Posted: Monday, July 14, 2008 6:23 PM by Alan Boyle
|This plaque, placed on |
NASA probes in 1972 and 1973, depicts humans
and Earth's location.
We've been listening for the signs of extraterrestrial civilizations for nearly 50 years
- and if E.T.s are out there, they just might have picked up on the
radio signals that we've been transmitting for even longer. More
recently, some broadcasters have been sending intentional shout-outs
to the aliens. Is that so wrong? Yes, in the opinion of
physicist-novelist David Brin and other scientists who fear such
transmissions could invite alien invaders.
For years, Brin has been concerned about the idea of phoning E.T. -
a practice he calls METI. That stands for "messages to
extraterrestrial intelligence," as opposed to SETI, or the search for
extraterrestrial intelligence. In an essay titled "Shouting at the Cosmos,"
written for the Lifeboat Foundation, Brin said the idea of sending
high-powered messages to E.T. represented a worrisome turn in
the SETI search:
"If aliens are so advanced and altruistic ... and yet are choosing
to remain silent ... should we not consider following their example and
doing likewise? At least for a little while? Is it possible that they
are silent because they know something we don't know?"
The worry is that the aliens who respond to the phone
call might not look like the cute little fellow in the movie "E.T.," but more like the villains of "Independence Day" or "War of the Worlds." (Or, for that matter, "The X-Files," which returns to the big screen next week.)
Over the past couple of years, sending messages to the stars has become something of a cosmic curiosity:
TV broadcasts probably don't make that much of a dent
in the cosmos, as the SETI Institute's Seth Shostak reported in a 2004
research paper. But Brin is worried that the high-powered signals just
might get the wrong kind of attention from the aliens. And for the past
couple of years he's been trying to get something done about it.
One opportunity came and went in 2006, when a study group for
the International Academy of Astronautics discussed SETI issues at
a meeting in Spain. Brin and other participants hoped that the group
would come up with a procedure for considering and clearing messages
meant for E.T., but the issue wasn't addressed to his satisfaction.
Since then, retired U.S. diplomat Michael Michaud and John Billingham, former chief of NASA's SETI office, reportedly resigned
from the study group in protest - and Brin is gearing up for
another opportunity to get some exposure for the issue. The
IAA is due to discuss active SETI and other topics during a September symposium in Paris.
"It looks likely to be yet another staged, Potemkin exercise," Brin
told me in an e-mail exchange. "Those who are not present will be
ridiculed as 'panicking over Cardassian war fleets' and seeking
'censorship' (neither of which have even remotely been mentioned)."
The possibilities could include setting up a procedure for
transmitting messages to target star systems, just as there is an IAA-approved procedure
for spreading the word about a confirmed message from E.T. The process
might bring in the United Nations or the International Astronomical
Union, but the important thing for Brin is that the issue gets a
He's already gotten some support from some corners of the blogosphere
as well as from space exploration advocates such as Space Policy
Consulting's Charles Miller. In an e-mail, Miller said transmissions to
E.T. risked exposing Earth to catastrophic consequences, and thus
could constitute "crimes against humanity."
Most experts on SETI would reject that indictment. They argue
that Earth is already signaling its presence through high-powered
military radars, that the vast distances between star systems would
insulate civilizations from each other, and that any civilization
capable of communicating with others would likely have already gone
through its awkward phase.
I realize this is starting to sound like a "Star Trek" episode. It
might seem crazy to be concerned about the coming alien invasion
when there are more immediate problems to worry
about, such as the price of gasoline and the housing crisis.
Even when you consider cosmic threats from space, there's a big
distinction between the threats that are already known
to occur - such as huge asteroid impacts or supernova blasts
- and the threats that depend on what appears to be a string of
unlikely propositions. How do you weigh the chances that
inimical intelligent life exists on other planets that are close enough
to possibly pose a threat?
Brin himself has written about some way-out doomsdays, such as the
possibility that a microscopic black hole could destroy the earth. He
used that plot device in his 1990 science-fiction novel "Earth." Since then, scientists have gone through a lot of effort to argue that such a scenario couldn't happen in reality.
In one of his e-mails, Brin drew a parallel
between the black-hole controversy and the discussion
over sending messages to extraterrestrial intelligence:
"The mini-black hole threat is similar to the METI threat in
that both are examples of 21st-century quandaries concerning
low-probability, high-consequence potential failure modes.
"There is an active discussion site
concerning 'existential threats' on the Lifeboat site. And Nick
Bostrum and others have been cataloguing such threats in a way that
might lead to improved risk analysis. But we are still in early
days and it seems a devilishly vexing problem.
"At one end, you have Bill Joy, Michael Crichton and Ted Kaczynski,
variously proposing 'renunciation' as our only way to avoid a 'bad
singularity.' The far right turns anti-science while the far left
despises Big Engineering.
"At the other extreme are those who blithely assume that troglodyte-luddites will be proved wrong by accelerating intelligence.
"For more, see: http://lifeboat.com/ex/singularities.and.nightmares
"It puts pragmatic-enlightenment civilization in a bind. One that I am portraying in my new novel.
"It really ought to be the topic of a major, major conference. Ah, well. Let me know if possibilities occur."
What do you think? Should there be a First Amendment right to phone
E.T.? Should broadcasts to the aliens be regulated? Or is this an
issue not worth caring about? Feel free to weigh in with your comments