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SETI: Handling a Detection

The Stephen Hawking controversy continues to bubble, with discussion on the Larry King show and the appearance of David Brin’s essay The Other Kind of Aliens. It’s all to the good to get such discussions widely circulated, even if it can be dismaying to find that so many respondents believe the answers about how alien cultures will behave are obvious and can be readily deduced from our own cultural experiences. But maybe that’s because this is a new controversy, one that the search for exoplanets is only now bringing to a wider public in any serious way. There is plenty to ponder, and while we debate the nature of alien culture, let’s look at something more immediate.

The Protocols of SETI Success

SETI continues to look for signals of extraterrestrial civilizations. What happens if a signal is actually detected? For the answer, we can look to the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, created by the SETI Permanent Study Group of the IAA (International Academy of Astronautics). The Taskgroup’s job is to look at what would happen if we do get a confirmed detection. Understand that we’re talking about a group that is purely advisory in nature, but one whose insights may help scientists. It’s an impressive group whose members are listed here.

Step one is obvious. The reception of a signal would be met with the Taskgroup urging its discoverer to evaluate its authenticity beyond any shadow of a doubt. If it is genuine, the Taskgroup then advises that details be disclosed to the astronomical community first, beginning with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which would then pass the news along to the United Nations and other govermental bodies. The discoverer would then be free to call a press conference to announce the finding, and soon the airways and computer networks would be filled with discussion.

Paul Davies runs through all this in his book The Eerie Silence (Davies is currently Chair of the Taskgroup, so he’s an unusually good source). And he notes that this calm procedure would likely be a good deal messier in practice:

The discoverer may be deliberately uncooperative or overawed and disoriented by the magnitude of events. There may be more than one person and one country involved. The news might leak out ahead of the formal diplomatic steps… Also, there is nothing to stop an astronomer who detects a signal out of the blue from going straight to the press or to her or his government, or any other organization, bypassing our Taskgroup altogether.

Handling Our Response

Davies goes on to say that despite all this, the most likely scenario is one involving a detection that occurs within the SETI community, and in that case the Taskgroup protocol is likely to be followed. You can read more in the Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, written in 1989, which runs through the above steps. Here’s an interesting bit that bears on the debate about beaming signals to the stars. It’s in sections 7 and 8 of the protocol, the first dealing with protecting the critical frequencies:

If the evidence of detection is in the form of electromagnetic signals, the parties to this declaration should seek international agreement to protect the appropriate frequencies by exercising procedures available through the International Telecommunication Union. Immediate notice should be sent to the Secretary General of the ITU in Geneva, who may include a request to minimize transmissions on the relevant frequencies in the Weekly Circular. The Secretariat, in conjunction with advice of the Union’s Administrative Council, should explore the feasibility and utility of convening an Extraordinary Administrative Radio Conference to deal with the matter, subject to the opinions of the member Administrations of the ITU.

There follows the policy on response:

No response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place. The procedures for such consultations will be the subject of a separate agreement, declaration or arrangement.

When Speculation Runs Wild

The trick in all this is early in the detection process, when every attempt will be made to ensure that the signal is both artificial and not from this Earth. Verification could take time, and with today’s inter-connected web of communications, bogus information can spread in seconds, quickly tinged with dark hints of conspiracy when answers are not immediate. Science is deliberate and rigorous fact-checking is woven into its very being, so it’s unlikely a SETI scientist is going to make sensational claims without absolute certainty. This contrasts sharply with media expectations and can lead to an avalanche of misleading information.

And what about government in all this? If a possible detection is leaked and later proven bogus, conspiracy theorists will be all over it, claiming that the knowledge is being suppressed. I think Davies’ treatment of secrecy and SETI is to the point:

…if there are government plans to seize control of SETI following a positive result, they haven’t yet come to the attention of the SETI community, in spite of several high-profile hoaxes and false alarms. In fact, far from taking an unhealthy interest in the subject, governments worldwide seem to be completely indifferent. A member of the British House of Lords once asked me about SETI, but purely out of personal curiosity. In the US, Congress cancelled public funding for SETI in 1993, on the basis that it was a waste of money. That is hardly the action of a government that has a serious interest in ‘contact.’ As for secret government post-detection contingency plans, I have no doubt they are non-existent. When it comes to post-detection policymaking, the Taskgroup is it.

