“Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Maybe extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up.”
OR EARTH JUST SEEMS BORING
ET too bored by Earth transmissions to respond
by Tom Simonite / 18 December 2007
Messages sent into space directed at extraterrestrials may have been too boring to earn a reply, say two astrophysicists trying to improve on their previous alien chat lines. Humans have so far sent four messages into space intended for alien listeners. But they have largely been made up of mathematically coded descriptions of some physics and chemistry, with some basic biology and descriptions of humans thrown in. Those topics will not prove gripping reading to other civilisations, says Canadian astrophysicist Yvan Dutil. If a civilisation is advanced enough to understand the message, they will already know most of its contents, he says: “After reading it, they will be none the wiser about us humans and our achievements. In some ways, we may have been wasting our telescope time.” In 1999 and 2003, Dutil and fellow researcher Stephane Dumas beamed messages in a language of their own design into space. Now, they are working to compose more interesting messages. “The question is, what is interesting to an extraterrestrial?” Dutil told New Scientist. “We think the answer is using some common ground to communicate things about humanity that will be new or different to them – like social features of our society.” Fortunately those subjects are already being described mathematically by economists, physicists and sociologists, he adds.
One topic the two researchers are already composing messages about is the so-called ‘cake cutting problem’. “How do you share out resources is a classical problem for all civilisations,” he says. Democracy is also a potentially eye- or antenna- catching subject. “The maths shows that with more than two choices, there is no perfect electoral procedure,” says Dutil. He has started work on encoding this into a message in which “we can explain our methods and ask, ‘What do you use on your planet?’”
Social physics – the application of mathematical techniques to societies – also provides good material potentially interesting to the alien. “We know that every human social network behaves as a gas, what we don’t know is how universal that is beyond Earth.” Aliens may be asking themselves similar questions, he adds. Another fundamental challenge for very old civilisations is using resources sustainably to avoid dying out, says Dutil. “Any good examples out there could help a lot on Earth.”
Human nature Dumas has designed software that is like a word processor for composing messages in the pair’s symbolic language. There is also a separate automatic decoder, which should help avoid slip-ups like the missing factor of 10 in the duo’s 1999 message.
Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar message composition at the search for extraterrestrial intelligence at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, US, agrees that we humans need to make our interstellar chat more compelling. “If we only communicate something the receiver already knows, it is not going to be very interesting.” Vakoch has recently been holding workshops at sociology and anthropology conferences to try and widen participation in messaging extraterrestrials beyond astrophysicists. “I think perhaps the most important question is: how do we represent what being a human is? And those disciplines can really help,” says Vakoch.
‘We’ll get back to you’
But Vakoch points out that email-like messages may not be the best approach. One alternative is to send software code for an avatar that could answer basic alien questions. That would get around the problem of the delays produced by large distances across space. “If someone replies to your message saying, ‘I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?’ it will take decades, centuries or millennia to know,” says Vakoch. “Another approach is to send a lot of stuff and hope there is enough redundancy for them to spot patterns,” he adds. “We could just send the encyclopaedia.” Dutil agrees other options are worth exploring, but points out that sometimes only a message will do. “It would make sense to have an ‘answer phone’ message ready in case we are contacted,” he explains, “just to say, ‘we’ll get back to you,’ while we figure out what to do.” Tell us who you think should be in charge of composing messages to ET in our blog.
Q. So how many star systems has I Love Lucy already reached?
A. I Love Lucy was popular in the fifties, so the earliest shows have travelled 40 light-years into space. There are about 100 stars within that distance, and if there are any inhabited planets encircling these nearby stellar sites, they might be watching Lucy and Desi if they’ve bothered to build a very large antenna capable of
working at the relatively low broadcast frequencies of television (about 100 MHz).
“We’ve already violated the prime directive by sending porn and rock music into space with the Voyager and Pioneer messages respectively. Should an advanced alien civilization find and decode the Pioneer golden record, their biggest worry would be to be sued by the RIAA for illegally downloading Johnny B. Goode.”
ARECIBO MESSAGE (1974)
This message was sent from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to the M13 star cluster, 25,000 light years away (150,000 million million miles). Consisting of 1,679 binary digits, the bits can be arranged into a rectangle of 73 rows and 23 columns (two prime numbers) to reveal a message.
Encoded are: the numbers one through to 10; atomic numbers of key elements such as hydrogen, carbon and oxygen; a graphic of DNA, along with an estimate of its complexity; a graphic figure of a man and the human population of Earth; a graphic of our solar system; and a graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope. The signal took 169 seconds to send and was not repeated.
EXHIBIT C – ADDENDA
“Alien” message tests human decoders
by Will Knight / 08 January 2002
A message that will be broadcast into space later in 2002 has been released to scientists worldwide, to test that it can be decoded easily. The researchers who devised the message eventually hope to design a system that could automatically decode an alien reply. Unlike previous interstellar broadcasts, the new message is designed to withstand significant interference and interruption during transmission. “People have tried sending messages in the past, but have not accounted for noise,” says Yvan Dutil, who currently works for a Canadian telecommunications company, but developed the message as a private project with Stephane Dumas, who works at the Defence Research Establishment Atlantic in Canada.
If new message had been based on language, it would be impossible for an alien intelligence to decode it. So, instead, a two-dimensional image was converted into a binary string of ones and zeros. These can then easily be transmitted as a radio or laser signal. “Currently, most resources are focused on signal detection, and not
message composition or decoding,” says Brian McConnel, author of Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilisations. “I think it is important to research the latter because the worst-case scenario would be positive confirmation of an ET signal that nobody can comprehend.”
The image has not been revealed to those playing the role of alien decoders and about 10 per cent meaningless noise has been added to the data. Some parts have even been deleted. This degradation of the message is intended to simulate the interference that might be experienced during transmission to distant planets. Dutil says that the binary string is designed to provide clues that should make it decipherable even with such significant disruption. The sensitivity of interplanetary communications was demonstrated in 1999 when a previous message written by Dutil and Dumas was found to contain an error that could have seriously confused an alien recipient if it had not been corrected in the nick of time.
The pair have an even grander plan for the future – to develop a software system that can automatically decode alien messages, regardless of excess noise. A number of telescopes around the world are used to search for patterns in the radio waves that reach Earth. Dutil says that if a message were identified, it might be possible to decode it using an automated system based on well-developed techniques used in cryptanalysis, as well as principles of linguistic and statistical analysis. However, Douglas Vakoch, head of the Interstellar Message Group at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California, says that deciphering a reply may prove very tricky. “Our biggest challenge will be to keep open to new types of messages that we had not previously considered,” he says. “That’s why the SETI Institute is sponsoring a series of workshops on interstellar message composition, aimed at identifying radically new ways of constructing messages.” The new message can be downloaded from the project homepage. Dutil and Dumas hope that it will be transmitted by laser as early as February 2002, by Celestis, a US company specialising in space projects.
