.

    • Jason Melancon May 25, 2020, 14:59

      Hi, I found this discussion from your blog. I noticed that you don’t say anything about the distinction between receiving and decoding. It seems very possible that decoding would require specialization. And if the first to decode could establish encrypted communication, they would have the sought-after monopoly.

      Let’s say Earth receives a signal, and it’s verified. Let’s also say that the message contained in the signal turns out not to be trivial to read. (I seem to remember reading that Earth scientists have had trouble understanding even our own token outgoing signals, if they were not privy to its encoding scheme.) Governments who have had no interest at all in SETI before suddenly get very interested indeed. They pour resources into figuring it out.

      Whichever government first decodes it immediately sends a signal back. This might also be a technical challenge, so let’s assume all this takes years. But it may not matter how long it takes. Only being the first to do so may matter. The reason is that contained within the returned signal could be a cryptographic key to be used in future communication, along with the ultimatum that the ETI must use the cryptographic scheme we specify or they risk us going silent permanently.

      Now, you can say there’s no reason they should agree to this ultimatum. It’s true, they may agree to this or they may not, but it does hold as a bargaining chip something we already know they want, which is our attention. If it did work, the Earth entity who returned the signal first would have the sought-after monopoly — at least on the next message sent to us. After that, ET may receive alternative Earth signals as others decode the original signal in years following and send messages of their own, making it clear that humanity’s first response did not speak for all humanity as it should have. So all humanity may receive every further message.

      Is exclusive access to a single transmission, the first one in response to Earth, enough of an edge to be worth the expense? The time until the next unencrypted message from them could be as little as the extra time it took the second-place decoding team beyond that of the first-place team. But in the worst case, if ET sticks to the program — well, it could last forever.

  • Jason Wright May 25, 2020, 11:00

    Also, the paper’s footnote 2 is pretty telling: it declares H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” to be a “well thought out contact scenario” worthy of a “deep dive”, and a good antidote to the inadequate work that SETI practitioners have done on the subject!

    • James Jason Wentworth May 29, 2020, 19:11

      Why? The Martians in Wells’ novel were not evil, but were desperate because their planet was becoming less and less able to support them (and the spindly humanoid bipeds on whose blood they fed via direct injection; the bipeds couldn’t survive our gravity, but human blood nourished the Martians, too), they saw Earth as a new home, and:

      In the 1970s, solar astronomers were concerned when it appeared for a time–due to a lack of neutrinos detected–that nuclear fusion inside the Sun had stopped. If that had actually been the case (the consequences for all Earth life–freezing to death in the dark–would have been dire), and a habitable planet had been found around an Alpha Centauri system star, we would have started a crash program to develop the means to go there (that effort could have united humanity…). Now:

      If we had gone there, and found that some indigenous life form (a simpler, even if intelligent, one) made it impossible for us to settle there, would we have acted any differently from Wells’ Martians? I would like to think that we would act more nobly, but (except for some individuals) the instinct for self-preservation is too strong for me to believe that. Such tragedies may have happened–and may be happening right now–in our Galaxy, and in others.

      • ljk June 1, 2020, 12:20

        James Jason Wentworth said above:

        “In the 1970s, solar astronomers were concerned when it appeared for a time–due to a lack of neutrinos detected–that nuclear fusion inside the Sun had stopped. If that had actually been the case (the consequences for all Earth life–freezing to death in the dark–would have been dire), and a habitable planet had been found around an Alpha Centauri system star, we would have started a crash program to develop the means to go there (that effort could have united humanity…).”

        More likely it would have to be done in secrecy by select individuals, since I see little chance of such a project where every human could escape a doomed Earth.

        Did you see the 1951 SF film Where Worlds Collide? The ending where desperate people rush the spaceship just before it takes off is more likely and in fact probably mild in comparison to the real reactions.

        Regarding the Martians in The War of the Worlds, I found it rather implausible that they would be unaware of microbes and the potential for the harm they could cause nonnative life forms. Would Martian life have been able to evolve without starting out as singe-celled creatures?

        Wells was also showing his 19th Century science limitations by stating that microbes no longer existed on Mars due to its advanced age compared to Earth plus the fact that the intelligent Martians had somehow forgotten all about them because these tiny creatures stopped dwelling on the Red Planet ages ago!

