[extropy-chat] International Academy of Aeronautics' Post-detection Committee

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Thu Oct 6 18:02:19 UTC 2005

from The Daily Telegraph, London, UK



'The Greatest Discovery Of All Time'

The chances are there's life out there, but any messages could
be thousands of years old and indecipherable. Roger Highfield

Aliens are probably common. Because there are billions of
trillions of stars in the cosmos, many astronomers think it
would be highly improbable for Earth to be the only rock to
harbour life.

Whether ET is intelligent is still hotly debated. But no one
doubts that the receipt of a signal from another civilisation
would be Earth-shattering. "It would surely be the greatest
discovery of all time, eclipsing the findings of Newton, Dawin
and Einstein combined," says Prof Paul Davies, a British
cosmologist from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at
Macquarie University.

"The knowledge that we are not alone would affect people's
psyche, and totally transform our world view," he said during a
visit to Britain last week. "The mere fact alone would be
disruptive. But imagine if we got some serious information from
ET. Then all bets are off about what our future would be."

Prof Davies is among the handful of scientists charged with
thinking through the implications of what to do in the event of
"first contact" with an alien, sitting on one of a clutch of
committees led by Dr Seth Shostak of the Seti (Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California.

The hunt for ET's transmissions has proceeded in fits and starts
since 1959, when Cornell University physicists suggested that
extraterrestrial civilisations would find it easier to reach out
across the galaxy with radio waves than pay a visit. Today,
perhaps the best known is being conducted by the Arecibo radio
telescope in Puerto Rico.

Millions of people have signed up for the Seti.nul programme,
downloading a screen saver that analyses Arecibo data for the
University of California at Berkeley.

And a major new alien hunt facility is under construction: the
Allen Telescope Array at the Hat Creek Observatory some 290
miles northeast of San Francisco. The first 42 of a huge array
of 350 small radio dishes are about to go into operation next
month, opening a new ear on the cosmos.

Prof Davies has now become the chairman of the International
Academy of Aeronautics' Post-detection Committee, which includes
his colleague Carol Oliver and the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin
Rees. "Cynics say it is the best committee to be on because you
don't have to do anything unless ET calls," said Prof Davies.
"That is not entirely true because I intend to spruce up the
protocol and have a few fire drills."

Some years ago, international astronomical societies agreed on
what they call a "Declaration of principles concerning
activities following the detection of extraterrestrial
intelligence", The first step, it says, is to "verify that the
most plausible explanation for the evidence is the existence of
extraterrestrial intelligence rather than some other natural
phenomenon or anthropogenic phenomenon".

Unlike the events shown in the film Contact (in which Jodie
Foster portrays the celebrated Seti researcher Dr Jill Tarter),
"there will be no Eureka moment," according to Dr Shostak.
Instead, there will follow a painstaking process of checking and
verification to discern a hello from the crackle of cosmic radio

There have been many false alarms. In 1977, the "Wow signal" was
picked up by researchers at Ohio State University, and so named
after a professor scribbled the exclamation next to a printout
of the signal. No one has heard it since.

Another set of rapid pulsing signals caused great excitement,
until they were shown to come from a hitherto unrecognised class
of super-dense rotating neutron stars now known as pulsars.
Other emanations have been traced to automatic garage doors,
satellites and a host of other gadgets. And, of course, there
are hoaxes.

Prof Davies points out that, if a signal is shown to be
authentically alien, it is most likely from a civilisation that
is stupendously advanced compared with our own: by the time we
receive it, it is highly likely that the transmitting
civilisation will be millions of years in advance of us - if it
still survives, of course.

To date, unfortunately "there has been nothing to set the pulse
racing". But if he does suffer palpitations, the protocol says
that the team that discovered the signal should telegram the
International Astronomical Union and the secretary-general of
the UN (as well as their own government). The International
Telecommunications Union in Switzerland should also be alerted;
it has the power to stop transmissions and would be asked to
clear the frequency band that the aliens were using.

The discoverer, the protocol says, should make the announcement
"promptly, openly and widely through scientific channels and
public media". Dr Shostak emphasises there will be no "X-Files-
style cover-up", or pressure from authorities to classify the
discovery. But, of course, there will be endless hand wringing
over how to manage the announcement and what to do about leaks
to the media.

Then comes the question of whether to reply to ET. In April
1989, the trustees of the International Academy of Astronautics
approved a protocol that declared finally: "No response to a
signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should
be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken

One problem is that it is doubtful a response can be drafted in
advance. The nature and wording would depend on the possible
meaning of the incoming message. "It could be an e-mail between
stars that was never intended for us," said Prof Davies. Indeed,
there is much debate about whether an alien culture with
different histories and physical forms will have the same
description of reality at all.

Perhaps ET could invent radio technology without ever developing
the concept of an atom. But it does seem likely she would use
mathematics to advertise her intelligence, given that it is a
universal language. This much was recognised long ago. In the
early 19th century, the mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss
suggested etching giant geometric figures in the snow of Siberia
as a way of attracting the attention of Martians.

There is, of course, a chance, that an incoming message may be
sent in response to messages extraterrestrials have already
received from Earth. Some of our radio and television from the
Thirties and Forties is just now reaching some of the nearer
stars. What would aliens make of news of Neville Chamberlain's
return from his Munich meeting with Adolf Hitler?

The problem is, however, that these signals have only travelled
around 80 light years, too little for even the most optimistic
Seti sage to raise the chance of meeting up with another
civilisation. We may have to wait millennia for a reply, and
Prof Davies speculates that it would probably come from an
"information processor" that will blur the distinctions we make
today between living organisms and artificial non-living

But we should not limit our horizons to radio transmissions
alone. Nasa has already shown the way in this respect: elaborate
messages have been put on spacecraft such as the Voyagers now
leaving the solar system, including a record with Earthly sights
and sounds, such as music from Bach to Chuck Berry.

A laser beam could also be used to send a message. Indeed, our
cells may carry one, too, Prof Davies speculates. DNA is mostly
"junk", but what if it contains a message from an ancient alien
civilisation? "We must not close our minds to communication by
quite different means," he said.

Seti is "a glorious but almost certainly hopeless quest", he
admits. But that does not mean it is a waste of time: Seti has
many important spin-offs, not least those that will come from
forcing scientists to grapple with huge issues of what counts as
life and consciousness and whether the organisation of the
universe fosters the evolution of living things.

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