AND WHAT IF THEY’RE BLIND?
The TAM was created by Russian teens in Moscow Center of Teen Activity and was transmitted at 18:00 UT on August 29, 2001 from the 70-m dish of Evpatoria Deep Space Center to the Sun-like star HD 197076 in the Dolphin Constellation. The total duration of the transmission was 2 hours 12 minutes. The message consists of three distinct parts:
1. Sounding Section — coherent signal with slow Doppler wavelength tuning to imitate the transmission from Sun’s center (10 min)
2. Analog Section — Theremin concert to Aliens (15 min)
3. Digital Section — Message: Logo of TAM, Greeting to Aliens both in Russian and English, Image Glossary (70 min).
The Coherent Sounding Signal was transmitted in order to help Aliens detect the message and to investigate some radio propagation effects in the interstellar medium. The Analog Information represents music, performed on the Theremin. This musical instrument produces quasi sinusoidal signal, which is easily detectable across interstellar distances. There were 7 musical compositions in the 1st Theremin Concert for Aliens:
1. Melody of Russian romance “Egress alone I to the ride”
2. Beethoven. Finale of the 9th Symphony.
3. Vivaldi. Seasons. March. Allegro.
4. Saen-Saens. Swan.
5. Rakhmaninov. Vokalise.
6. Gershwin. Summertime
7. Melody of Russian folk-song “Kalinka-Malinka”
The Concert program was composed by Russian teens. The Theremin performers were Lidia Kavina, Yana Aksenova and Anton Kerchenko from the Moscow Theremin Center. The Digital Information includes the Logo of TAM, Greetings from teens to Aliens, written both in Russian and English, and an Image Glossary. The total size of the digital information is 648,220 bits and was transmitted at a rate 100 bits per second. This section was composed by teens from different sites of Russia – Moscow. Kaluga, Zelenogorsk, Voronezh. The 28 images follow in the menu to the left.
THE TEEN-AGER’S MESSAGE
Yvan [dot] Dutil [at] sympatico [dot] ca
stephane_dumas [at] sympatico [dot] ca
Alexander L. Zaitsev
alzaitsev [at] ms [dot] ire [dot] rssi [dot] ru
Who Speaks for Earth?
After decades of searching, scientists have found no trace of extraterrestrial intelligence. Now, some of them hope to make contact by broadcasting messages to the stars. Are we prepared for an answer?
by David Grinspoon / December 12, 2007
Alexander Zaitsev, Chief Scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, has access to one of the most powerful radio transmitters on Earth. Though he officially uses it to conduct the Institute’s planetary radar studies, Zaitsev is also trying to contact other civilizations in nearby star systems. He believes extraterrestrial intelligence exists, and that we as a species have a moral obligation to announce our presence to our sentient neighbors in the Milky Way–to let them know they are not alone. If everyone in the galaxy only listens, he reasons, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is doomed to failure. Zaitsev has already sent several powerful messages to nearby, sun-like stars–a practice called “Active SETI.” But some scientists feel that he’s not only acting out of turn, but also independently speaking for everyone on the entire planet. Moreover, they believe there are possible dangers we may unleash by announcing ourselves to the unknown darkness, and if anyone plans to transmit messages from Earth, they want the rest of the world to be involved. For years the debate over Active SETI versus passive “listening” has mostly been confined to SETI insiders. But late last year the controversy boiled over into public view after the journal Nature published an editorial scolding the SETI community for failing to conduct an open discussion on the remote, but real, risks of unregulated signals to the stars. And in September, two major figures resigned from an elite SETI study group in protest. All this despite the fact that SETI’s ongoing quest has so far been largely fruitless. For Active SETI’s critics, the potential for alerting dangerous or malevolent entities to our presence is enough to justify their concern.
“We’re talking about initiating communication with other civilizations, but we know nothing of their goals, capabilities, or intent,” reasons John Billingham, a senior scientist at the private SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Billingham studied medicine at Oxford and headed NASA’s first extraterrestrial search effort in 1976. He believes we should apply the Hippocratic Oath’s primary tenet to our galactic behavior: “First, do no harm.” For years Billingham served as the chairman of the Permanent Study Group (PSG) of the SETI subcommittee of the International Academy of Astronautics, a widely accepted forum for devising international SETI agreements.
But despite his deep involvement with the group, Billingham resigned in September, feeling the PSG is unwisely refusing to take a stand urging broad, interdisciplinary consultation on Active SETI. “At the very least we ought to talk about it first, and not just SETI people. We have a responsibility to the future well-being and survival of
Billingham is not alone in his dissent. Michael Michaud, a former top diplomat within the US State Department and a specialist in technology policy, also resigned from the PSG in September. Though highly aware of the potential for misunderstanding or ridicule, Michaud feels too much is at stake for the public to remain uninvolved in the debate. “Active SETI is not science; it’s diplomacy. My personal goal is not to stop all transmissions, but to get the discussion out of a small group of elites.” Michaud is the original author of what became the “First SETI Protocol,” a list of actions to take in the event of a SETI success. In the late 1980s, several international organizations committed to its principles: First, notify the global SETI community and cooperate to verify the alien signal. Then, if the discovery is confirmed, announce it to the public. Finally, send no reply until the nations of the world have weighed in. A future “Second SETI Protocol” was meant to refine the policy for sending mes- sages from Earth, but the effort quickly became complicated. Everyone agreed that if a message were received, broad global dialogue concerning if and how to respond must take place before any reply could be sent. The rift arose over whether or not the Protocol should also address Active SETI transmissions made before any signal is detected.
At a meeting last year in Valencia, Spain, a divided PSG voted to change Michaud’s draft of the Second Protocol. They deleted language calling for “appropriate international consultations” before any deliberate transmissions from Earth, overriding the concerns of Billingham and Michaud and triggering Nature’s editorial. As Michaud describes it, “Last fall, this became an unbridgeable gap. They brought it to a vote but there was no consensus. Those with dissenting views were largely cut out of the discussion.” Michaud and Billingham feel that by not explicitly advocating a policy of international consultations, the SETI PSG is tacitly endorsing rogue broadcasters.
