Quantum fluctuations in space, science, exploration and other cosmic fields... served up regularly by MSNBC.com science editor Alan Boyle since 2002.

Alan Boyle covers the physical sciences, anthropology, technological innovation and space science and exploration for MSNBC.com. He is a winner of the AAAS Science Journalism Award, the NASW Science-in-Society Award and other honors; a contributor to "A Field Guide for Science Writers"; and a member of the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Check out Boyle's biography or send a message to Cosmic Log via [email protected].

Should we be phoning E.T.?

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.

This schematic shows the
coded message sent out
from the Arecibo Observatory
in 1974. Click here for
the graphic's meaning.

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 serious airing.

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 below.


Email this EMAIL THIS


Why are we getting so worried about signals broadcasted into outer space?  Are those signals being received by anything at all?  What is it we're sending will instigate a war?  Why is there a worry?  We shouldn't be getting paranoid... btw, has anyone tried receiving signals from space?  Most people don't believe "aliens" exist at all... if they did, maybe we oughta receive something, even by now...  Just wondering...
The Aliens have all been listening to Howard Stern...if they haven't attacked yet, we're OK.
What makes these Folks think aliens are all so far away?
They also get webcasts, porno, and various wacky commentators all day long from our telecom transmissions.
What's in it for ET?  If they are advanced enough to hear our messages, travel all the way to us, and enslave/destroy us, what do they gain?  What is the reward thet would be worth the (presumably high) cost of travelling here that they couldn't get from uninhabited or at least uncivilized worlds?
IMHO, This is just silly.  First, all our transmissions from the first radio to the text message you just sent are already headed out there. Too late, if they want to find us they already would have a head start.

Second, if ET's were bad guys they would have come by now.  If you were an advanced warlike race with wonderful space travel ablities, would you have waited until some planet actually had weapons that might actually hurt you?  No, you would come when we had muskets and such, less chance for failure.

Face facts, IF ET had evil intents, we would have been gone by now.  Of course, as he reads the inane comments by Brin, (the internet is beamed too), they would have decided there was no sign of intelligent live here already.
I understand the excitement of and need for exploration, advancement, and discovery. However, is this really the best time to be spending resources on calling ET? At the moment, I believe we need to get back to basics, get out of this recession, and settle the genocides, wars, and poverty of this world. How much did NASA spend to beam a Beatles song toward Polaris? Now, how many people cannot afford gasoline, food, shelter, insurance? Where are our priorities as a civilization? Call ET or don't call ET, but let's take care of ourselves first.
Put me down as supporting Mr. Brin.  
The people who assume that aliens will be cute and friendly (i.e like ET) seem to have only one argument 'that anyone intelligent enough to receive signals will have gone through its awkward stage'.  Our species is already listening for signals, and we certainly aren't through our 'awkward stage'.  

Even my wife, when I read her the article, replied, "So they don't believe in those warrior races from Star Trek?"  I told her she meant Klingons.

We would do well to think of all the horrible things that happened on Earth when advanced cultures and more primitive cultures met. Generally, the less advanced culture was wiped out due to disease, religious intolerance, superior numbers or technology of the more advanced culture.  

Brin is right.  Only one good thing might happen.  A thousand bad things could happen, most of which would be very bad for humans.


PLEASE READ: All comments must be approved before appearing in the thread; time and space constraints prevent all comments from appearing. We will only approve comments that are directly related to the blog, use appropriate language and are not attacking the comments of others.

Message (please, no HTML tags. Web addresses will be hyperlinked):


Trackbacks are links to weblogs that reference this post. Like comments, trackbacks do not appear until approved by us. The trackback URL for this post is: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/trackback.aspx?PostID=1198808

Latest Tech & Science News

Syndicate This Site

Add Cosmic Log to your news reader:
live.com xml
myyahoo msn
bloglines newsgator