Will the Taskgroup’s recommendations ever get put into practice? The world will be utterly changed if a genuine signal is received and verified, and much will depend on its nature. Confirming an artificial pulse aimed at us raises the question of response, what to say, how to say it, whether to respond at all. But perhaps we’ll just detect the clear signs of a civilization at work, without necessarily knowing that it knows about us. The detection of an artificial construct in another galaxy comes to mind. It’s millions of light years away and we know nothing about its builders or whether they even still exist. That’s a more likely scenario, I suspect, and one that would shake up our culture without our ever having the possibility of genuine contact.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • egan May 4, 2010, 11:36

    >>>It’s an impressive group whose members are listed here.

    17 out of 20 are from anglo-saxons countries.
    17 out of 20 !!!!!!!!!
    It’s not representative of the whole international community.

  • Gregory Benford May 4, 2010, 13:31

    Sadly, “the whole international community” has shown little interest in SETI.

  • Eric May 4, 2010, 15:07

    @egan.

    Agreed. I love science, SETI, etc., but there seems to be something of an echo-chamber effect in the community. It could use some more diversity of opinions, especially drawn from outside the astronomical community.

    I see wishful thinking, especially with regard to the speculations about alien behaviors and motivations. Davies seems to have dismissed Hawking’s point out of hand. Brin’s article nails it.

  • andy May 4, 2010, 15:12

    Also, only 5 people on that list are women.

  • kurt9 May 4, 2010, 15:49

    Usually, the simplest explanation is the best explanation. The simplest explanation with regards to alien intelligence is that they do not exist. We are alone.

  • Athena Andreadis May 4, 2010, 15:55

    Andy: look at the faces on the IEET page where Brin’s post appeared. Anything jump out at you?

    Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!
    Is It Something in The Water? Or, Me Tarzan, You Ape
    Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst

    Also, there are zero biologists in these conclaves. I will be writing an article about the whole Hawking/Davies hooha soon, but don’t expect the community to change anytime soon from its present configuration of an echo chamber inhabited by white male Anglosaxon astrophysicists. The opinions expressed tell us more about those who express them than any putative aliens.

  • NS May 4, 2010, 16:43

    Based on what we can observe of evolution on Earth, I agree (ala Charles Lineweaver) with kurt9 that human-like intelligence is probably unique to humans.

    There’s a big caveat however — we don’t know how typical the Earth or Earth life is. Maybe there are other body plans that are more likely to produce large brains or brain-equivalent organs. Maybe there are alien environments where ‘intelligence’ (or some other process that can lead to high technology) is more advantageous than it seems to be on Earth. We simply don’t know.

    In any case, we won’t ever know unless we look.

  • Dreamer May 4, 2010, 17:50

    I think concerns over the make up of a committee that is likely never to be called into action is a little silly, especially given that it’s probably only representative of the make up of the astronomy community in general, which I have believe is dominated by Anglo-Saxon males.

    Either way, events would move so fast if a detection was made that the Taskgroup in question would likely be superseded by any number of scientific and political working groups and committees within days, even hours of an announcement.

  • Ron S May 4, 2010, 17:54

    Not only that, all 20 are human. We definitely need to get other species on there if we’re to get a good diversity of views.

    But more seriously, why the IAU and why scientists. Detecting ETI requires these folks, but managing the distribution of the news and deciding what to do next is not up to them. They will be immediately cast aside by those with actual power.

  • Administrator May 4, 2010, 17:58

    The IAA isn’t really the astronomy community per se, but the astronautics community. I’ll quote from an IAA statement on this:

    The Academy is devoted to fostering the development of astronautics for peaceful purposes, recognizing individuals who have distinguished themselves in a branch of science or technology related to astronautics and providing a Programme through which the membership can contribute to international endeavours in the advancement of aerospace science.

    I have no idea, though, how representative the Taskgroup is of the IAA membership at large.

  • Dreamer May 4, 2010, 18:14

    I’m not sure that there would be that much upheaval in society if a remote detection was made (i.e. the aliens weren’t found on our doorstep).

    It would undoubtedly be massive news and burn up the Interwebs for months after the fact, but I suspect that the established institutions will continued to tick along just as they did before the discovery, without any mass panic or hysteria from the populace, especially once it is clear that how far away the aliens are.

    Religious institutions will undoubtedly be challenged for a response, but I sincerely doubt that there will be a wholesale shift in attitude or belief in the dominant religions on the planet. They will simply absorb the new information in the same way they did the discovery of heliocenterism, of other galaxies, of the Big Bang, or dark matter, and so on. I can just imagine Pope Ratzinger (welcoming any distraction from his child-rape scandal) pronouncing that alien life is all part of God’s plan, and that there is no theological reason for there not to be intelligent life on other planets.