Seth Shostak, the current chair of the SETI PSG, maintains that Nature got it wrong, that in Valencia there was no organized effort to discourage open and transparent debate about the wisdom of sending signals. As the SETI Institute’s senior astronomer, Shostak has been involved in the science and policy of SETI for many years, and often seems to act as public spokesman for the Institute and for SETI in general. He says it’s inappropriate for the PSG to set global guidelines for Active SETI. “Who are we to tell the rest of the world how to behave? It would be totally unenforceable.”
Michaud and Billingham agree that the PSG can’t make policy for the whole world. But rather than sweep the question under the rug, they believe it is the responsibility of the SETI community to facilitate the wider conversation that must take place. “We feel strongly that the discussion must involve not just astronomers, but a broad spectrum of social scientists, historians, and diplomats,” explains Billingham. “This was simply about jurisdiction,” Shostak insists. The First Protocol, he says, is about self-policing; the Second isn’t. “If we found a signal, it would be a result of our own research. Therefore we felt it was responsible to have an agreed-upon policy about what to do next.” Shostak also worries that drafting guidelines for sending messages to aliens could generate bad press. SETI has always struggled for respectability. In the 1970s and 80s, NASA supported some listening programs, but government funding was cut off in 1993 amid congressional ridicule. Thanks to private funding, SETI has rebounded since then, but is still vulnerable to association with tabloids and talk radio guests claiming personal contact with aliens. Publicizing the real debate over rules of conduct for talking to extraterrestrials, Shostak reasons, wouldn’t do much to help counter this vision.
Long before he was an eager practitioner of Active SETI, Alexander Zaitsev was already a respected astronomer investigating planets using huge blasts of radar energy from the 70-meter radio telescope at the Evpatoria Deep Space Center in Crimea, Ukraine. Planetary radar studies rely on powerful, focused beams to “illuminate” distant objects, though much of this energy misses its target. The beams would be fleeting if seen from other stars that, by chance, lay along their path. But aimed and modulated to contain pictures, sounds, and other multimedia, they very easily become calling cards from Earth. On balance, it’s relatively simple to send signals, so why have we just been listening?
SETI doctrine states that anyone we hear from will almost certainly be much more advanced than we are. Simply put, our capabilities are so rudimentary that any chance of detecting an alien transmission would require that it be broadcast powerfully and continually on millennial timescales. We can’t predict much about alien civilizations, but we can use statistical mathematics to derive simple, robust relationships between the number of putative civilizations, their average longevity, and their population density in the galaxy. The chance of getting a signal from another baby race like ours is infinitesimally small. As Shostak says, “We’ve had radio for 100 years. They’ve had it for at least 1,000 years. Let them do the heavy lifting.”
This is one reason why most SETI pioneers advocated a “first, just listen” approach. But there is another: What if there is something dangerous out there that could be alerted by our broadcasts? This ground has been explored in numerous scientific papers and, of course, in countless works of science fiction. Few people alive today embody the convergence of hard science and fictional speculation better than David Brin, an author of both peer-reviewed astronomy papers and award-winning science fiction novels. In an influential 1983 paper titled “The Great Silence,” Brin provided a kind of taxonomy of explanations for the lack of an obvious alien presence. In addition to the usual answers positing that humanity is alone, or so dull that aliens have no interest in us, Brin included a more disturbing possibility: Nobody is on the air because something seeks and destroys everyone who broadcasts. Like Billingham and Michaud, he feels the PSG is dominated by a small number of people who don’t want to acknowledge Active SETI’s potential dangers.
Even if something menacing and terrible lurks out there among the stars, Zaitsev and others argue that regulating our transmissions could be pointless because, technically, we’ve already blown our cover. A sphere of omnidirectional broadband signals has been spreading out from Earth at the speed of light since the advent of
radio over a century ago. So isn’t it too late? That depends on the sensitivity of alien radio detectors, if they exist at all. Our television signals are diffuse and not targeted at any star system. It would take a truly huge antenna–larger than anything we’ve built or plan to build–to notice them.
Alien telescopes could perhaps detect Earth’s strange oxygen atmosphere, created by life, and a rising CO2 level, suggesting a young industrial civilization. But what would draw their attention to our solar system among the multitudes? Deliberate blasts of narrow-band radiation aimed at nearby stars would–for a certain kind of
watcher–cause our planet to suddenly light up, creating an obvious beacon announcing for better or worse, “Here we are!”
In fact, we have already sent some targeted radio messages. Even now they are racing toward their selected destinations, and they are unstoppable. Frank Drake sent the first Active SETI broadcast from the large radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in November 1974. In its narrow path, the Arecibo message was the most powerful signal ever sent from Earth. But it was aimed at M13, a globular star cluster about 25,000 light years away. At the earliest, we could expect a reply in 50,000 years.
More recently, Zaitsev and his colleagues sent a series of messages from their dish at Evpatoria. In 1999 and 2003 they sent “Cosmic Call” I and II, transmissions containing pictograms meant to communicate our understanding of the universe and life on Earth. In 2001, Zaitsev and a group of Russian teenagers created the “Teen-Age Message to the Stars,” which was broadcast in August and September of that year in the direction of six stars between 45 and 70 light years from Earth. The Teen-Age Message notably included greetings in Russian and English, and a 15-minute Theremin symphony for aliens. Unlike Drake’s Arecibo message, Zaitsev’s messages target nearby stars. So if anyone wishes to reply, we may receive it in the next century or two.
Along with the famous plaques attached to Pioneer 10 and 11 and the two phonograph records carried by Voyager 1 and 2–four spacecraft that will soon leave our Solar System–these messages are mostly symbolic efforts unlikely to betray our presence to the denizens of planets orbiting other stars. Our civilization is still hidden from all but those ardently searching for our kind, or those so far beyond our level of sophistication that we couldn’t hide from them if we wanted to. To date, all our “messages to aliens” are really more successful as communications to Earth, mirrors reflecting our dreams of reaching far beyond our terrestrial nursery.
For now, the dissenters have given up on the SETI PSG, but there’s still hope for a solution to the standoff. At the PSG’s 2007 meeting held in Hyderabad, India this September, the group implicitly accepted the reality of Active SETI risks by adopting a standard called the “San Marino Scale,” a formula for assessing the risk of a given
broadcast program. Michaud admits that the scale “is a useful starting point for discussion.”
When pressed, everyone involved in the recent controversy agrees that harmful contact scenarios cannot be completely ruled out. Active SETI critics like Billingham, Michaud, and Brin don’t support a blanket ban on transmissions, and even Zaitsev accepts that open and multinational discussion is needed before anyone pursues transmission programs more ambitious and powerful than his own. The major disagreement is actually over how soon we can expect powerful transmission tools to become widely available to those who would signal at whim.