        One might think the superior Martians would have sent at least a scouting expedition or two to Earth to literally test the waters for its habitability first.

        By the way, at the end in the novel, Wells had the Martians trying their luck at Venus, which was assumed be a more primitive yet still viable world with no pesky humans who can shoot back. Boy were they going to be in for a surprise. Even if Venus were that world of damp swamps and dinosaurs, would it not also possess microbes in bountiful and dangerous numbers for our conquering Martians?

  • Gary Wilson May 25, 2020, 12:42

    My hope lies with citizen scientists leaking the news of alien contact to the press, rather than the government(s) they worked for that first received the message. People within governments don’t always agree with the approach taken by their leaders as has recently been in evidence. I also agree with many that our current UN is not a model for a future organization with more power. It does come down to people in the long run and the types of governments that arise. So far democracy has offered the most hope going forward but it is flawed as well. Denying all members of a country (for example by simply making it too expensive) access to a good education is a key element of repression. Lack of knowledge and the ability to discriminate between the truth and lies and propaganda are vital for our future survival.

    • ljk June 1, 2020, 13:17

      That is why I have always assumed we have no evidence yet of alien life because someone would have leaked it by now.

      The SETI Institute had such an event in 1997. They thought they had found an ETI signal but of course tried to keep it under wraps until they could confirm it. Yet a guy who worked on the project had called his wife to say they found aliens and the rumor spread fast. The signal turned out to be from a terrestrial satellite.

      One true fact is that humans cannot keep their mouths shut and the Internet only makes that fact happen faster and wider!

  • Joe H. May 25, 2020, 16:23

    Suppose, when Captain Cook discovered Hawaii, he had left the natives complete blueprints for his ship and instructions on how to build and sail it. And then suppose Cook had then sailed away before getting killed. Would the information he left behind have made any difference?

    I realize modern civilization is far more advanced than 18th century Hawaii. And in Carl Sagan’s “Contact” the aliens amazingly transmit instructions for a FTL space portal.

    But in the real world, any info received via SETI is likely to be hundreds or thousands of years old and difficult to decipher. It will also be impossible to ask questions of whoever sent it. So barring some FTL miracle, the idea that first contact will give a nation a technological advantage might be overrated.

    • Alex Tolley May 25, 2020, 20:16

      Maybe not. Check out posts on Heath Rezabek’s “Vessel” ideas that provide varying levels of technology to reboot a crashed civilization. Vessel: A Science Fiction Prototype.

      There is no reason why ETI could not offer something similar in transmissions, where simple tools are given that then lead to more complex ones. Really no difference from mathematics textbooks as they lead one through simpler material and end with the most difficult.

    • ljk June 2, 2020, 15:23

      In the novel version of Contact, the ETI set up the cosmic wormhole portal technology so it could not be used by humanity again after that one initial journey with it, although some of the technology was useful and used by us.

      Author Carl Sagan implied, however, that the ETI might be able to use it to reach Earth whenever they wanted to.

      If aliens did leave us sophisticated technology that could only be understood and used by them, how much would it matter in terms of some kind of Prime Directive? People from just a few centuries ago would have no idea how to use a cell phone and would probably cause no harm unless they threw it at someone.

  • Gary Wilson May 25, 2020, 18:45

    I think we may just run into machine intelligence before we receive a signal. It seems counter-intuitive possibly but we may already have gotten somebody’s attention with our various EM signals and the colour and appearance of our planet. Others can look for biosignatures just as we may be able to do soon.

  • Hamilton1 May 27, 2020, 8:02

    I find the lack of lateral thinking, even on this blog, quite surprising. Any truly advanced civs will be easily capable of reversing every decision made by puny humans, so even if ww3 happens, the consequences can be rolled back by ETI, if they exist. So chill out kids.

    • Mike Serfas May 27, 2020, 10:19

      Indeed, such highly advanced aliens, being incredibly efficient, might be made up of signals indistinguishable from noise. They could be coded inside mundane objects all around us, and in our bodies. People might communicate with them daily by speaking to themselves quietly or wordlessly in a place they find conducive to religious meditation. Alas, such aliens don’t offer rewarding positions for people with advanced degrees in the physical sciences, so the focus probably will stay on long-range electromagnetic signals. :)

  • Patient Observer May 28, 2020, 22:34

    We should be careful as the GCC (Galactic Communications Commission) could bust the Earth for broadcasting without a license.