    Young Earth Creationists will have a little more trouble with the new information, but in the discussions I have had with them over the issue, most of them will quietly accept it without worrying their heads about the implications the discovery has for their belief that the Earth is only 10,000 years old. After all, it’s not as though they have any trouble denying almost all of the rest of the physical sciences, so adding aliens into the mix won’t make much difference.

    Some Creationists will be upset by the discovery, but they will merely claim that it is a lie or a demonic deception. I know several YECs who already believe that UFOs are real and the work of Satan’s minions. Once you’re that deluded, you can absorb anything.

    There will no doubt be the odd cult or two founded in honor of the aliens, but they won’t have any major impact.

    Of course, any long term impact will be determined by the information the aliens send our way (if any). Biographical data would be very interesting, but it would be the scientific information they send us that could be the most impactful, especially if their civilization is much more advanced than ours.

  • justcorbly May 4, 2010, 18:34

    Given experience with things like climate change and vaccines, a considerable number of people exist who would simply deny even the most convincing evidence of the existence of alien intelligences.

    And, the best explanation is the right explanation, not the simplest.

  • Parmanello May 4, 2010, 19:31

    I’d like someone to show me the calculation that outlines the kind of sensitivity an advanced alien civilization would need in their detection technology to capture a radio signal from TV show transmitted on Earth around their parent star say 100 light years away.

    I like to think that it’s a method of communication that is obsolete to more advanced intelligences and as a result has been superseded by some other method as yet undiscovered by mankind.

    Perhaps, as has been suggested, we may be being merely observed, like clueless fish in a pond, just one of many low-tech alien races who have yet to graduate into the vast hi-tech realms of more godlike sentience, scientific knowledge and prowess over the physical universe.

    If this is the case we, like the ignorant radio transmitting and distant interstellar cousins, would be no more interesting or capable of adding anything of value to the universal dialogue between evolved, super-deitic beings that we’ll simply be ignored. We have not yet emerged from our cosmic nursery, we have no idea what limits science has yet to discover, or what means we may find to harness the natural world.

    If we are alone, we’ll never be able to know for certain and I think it would be tragic and at the same time an immense burden of responsibility.

  • Duncan Ivry May 4, 2010, 20:52

    I’m neither in the camp “aliens are like us” (and we already know nearly everthing) nor in the camp “aliens are totally different” (and we can’t know anything). If alien civilizations — plural! — exist at all — which I’m not convinced of –, then some of them may be more like us, some may be more or less different, and some may be completely different. The difference would not be like something measurable on a linear scale, but it would be composed from a vast variety of aspects, and the variance could well be very much greater than here on earth where all animate beings are relatives.

    All this would and should not keep us from thinking and researching about aliens. Because it could well be, that the aliens are animate beings, we need exobiologists, because they could be members of some kind of society, we need exosociologists, because they could have some kind of mental functions, we need exopsychologists, etc. There will be a lot of interesting and fascinating work for scientists, and the (white, male, anglosaxon) astrophysicists should not be left alone with the presumed aliens.

    During all this recent ballyhoo, I remembered how some people imagined the reaction to the discovery of signals of an extraterrestrial civilization: Technical environment, group of scientists — ridiculous haircut, old fashioned garment — looking at a computer monitor: “Hey, those are the numbers one, two, three, … and now the prime numbers, … and now the periodic table of the chemical elements, … and here some physical constants, …”, and eventually: “Now we have communication.” Really, there have been scientists like those.

  • Ron S May 4, 2010, 23:24

    Paul (I think you were responding to my post),

    I didn’t confuse IAA and IAU. I was reacting to this text in your article:

    “Step one is obvious. The reception of a signal would be met with the Taskgroup urging its discoverer to evaluate its authenticity beyond any shadow of a doubt. If it is genuine, the Taskgroup then advises that details be disclosed to the astronomical community first, beginning with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which would then pass the news along to the United Nations and other govermental bodies. ”

    This proposed chain of confirmation, embargo and disclosure is simply wrong (IMNSHO).

  • Brian May 5, 2010, 6:20

    Realistically speaking, assuming there are aliens out there they are probably just as ignorant and technologically incapable as ourselves. Really, there’s nothing to be worried about even assuming both species are somehow able to make contact – an incredibly trivial task compared to actual space travel.

    A lot of the alarms being raised are really self projections of scientists – fear that humanity will destroy itself through ignorance and fear that the government will take away the hard work of these scientists. I.e. these scientists are used to being ignored and losing funding for their projects. This is not about realistic expectations of what aliens really are in my opinion.