At present, the radio astronomy facilities potentially capable of producing a major Active SETI broadcast are all controlled by national governments, or at least large organizations responsible to boards and donors and sensitive to public opinion. However, seemingly inevitable trends are placing increasingly powerful technologies in the hands of small groups or eager individuals with their own agendas and no oversight. Today, on the entire planet, there are only a few mavericks like Zaitsev who are able and willing to unilaterally represent humanity and effectively reveal our presence. In the future, there could be one in every neighborhood.
So far SETI has turned up no evidence of other intelligent creatures out there seeking conversation. All we know for certain is that our galaxy is not full of civilizations occupying nearly every sun-like star and sending strong radio signals directly to Earth. In the absence of data, the questions of extraterrestrial intelligence, morality, and behavior are more philosophy than science. But even if no one else is out there and we are ultimately alone, the idea of communicating with truly alien cultures forces us to consider ourselves from an entirely new, and perhaps timely, perspective. Even if we never make contact, any attempt to act and speak as one planet is not a misguided endeavor: Our impulsive industrial transformation of our home planet is starting to catch up to us, and the nations of the world are struggling with existential threats like anthropogenic climate change and weapons of mass destruction. Whether or not we develop a mechanism for anticipating, discussing, and acting on long-term planetary dangers such as these before they become catastrophes remains to be seen. But the unified global outlook required to face them would certainly be a welcome development.
We’ve been trying to make contact with aliens for years. Now the day is fast approaching when we might finally succeed. But will our extraterrestrial friends come in peace? Or will they want to eat us? An astronomer explores the perils of a close encounter.
Meet the neighbours: Is the search for aliens such a good idea?
by David Whitehouse / 25 June 2007
We are making dangerous discoveries in space. In April, astronomers found, on our cosmic doorstep, a planet dubbed Gliese 581c. Nestling close to a dim red star, it’s a rocky world only a little larger than Earth. Like Earth, it could support liquid water. And to scientists, liquid water means the possibility of life. Gliese 581c must be an ancient world, for it circles a star that is far older than our Sun. The question is, has any advanced life evolved on that planet, or on the many other places that must be suitable sites, not so very far away?
Recently, British astronomers told the government that we might find life in space. It is only a matter of time, this year perhaps, before astronomers detect a planet even more similar in size and mass to our Earth, circling another star. And when we find that planet, we may discover a lot more than new oceans and land masses. Astronomers have been actively looking for intelligent life in space since 1960, when Frank Drake started Project Ozma, using a radio telescope to listen for signals from two nearby sun-like stars – Drake knew that radio waves travel more easily through the cosmos than light waves. He didn’t hear anything back. Since then, our searches have become more thorough thanks to larger radio telescopes and more sophisticated computers that look for fainter signals. But we still have no signal from ET. Should we want to?
This is not just a matter for astronomical research involving distant worlds and academic questions. Could it be that, from across the gulf of space, as HG Wells put it, there may emerge an alien threat? That only happens in lurid science fiction films, doesn’t it? Well, the threat is real enough to worry many scientists, who make a simple but increasingly urgent point: if we don’t know what’s out there, why on Earth are we deliberately beaming messages into space, to try and contact these civilisations about whom we know precisely nothing?
The searchers are undeterred. They argue that because of the vastness of space – even if there are 10,000 transmitting societies nestled in the stellar arms of the Milky Way – we might have to search millions of star systems to find just one. But rather than just listening, some want to announce our presence to the cosmos. In 1974, the then newly resurfaced Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico (made famous in the James Bond film Goldeneye) reversed its usual role of just listening, and transmitted a series of radio pulses towards the M13 star cluster. It sent 1679 pulses in all, which, when arranged in binary form into 23 columns and 73 rows, would form a message from humanity. It was seen as a symbolic gesture, showing those on Earth that we had the technology to send a signal across our galaxy and – if we were on the other side of the relationship – to receive a signal as well. But some scientists objected. Sir Martin Ryle, the Astronomer Royal at the time, warned that ” any creatures out there [might be] malevolent or hungry”.
Now, after a long period when there were no deliberate transmissions into space, a new round is about to take place and more are planned. A team led by the astronomer Alexander Zaitsev has already beamed forth a series of interstellar messages, including pictorial and musical transmissions, from the Evpatoria radio telescope in the Ukraine. Another group in Brazil, the Grupo Independente de Radio Astronomos in Rio de Janeiro, claims to have transmitted as well. Half a dozen commercial companies have also sprung up, among them Cosmic Connexion, a firm based near Cape Canaveral in Florida. The Cosmic Connexion website invites you to e-mail your messages to them and they will then beam them, free, into space and “introduce you to extraterrestrials”. At the moment, though, this is a low-power initiative whose signals won’t get far. Other companies offering the same service for a fee are soon to come online.
Many scientists, frightened by the danger that might lurk out there, have argued against our actively seeking contact with extraterrestrials. Jared Diamond, professor of evolutionary biology and Pulitzer Prize winner, says: ” Those astronomers now preparing again to beam radio signals out to hoped-for extraterrestrials are naive, even dangerous.” The fact is, and this should have been obvious to all, that we do not know what any extraterrestrials might be like – and hoping that they might be friendly, evolved enough to be wise and beyond violence, is an assumption upon which we could be betting our entire existence. When I was a young scientist 20 years ago at Jodrell Bank, the observatory in Cheshire, I asked Sir Bernard Lovell, founder of Jodrell Bank and pioneering radio astronomer, about it. He had thought about it often, he said, and replied: “It’s an assumption that they will be friendly – a dangerous assumption.”
And Lovell’s opinion is still echoed today by the leading scientists in the field. Physicist Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has been for decades one of the deepest thinkers on such issues. He insists that we should not assume anything about aliens. “It is unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity, just as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses,” he says. ” We must be prepared for either possibility.” The Nobel Prize-winning American biologist George Wald takes the same view: he could think of no nightmare so terrifying as establishing communication with a superior technology in outer space. The late Carl Sagan, the American astronomer who died a decade ago, also worried about so-called “First Contact”. He recommended that we, the newest
children in a strange and uncertain cosmos, should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes. He said there is no chance that two galactic civilisations will interact at the same level. In any confrontation, one will always dominate the other.
The Australian astronomer Ronald Bracewell, now of Stanford University, warns that other species would place an emphasis on cunning and weaponry, as we do, and that an alien ship dispatched our way is likely to be armed. Indeed, evolution on earth is, as they say, red in tooth and claw. And it’s likely that any creature we contact will also have had to claw its way up its own evolutionary ladder and may possibly be every bit as nasty as we are – or worse. Imagine an extremely adaptable, extremely aggressive super-predator with superior technology.