  • Aleksandar Shulevski May 29, 2020, 4:43

    It figures that a USAF general would write this. Once you have a hammer…

  • James Jason Wentworth May 29, 2020, 18:01

    Dr. Wisian, I have not served in any branch of the U.S. armed forces (although I did try to join the U.S. Air Force; my vision disqualified me), but my father, eldest brother, an aunt, and several cousins did or do (and my mother worked at Miami Army Air Depot during World War II), so I grew up in a military-familiar family culture. I find your view of the subject of First Contact–even if via passive SETI–to be refreshingly mature and realistic; those who see no possible downside to it are naive. Also:

    You are not the only specialist who is interested in this who has foreseen the negative potential of contact. The radio astronomer Dr. Ronald N. Bracewell, who invented the concept of the interstellar messenger probe (called the Bracewell probe after him; he covered the concept in multiple papers and in his book “The Galactic Club: Intelligent Life in Outer Space”), pointed out in the book that if such an alien probe came here–or if a stellar system visited by a human-made probe contained a planet inhabited by multiple nations (or their alien equivalents)–competition and possible conflict between the human (or alien) nations would arise, because rival nations would covet the advanced technology of–and the advanced knowledge contained in the computer memory in–the probe. This would be the case even if one or more of the rivals only wished to use the new information for economic purposes, because all technology is potentially dual-use.

  • ljk June 3, 2020, 12:05


    Reworking the SETI Paradox: METI’s Place on the Continuum of Astrobiological Signaling

    Press Release – Source: physics.pop-ph

    Posted June 2, 2020 11:18 PM

    he Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has heretofore been a largely passive exercise, reliant on the pursuit of technosignatures. Still, there are those that advocate a more active approach.

    Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) has had a controversial history within the larger SETI project; it is claimed that the risks involved outweigh any potential benefits. These arguments are ultimately not compelling, result in absurd policy recommendations, and rest on a faulty appreciation of the nature of technosignatures, whose detectability implies intent to signal. Present technology is advancing quickly such that we will soon have great observational reach, to the point of reliably detecting such technosignatures and biosignatures: a capability that can be matched or exceeded elsewhere.

    To escape the SETI Paradox properly defined, at least one technological civilization must choose not to suppress its own continuum of astrobiological signals, of which METI is merely the most effective endmember. Passive SETI’s low likelihood of success in the short-term is a serious obstacle to sustainable funding, alongside a ‘giggle factor’ enhanced by a pernicious fear of contact. The scientific community must integrate an active approach to better ensure both the continuity and eventual success of the SETI project.

    Comments: 15 pages, submitted to JBIS 31 May 2020

    Subjects: Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph); Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)

    Cite as: arXiv:2006.01167 [physics.pop-ph] (or arXiv:2006.01167v1 [physics.pop-ph] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Thomas Cortellesi

    [v1] Mon, 1 Jun 2020 18:01:59 UTC (316 KB)



  • ljk June 3, 2020, 12:53

    China to start its own SETI efforts with FAST this September:


    To quote:

    In China, the search will officially start next September, according to the state-owned media Science and Technology Daily. However, Zhang Tongjie, FAST’s chief researcher, emphasized that this new project has no priority over the rest, and will not interfere with the scientific work of other projects, such as detecting pulsars and other interstellar radio signals, which might offer clues about the formation of the universe. It is reported that with its help, 114 pulsars have already been discovered.

    Although there are some interesting narrowband candidate ET signals, Zhang does not expect to find any evidence in the near future. He believes that the radio signals coming to Earth are unlikely to belong to extraterrestrial civilizations, but if there are still aliens transmitting signals, the FAST radio telescope will increase the chances of their detection.

  • ljk July 28, 2020, 14:59

    Joe Davis has an idea to send messages into deep space – not to aliens but back to our recent descendant on Earth in the year 1935 to warn them about all the bad stuff that is going to happen between then and now.

    See here (there are also links to two earlier Centauri Dreams posts!):


    I guess we will find out if there is such a thing as a Temporal Prime Directive should his plan be implemented.