    99.9999% of the aliens out there won’t even be in our galaxy. Of the ones that are, 99.99% could never and won’t ever make contact with us. Assuming there are any left, they will be completely and utterly incapable of manned space travel at the time of contact. Give them a few thousand years and maybe a manned shuttle will arrive with 5 guys.

  • Administrator May 5, 2010, 7:56

    Ron S wrote:

    Paul (I think you were responding to my post),

    I didn’t confuse IAA and IAU. I was reacting to this text in your article:…

    Ron, no, actually I was responding to Dreamer’s comment right above yours, which said:

    I think concerns over the make up of a committee that is likely never to be called into action is a little silly, especially given that it’s probably only representative of the make up of the astronomy community in general

    and I wanted to make the point that the IAA wasn’t really an association of astronomers.

  • kurt9 May 5, 2010, 12:49

    Also, there are zero biologists in these conclaves.

    Of course.

    All of the evolutionary biologists that I have read believe that life is likely to be quite rare. Their speculations are not based on the “Rare Earth” idea, but that life appears to have evolved from a single common ancestor, indicating an unlikely event, and that the emergence of the Eukaryote is an even more unlikely event (hydrogen hypothesis of endosymbiosis) .

  • kzb May 5, 2010, 13:48

    Thanks Administraotor for posting this in answer to my question on the other topic. So it seems that the news would reach the public domain without censorship, simply because the authorities do not take this seriously and have neglected to put a system in place. Even if they wanted to stop it, it would be too late for the initial internet and press releases from the Taskgroup.

    I still wonder though. I’ve got one of those annoying work-blindness blocks at the moment and I can’t remember what they are called, but certainly the UK government routinely uses orders to prevent media reporting of certain topics.

  • NS May 5, 2010, 13:55

    From what I’ve read, most biologists think unicellular life is common but that multicellular life may be rare. And while known life evolved from a single common ancestor, investigations are beginning into the possibility that life on Earth appeared more than once, and that some of these other forms may still exist.

  • kurt9 May 5, 2010, 14:38

    The reason for the belief that single-celled life must be common is the belief that such life evolved early on the Earth (3.8 billion years ago). However, Nick Lane pointed out in a recent article that the only definitive fossils of such life go back only to around 2.7 billions or so, a full billion plus years later than commonly assumed. If this is true, this suggests that even single-celled life may be rare in the universe (even if nice, comfortable Earth-like planets are common).

    I know that biologists are now starting to look for the “shadow” bio-sphere on Earth. I think this is worthwhile because, if found, it definitely means that life independently emerged more than once on the Earth itself. This would certainly suggest that at least single-celled life is very common in the universe.

  • Athena Andreadis May 5, 2010, 15:53

    Biologists, for very good reason, are agnostic on the issue of alien life. Physicists can point to solar systems, chemists to complex compounds — but nobody has seen waving antennae or handkerchiefs yet. However, several “grand old(ish) men” like Ernst Meyr do fall into the pessimist camp. And since only grand old men get to write pop science without a penalty, we get a skewed picture.

    In its own way, unicellular life is already extremely complex. The evolution to multicellular is less fraught than the formation of the first cell. As for terrestrial life, it’s unclear that there was a single life genesis. What we have is what survived — and, like humanity, it derives from a single branch.

  • Marcello May 5, 2010, 16:32

    Dreamer said:

    “I can just imagine Pope Ratzinger (welcoming any distraction from his child-rape scandal) pronouncing that alien life is all part of God’s plan, and that there is no theological reason for there not to be intelligent life on other planets.”

    The Pope has pretty much already said that. The Vatican has taken an active interest in astrobiology lately, even sponsoring a conference on the subject last year.

  • Blade O'Grass May 5, 2010, 19:54

    Cosmic International Law (1965): Book III. Chapter II. pp.241-242. In case they should be intelligent beings different from men.