So should we stay quiet and ban these transmissions into space? When, as a newly minted young scientist, I was discussing this issue with the (late) influential astronomer Zdenek Kopal, he grabbed me by the arm and said in a tone of seriousness: “Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God’s sake let us not answer. We must avoid attracting attention to ourselves.” Others have put it more graphically, saying that the civilisation that blurts out its existence might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling “here kitty” to a sabre-toothed tiger.
But not all scientists are worried. Frank Drake, who devised Project Ozma and who was also behind the Arecibo transmission says, “As I thought in 1974, the objections to sending interstellar messages were naive and carried no weight. The argument then, as now, is that humanity has been, and is making, its presence known through our TV and radio and military radars which, in many cases, release most of their radiated power into interstellar space.”
Radio waves from Earth, from TV and radio broadcasts and from powerful intercontinental military radars are leaking out into space. Some believe they could be detected, but should we go beyond this and actively announce our presence to the cosmos? Drake points out that our present terrestrial radio telescopes, if placed on nearby worlds, would be unable to detect these transmissions at distances beyond a few light years. However, aliens would be more advanced, he says, and it is quite within the abilities of current terrestrial technology to build telescopes, using the array approach, which could detect these transmissions from great distances in the galaxy. “The point here is that Earth has made its presence known by sending a multitude of signals. It is too late – we have made ourselves visible,” he adds.
But scientist and science-fiction author David Brin thinks those in charge of drafting policy about transmissions from Earth – ostensibly a body called the International Astronomical Union, which would make recommendations to the United Nations – are being complacent, if not irresponsible. Whatever has happened in the past, he doesn’t want any new deliberate transmissions adding to the risk. “In a fait accompli of staggering potential consequence,” he says, “we will soon see a dramatic change of state. One in which Earth civilisation may suddenly become many orders of magnitude brighter across the Milky Way – without any of our vaunted deliberative processes having ever been called into play.”
Michael Michaud, a former US diplomat and chairman of the Transmissions from Earth Working Group – a subdivision of the International Astronomical Union’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Study Group established in 2001 – is on the verge of resigning in frustration at the lack of discussion about the problem. He believes it is being confined to a narrow group of scientists who share the same limited astronomical viewpoints and he wants the study group widened beyond its current remit to include planetary scientists, philosophers, historians and so on. He sees it as a problem that affects all of humanity – and one that should be debated as such.
But despite these concerns, for the moment, the plans for deliberate transmissions from Earth go ahead and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them – or even demand a discussion beforehand. One thing is clear from our searches for ET – there is nobody transmitting strong interstellar beacons in our local vicinity. If “they” are out there, they are keeping quiet, prompting the question that they might know something we don’t.
Perhaps the aliens already know about us and are on their way. Or perhaps not. Intelligences – possibly vast, cool and unsympathetic – could be sweeping their skies looking for us. At the moment when they point their instruments in the direction of our sun – a commonplace yellow-dwarf star – they may well find nothing unusual, if no one’s sending messages in the other direction. Should we keep it that way?
SKEPTICISM REGARDING SKEPTICS
Is Active SETI imperiling humanity?
Michael Michaud, a member of the SETI Permanent Study Group, has come out warning that Active SETI may be putting humanity in serious jeopardy. “Let’s be clear about this,” writes Michaud, “Active SETI is not scientific research. It is a deliberate attempt to provoke a response by an alien civilization whose capabilities, intentions, and distance are not known to us. That makes it a policy issue.” Proponents of Active SETI advocate that humanity deliberately transmit messages to outer space in hopes that an ETI will intercept them and learn of our existence. These signals would be different than regular radio transmissions in that they would be stronger, more focused, and contain actual messages for potential listeners. To bolster his case, Michaud lists an impressive retinue of scientists who agree with him, including sociobiologist Jared Diamond, Nobel Prize-winning biologist George Wald, and astronomers Robert Jastrow and Zdenek Kopal. Even lesser-known scientists have entered into the fray:
Biologist Michael Archer said that any creature we contact will also have had to claw its way up the evolutionary ladder and will be every bit as nasty as we are. It will likely be an extremely adaptable, extremely aggressive super-predator. Physicist George Baldwin predicted that any effort to communicate with extraterrestrials is fraught with grave danger, as they will show innate contempt for human beings. Robert Rood warned that the civilization that blurts out its existence on interstellar beacons at the first opportunity might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling “here kitty” to a saber-toothed tiger.
Michaud even brings physicist Freeman Dyson into the discussion–a man who has thought and written extensively on this subject. “Our business as scientists is to search the universe and find out what is there. What is there may conform to our moral sense or it may not,” writes Dyson, “It is just as unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses. We must be prepared for either possibility and conduct our searches accordingly.”
Dyson posed two alternatives: Intelligence may be a benign influence creating isolated groups of philosopher-kings far apart in the heavens, sharing at leisure their accumulated wisdom. Or intelligence may be a cancer of purposeless technological exploitation sweeping across the galaxy. Michaud’s recommendations re: Active SETI? Do not transmit a signal more powerful than the Earth’s radio leakage (including radars) without international consultation. And by international consultation, Michaud means the UN. He’s obviously pretty serious. So, is Michaud right? Yes and no.
Yes, in that we could alert some kind of entity to our existence (like a dormant berserker probe). And yes, in that extraterrestrial agents (sentient or semi-sentient) may be quite malign or hold radically different moral values to our own. No, in that it’s highly, highly unlikely that bad guy ETIs are waiting in their spaceships for signs of less-advanced life so that they can scoot over and subjugate them. I consider this scenario to be rather outlandish–one that fails to take into account the likely existential changes that advanced ETIs will undergo as they evolve into postbiological civs.
Also, these fears fail to take into account the Fermi Paradox. It’s more likely that nobody’s out there listening. And even if there is, if evil ETIs wanted to overtake the Galaxy they could have easily done that by now. And as the Von Neumann/berserker probe scenario shows, the Galaxy could have been colonized (or sterilized) thousands, if not millions, of times over by now also. Yet clearly this hasn’t happened, which is an interesting data point that would seem to argue against the idea of imperialistic entities residing in the Galaxy. Consequently, I think Michael Michaud’s fears are quite exaggerated. Active SETI is likely as useless an endeavor as it is harmless.
GALACTIC HABITABLE ZONE
“The eighteenth chapter is called the Ozma Problem, and poses a problem that Gardner claims would arise if Earth should ever enter into communication with life on another planet through Project Ozma. This is the problem of how to communicate the meaning of left and right, where the two communicants are conditionally not allowed to view any one object in common. The problem was first implied in Immanuel Kant’s discussion of left and right, and William James mentioned it in his chapter on ‘The Perception of Space’, Principles of Psychology, 1890. It is also mentioned by Charles Howard Hinton. The solution to the Ozma Problem is solved by the experiment conducted by Chien-Shiung Wu involving the beta decay of cobalt-60. This experiment was the first to disprove the conservation of parity. However, Martin Gardner adds in the last chapter of his book that the Ozma Problem is only solved within our galaxy: due to the nature of antimatter an antigalaxy would get the opposite result from the experiment conducted by Chien-Shiung Wu.”
LOOKING FOR WHAT?
To Keep on Looking : As we explore Mars, it forces us to imagine otherworldly evolution, challenging our definition of life and our sense of place in the solar system.
by Don Hoyt Gorman / April 26, 2007
Before NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor stopped calling home in November, the satellite, which had been orbiting our neighbor planet since 1997 and was the source of the Google Mars data, captured a compelling image. Relayed back to Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, CA, was a photograph of what looked like a newly formed streambed that flowed down a gully into the base of a crater. Researchers were stunned because the exact location had been photographed five years prior by Surveyor and had revealed no such feature. The image itself is remarkable: It shows the flow–which appears lighter against the darker, older terrain around it–emerging from the Martian surface several hundred meters up a steep incline along the inside edge of a crater. It traces a course downhill until reaching the nearly flat bottom, where it spreads out like the fingers of the Mississippi Delta.
Mike Malin, the chief investigator and president of Malin Space Systems that built and operated Surveyor’s Mars Observer Camera, authored a paper in Science hypothesizing that what Surveyor had captured was in fact evidence of a brief, explosive flow of liquid water. It could only have been brief, because while the surface of Mars is around -63°C, the atmospheric pressure is so low that water boils even at that temperature. Malin suggested that water forcibly erupted onto the surface and raced down the slope before evaporating and leaving only the visible etching of shifted dust and rock.
It is a suggestion of water that leads to the suggestion of life. But the question is raised: Do we know what we’re looking for? In January we heard a hypothesis that gave us a new reason to look up in anticipation: Scientists at the American Astronomical Society meeting suggested that the Viking Landers of 1976 may have overlooked a form of microbial life that could, perhaps, exist on Mars. When the Viking missions were conceived, we had yet to find and identify here on our own planet forms of life that exist in almost unimaginably harsh environments: extreme cold, extreme pressure, extreme heat, extreme acidity. Conditions that approach the sort found on Mars have been colonized here on Earth by these extremophiles. Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University and Joop Houtkooper of Justus-Liebig University of Giessen in Germany looked back at the Viking missions and pointed out that the landers’ experiments (designed to find H2O-based life forms) would have failed to find signs of life that evolved the ability to use a water/hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) mixture–which could be well suited to Mars’s harsh climate. Extremophiles on Earth have adapted to use hydrogen peroxide — one organism, Acetobacter peroxidans, for instance, uses it as part of its metabolism. Schulze-Makuch and Houtkooper argued that if H2O2 biochemistry evolved on Mars, the Viking landers wouldn’t have detected it–in fact, the Viking experiments would have destroyed H2O2 biochemistry in whatever sample they collected. Which means, of course, that we now need to go back and look again, this time with a better appreciation for the ingenuity of life. Shortly after Schulze-Makuch and Houtkooper’s presentation, investigators at NASA’s Mars Phoenix mission (due to launch this August) started looking into whether its existing experiments could also be used to search for hydrogen-peroxide-based life. In April the National Academies’ “Weird Life” group is expected to present their “Astrobiology Strategy for the Exploration of Mars” paper, bringing together everything that has so far been learned about potential Martian astrobiology and presenting a plan for the search for life on Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory mission, which is scheduled to deliver the next-generation rover to Mars in late 2010, will carry with it a suite of tools and experimental capabilities that will drag Mars further still into the limelight of human understanding. Within a decade NASA is planning the Astrobiology Field Laboratory, a full-scale lander program whose only mission will be to uncover whatever traces of life Mars may harbor.
Of course, amidst all of these leading pictures and suggestive notions, there is the very real possibility that Mars is dead, and always has been. But as an exploratory species, we humans are also resolutely optimistic; we’ve spent billions of dollars and rubles and euros getting to Mars and exciting ourselves with the possibility of what may be waiting for us there. There is hope in these missions. It suggests that our drive to seek out new life runs hand in hand with a desire to find the familiar with the exotic…or, at the very least, find a colony of acidic bacteria.
Mars is no longer the ominous Red Planet of crisscrossed canals, and yet the more we know about it, the more we seem to want to find those canals there after all. As the explorations of our robotic and remote vehicles bring Mars closer to us, and as revelations continue to emerge about its atmosphere, its surface, its craters and ice cap, the planet continues to work its way into the big picture of human experience. It is becoming a more real and more exciting and more accessible place, not least as a physical and theoretical environment against which we can postulate some of our most novel scientific theories.
When we think of evolution, for instance, we think about single-celled organisms evolving to complex organisms, to fish, to amphibians, to birds or early primates, to hominids, to humans. We think of the Triassic to the Jurassic to the Cretaceous. We think of plate tectonics and old-growth forests. We don’t think of Mars. Mars isn’t
part of our rather Earthcentric worldview of evolution. Not yet.
Incorporating Martian evolution–or that of any other world, for that matter–into our understanding of life is one of the most profound paradigm shifts we are likely to experience in the biological sciences. It would put our own impressive and diverse natural history on a parallel existence with another entire category of life. And it
would bring with it an unending series of new questions and new scientific endeavor. That we will have to continue to redefine what constitutes life in order to conceive ways to find it is one of the greatest challenges that Mars and the rest of the universe have presented us.
email: knealson [at] wrigley [dot] usc [dot] edu
email: capone [at] wrigley [dot] usc [dot] edu
OTHER INTERGALACTIC HITS
1936 NAZI OLYMPICS
“Contact” Film Review
by Larry Klaes
ALIENS SEND BACK HITLER MASH-UP
“Another good move was the sending back of the television broadcast of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Nazi leader Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) as one of our first representatives into the Milky Way galaxy? Unthinkable but true. I only wish I had not known this scene was coming (due to the novel) to feel the full impact of surprise that many theater audience members expressed when they and the film characters realized that the initially fuzzy black shape was a swastika grasped in an eagle’s talons.