    Relationships with extraterrestrial men presents no basically new problem from the standpoint of international law; but the possibility of confronting intelligent beings that do not belong to the human race would bring up problems whose solution it is difficult to conceive.
    In principle, there is no difficulty in accepting the possibility of coming to an understanding with them, and of establishing all kinds of relationships. The difficulty lies in trying to establish the principles on which these relationships should be based.
    In the first place, it would necessary to establish communication with them through some language or other, and afterwards, as a first condition for all intelligence, that they should have a psychology similar to that of man.
    At any rate, international law should make place for a new law on a different basis, and it might be called “Law Among Planetary Peoples,” following Valladao. Obviously, the idea of evolutionizing international law situations would compel us to make a change in its structure, a change so basic that it would no longer be international law, that is to say, as it is conceived today, but something altogether different, so that it could no longer bear the same name.
    If these intelligent beings were in possession of a more or less advanced culture, and a more or less perfect political organization, they would have an absolute right to be recognized as independent and sovereign peoples, we would have to come to an agreement with them to establish the legal regulations upon which future relationships should be based,(1) and it would be neccessary to accept many of their principles.
    Finally, if they should reject all peaceful cooperation and become an imminent threat to the earth, we would have the right to legitimate defense, and to conquer them, but only insofar as would be neccessary to annul this danger, without striving to exterminate them.

    1. Mr. Haley (Chairman of the American Rocket Society) (Seventh International Astronautical Congress, in Rome): “An independent authority to control space would be needed and, eventually, it might have to deal, not only with human affairs, but with relationships between the human species and inhabitants of other worlds.” (The Times, London, Sep. 20, 1956).

    — — —

    Yeah, I know the book is a bit dated (it lives on my bookshelf ) but I’ve always loved that particular chapter.

  • kurt9 May 6, 2010, 1:53

    However, several “grand old(ish) men” like Ernst Meyr do fall into the pessimist camp.

    Its been my impression that most all biologists are pessimists about alien life. The only “pop science” book (non-technical) that I have read on the subject that made sense to me is Nick Lane’s “Power, Sex, and Suicide”, which makes for a very pessimistic case for the existence of alien life.

  • Ron S May 6, 2010, 19:28

    Parmanello: “I’d like someone to show me the calculation that outlines the kind of sensitivity an advanced alien civilization would need in their detection technology to capture a radio signal from TV show transmitted on Earth around their parent star say 100 light years away. ”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-space_loss

  • Ron S May 6, 2010, 23:37

    Parmanello: here’s another link to a calculation I did on this blog some time ago. It took me a few minutes to find since it seems the search function doesn’t scan comments to posts.

    https://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=1743#comment-54102

  • Ronald May 7, 2010, 5:29

    Concerning pessimism about the chances of alien life (I have asked this before): how is present scientific status with regard to evidence for (former) nano-bacterial life on Mars, based on some Mars meteorites (ALH84001, Nakhla, Shergotty)?
    There was some scientific news stir late last year, early this year regarding mounting evidence (see for example http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n1001/09marslife/).

    Is the jury still out on this one?

  • Eniac May 7, 2010, 17:53

    All of the evolutionary biologists that I have read believe that life is likely to be quite rare. Their speculations are not based on the “Rare Earth” idea, but that life appears to have evolved from a single common ancestor, indicating an unlikely event, and that the emergence of the Eukaryote is an even more unlikely event (hydrogen hypothesis of endosymbiosis) .

    Neither of these are convincing. The fact that everything derives from a common ancestor does not at all mean the event is unlikely. If the event is likely, and happened often, you would expect fierce competition every time, with a single survivor, each time.

    Interestingly, all humans have a common female, matrilinear ancestor that lived around 200,000 years ago (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_Eve), and a male counterpart who lived around 100,000 years ago (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y-chromosomal_Adam). Yet, there were many other people around at the time busily procreating, demonstrating the fallacy of deducing a single event from a single surviving lineage.

    As for the Eukaryota, it makes no sense to me that this step should be particularly unlikely compared with the other myriad steps that eventually led to Homo Sapiens. There are countless other developments that could be (and often are) portrayed as miraculous, such as the photosynthetic reaction center, the cell membrane, and so on. Mutation, natural selection, and billions of years explain them all. Except one, that is: The original abiogenesis. We have no way of knowing how likely that was, no way at all, until and unless we do find extraterrestrial life unrelated to us.

  • Brian Train June 22, 2010, 14:23

    This puts me in mind of a short story I read in the late 1980s, in what I think was Isaac Asimov’s SF Monthly. I cannot remember the title or author, and would love to read it again – can anyone help?

    The main character of the story works on a SETI-like project, listening to transmissions from space for that pattern or signal that proves extraterrestrial life. He is a recovering alcoholic, and through his 12-step group has become a born-again Christian. One night while he is alone in the lab The Signal comes through. He has proof in his hands that ET life exists, but erases it because life on other planets does not fit with his understanding of his new-found faith, and what he thinks this revelation will do to religion generally.

    Does anyone else remember this story? Or did I just imagine it really hard?