I believe Sagan used this fact to make aware to those who produce and transmit our television and radio entertainment that their audience is possibly far wider and larger than they can imagine, thanks to the microwave leakage displayed at the very beginning of Contact. Perhaps a few of them (besides PBS) will try to show the Universe at large that not everything about the human race is relentless advertising, lame sitcoms, and cheesy movies of the week — but neither am I going to hold my breath waiting for that day to come from the mainstream media. Money is a far greater concern to most of them than impressing our galactic neighbors (or humanity) with the good traits we do possess.
Of course we can take some comfort from the knowledge that any ETI encountering our technological leakage will not completely understand what they have picked up from distant Earth. There is conjecture that the reason we have not heard from anyone out there yet is that they already know of the human race through our radio and television leakage and want nothing to do with us because of what it contains.
Perhaps, however, we are being too rough on our young selves. SETI scientists would be thrilled to detect an alien civilization by their own leakage and would not be too concerned, at least in the beginning, if that leakage contained either noble qualities or cultural dreck. Of course, who is to decide what is treasure and what is garbage when it comes to another society? Any good anthropologist knows that the trash created by a community tells you far more truth about themselves than any carefully written records or monuments. (11)”
KEY SCENE WE COULDN’T FIND ON YOUTUBE
Try plotting values in a three dimensional coordinate system.
A pattern begins to emerge.
Throw a gray scale on it; standard interpolation.
Rotate 90 degrees counterclock wise.
Willie enters commands. All are mesmerized by the shadows taking form on the screen.
It has to be an image. Stack it up, string-breaks every 60th character.
On the screen a distinct black and white moving image forms; grays define it even further. The group is transfixed. Kitz whispers to an aide who makes a call in
a hand radio.
Um… I’ve got an auxiliary sideband channel here. I think it’s audio.
An otherworldly RUMBLING GLISSANDO of sounds joins the image, sliding up and down the spectrum… and then the faint SWELLING MUSIC is heard. Ellie reaches over Willie and type more commands. The picture rotates, rectifies, focuses –
What in the hell…?
It’s a hoax. I knew it!
Um, excuse me, but would someone mind telling me what the hell is going on?
Other reactions range from astonishment to nervous laughter. Ellie and Peter stare in utter amazement.
A grainy black and white image of a massive reviewing stand adorned with an immense Art Deco eagle. Clutched in the eagle’s concrete talons is a swastika. Adolph Hitler salutes a rhythmically chanting crowd. The deep baritone voice of an ANNOUNCER, scratchy but unmistakably GERMAN, BOOMS through the room. The dark absurdity of the moment plays over Ellie’s face; helpless:
Anybody know German?
Kent tilts his head, closes his eyes.
The Fuhrer… welcomes the world to the German Fatherland… for the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games.
Hitler’s face fills the screen. The crowd roars its approval.
in Berlin. Police with hoses try to keep a mob of skinheads under control.
GERMAN ANNOUNCER (V.O.)
(in German) … the signal from the American observatory depicting Adolph Hitler has brought about chaos in the streets of Berlin, where hundreds of neo-Nazis gathered to swear eternal fealty…
Slowly WIDEN to reveal a monitor wall.
A kaleidoscopic display of global news coverage of the event. Demonstrations in a dozen cities, commentary from pundits, Aryan leaders and Auschwitz survivors. A single figure sits before the monitors, taking in the cacophony.
FEMALE VOICE (O.S.)
Forty million people die defeating that sonofabitch and he becomes our first ambassador to another civilization? It makes me sick.
With all due respect, the Hitler broadcast from the ’36 Olympics was the first television transmission of any power that went into space. That they recorded it and sent it back is simply a way of saying ‘Hello, we heard you –’
“Carbon-based bipeds appear to walk using two limbs while balancing precariously in a semi-upright posture but may be evolving rudimentary transportation systems based on the wheel.”
As preparations near completion for the return of the Olympics Games to their ancestral home in Athens, the time is ripe to revisit whether the Olympics has been our diplomatic calling card in other places beyond the home planet. As the world prepares for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, one can ask the question: Are we on Earth the only ones who will watch the games?
Recall that a key story point in the Carl Sagan novel, “Contact”, relies on the unique premise that we are not the only onlookers. Sagan’s scenario depends on the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as symbolically transmitting our existence beyond the solar system. Earth inhabitants showed their interest in contests for national pride and
athletic skills to a listening audience on the nearby star Vega. In the novel and screenplay based on the book, our own message in a bottle then boomerangs back to us, as a greeting from another world that they have heard us.
The plot device that the Earth leaks intelligent signals has appeared in many science fiction stories of first contact. Broadcasting early radio shows or even reruns of “I Love Lucy” to another culture on the home world, much less another planet, has long been a source of potential bemusement. How would such a randomly selected reflection of our culture be interpreted?
Perhaps Sagan chose to single out first transmission as the 1936 Berlin Games because the content is so antithetical to what we might have hoped for. Or in an ideal case, a warlike contest of brawn and nationalism seems less than what one might have planned as a friendly greeting. What as a species could show us as less prepared for greeting another civilization than the way we greet each other? After all the ’36 Games advertised the politics of a nationalistic Germany, on the precipice of the bloodiest war in human history, when virtually no part of our globe could remain untouched by battle and conflict. Even the notion of competitive games or a contest to rank national and individual power, while oftentimes used historically to trigger truces or peace talks, also represents a metaphor for unabashed cultural
ambitions and seemingly arbitrary or artificial borders that simply disappear when viewed from space.
In that context, what maturity can humans portray to species even more unlike ourselves, not just athletically but intellectually, culturally or morally? As David Grinspoon noted on this dilemma in his book, “Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life”, an advanced civilization observing happenings on Earth might easily reply to our first signal: “Humans of the planet Earth, you want to encounter other beings? First you have to learn to live with your different people?” Was this challenge encapsulated by the 1936 Berlin Olympics?
From his years in designing SETI strategies, University of Washington Professor, Woody Sullivan thinks what Hollywood did with Carl Sagan’s book, “Contact”, particularly the first half, is about as close as a popular film can get to what it’s like to do real SETI research. Much of the opening sequence owes a debt to Sullivan, since he spearheaded the scientific understanding that the Earth is leaking electromagnetic signals all the time, mainly from TV and some military radars. Twenty-five years ago, “most SETI was set up mainly to look at beacons from another civilization. But we don’t have a devoted beacon broadcasting from Earth even. A priori, we don’t know that a civilization would set up a beacon. But we Earthlings are leaking all the time, just from our daily activities.”
Just as the film, “Contact”, begins, the viewer is taken on a voyage, as if riding such a signal from the depths of the universe until it zooms back towards Earth. Before Sullivan’s work, previous SETI strategists more often thought of broadcast sources from another civilization as likely to be directed beacons, or singularly devoted
transmitters. Instead Sullivan supposed a viewpoint about the more constant background noise, one that unavoidably might date back to the film’s key plot-point when the advanced civilization finds the first terrestrial TV broadcast–the carrier signal when Adolf Hitler hauntingly introduced the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. “These are not great examples of our civilization,” said Sullivan.
“I call this eavesdropping,” continues Sullivan. “Sometimes when you eavesdrop, you get a better idea of what is really going on, say at a party. So when another civilization is eavesdropping on us, they may actually get a better idea about what is going on with Earth. There is more to Earth, as a planet, than what we could send on the gold record that travelled on the Voyager spacecraft. We, as a planet, are not just about listening to Chuck Berry.”
It is, according to Sullivan, easy to miss whether TV coverage of the Olympics can serve as an effective SETI message. Particularly when the picture itself, the moving color image, is the least of what an advanced civilization might want to watch, the physics of TV is more important than the actual content carried. Sullivan notes “the input is not actual TV programs in the broadcast signal. But I was talking first about the video carrier, which is a single frequency carrier. Your TV locks onto it. You can’t get the whole program information. From another planet, you could get alot or dozens of those carriers, about a rotating planet with doppler shifts. That communicates alot of information to a receiver.”
Whether the 1936 or 2004 Olympics represents a global signal that we leak apparently has less to do with the event itself and more to do with the electromagnetic spectrum. Sullivan considers “what signals we Earthlings are optimally leaking to our neighbors…should be broadly spread, strong, and possibly discernable as an intelligent signal… So for a good signal for reception, you want to balance a trade-off between both powerful and broad-area beaming.”
Sitting down to watch the Olympics from 10 to 100 light-years away may not reveal much of interest about a race of carbon-based bipeds. We will leak the 2004 Games to travel into deep space, just like we did with the 1936 Games. Most of what qualifies as signals of sufficient persistence and strength have a small probability of reaching just the right antenna. But chances are better that another civilization will not be caught watching our TV. Sullivan concludes TV is only one way we declare ourselves outside our solar system: “Military radar, called the Ballistic Military Early Warning System or BMEWS, is a very powerful broadcast, but carries no real information. There are a couple other strong radars on the planet. The strongest radar is Arecibo, but it covers a very tiny bit of sky. The odds that you were in that patch, or broadcast path, is unlikely.”
Whatever the source of our leaked signals, there is a timeliness to considering how we decorate our own local solar neighborhood. As the SETI Institute’s Jill Tarter, often cited as the inspiration for the lead scientist in the movie “Contact” describes: “When you realize that you live in the first generation of humans with access to a
technology that might answer the age-old question, ‘Are we alone?’ all other scientific questions fade in importance.”
SCI-FI TO THE RESCUE
THE LISTENERS, by James Gunn
“Here the aliens contact Earth to give us all their history and knowledge in order to preserve as much of themselves as they can before their star Capella expands into a red giant and renders them extinct. These ETI do not intend to conquer the human race. They do not possess starships with warp drives or subspace radios. The transmissions between Capella and Earth move at the speed of light and no faster (a message from Capella takes 45 years to reach us [at 186,000 miles per second, or 300,000 kilometers per second]). The story therefore stretches over hundreds of years, as a real two-way communication between distant star systems would take.
If an ETI were transmitting to Earth in a deliberate and non-hostile attempt to communicate, the message contents would most likely be about their culture and what they know of the Cosmos. Preserving themselves by sending this information to other star systems is also plausible. We have done this already on a small scale with the Pioneer plaques, the Voyager records, and the Arecibo radio message sent to the globular star cluster Messier 13 in 1974. Our microwave leakage might also be considered cultural preservation on a galactic scale of a sort.”
THE KILLING STAR, by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski,
BY Gerald Jonas / May 14, 1995
“The Killing Star is a novel of ideas — or, rather, of one big idea. Carl Sagan, among others in the scientific community, has argued that any intelligent forms of extra terrestrial life we encounter, either in space or here on Earth, are likely to be friendly, since overly aggressive species will most probably destroy themselves before they
become capable of interstellar travel or communication. Mr. Pellegrino and Mr. Zebrowski beg to differ. They have embedded their rebuttal in a novel of such conceptual ferocity and scientific plausibility that it amounts to a reinvention of that old Wellsian staple: Invading Monsters From Outer Space.
In painstaking detail, the authors describe the annihilation of virtually all life on Earth by weapons expressly designed to “cleanse” human beings from the universe. The aliens responsible for this unprovoked attack do not think of themselves as monsters. They are not interested in stealing our land or our resources. Having deciphered the television broadcasts we have so rashly been transmitting to the stars for the last 50 years, they feel it only prudent to destroy us before we have a chance to destroy them. With an objectivity that gives new meaning to the phrase sub specie aeternitatis, the authors present the aliens’ view as a perfectly reasonable act of pre-emptive defense.
If you imagine that this scenario makes for a grim tale, you are right. But without deviating from their appointed task, Mr. Pellegrino and Mr. Zebrowski manage to find a number of bright spots. Here and there — in a submarine exploring the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor and in a few space stations and interplanetary vessels — isolated pockets of human beings survive the first assault. However, even these are relentlessly hunted down by automated alien weaponry. The survivors are rooted out and exterminated.
Despite a style that mimics the cool detachment of scientific writing — “Microdiamonds fell out of the cloud, little industrial-grade needles of compressed carbon. They were all that remained of Vinny, Sharon, Lenny and Robyn” — the authors wring a surprising amount of suspense from their resolution of the overriding question: Who will escape to carry on the species and to wreak a little reasonable revenge on the perpetrators?”
“Radio astronomy on the Moon in 2021 reveals the presence of life by a nearby red dwarf, on a tide-locked planet. To investigate them and the message they are transmitting, Earth’s governments confiscate the Lancer (a large colonization ship based on a crashed alien ship discovered in the Mare Marginis) and send it to investigate. In 2061, it arrives and discovers a primitive biological race of nomads broadcasting en masse with organs adapted to emit and receive electromagnetic radiation; their transmissions was blurred by various nomads falling out of synch with the rest. Close up, the transmission is discovered to be an old radio show from the 1950s – the signal the EMs (as they are called) consider best to reply to Earth with.”
“These berserkers, a doomsday weapon left over from an interstellar war 50,000 years ago, are killer spaceships furnished with machine intelligence, operating from asteroid-sized berserker bases where they are capable of building more Berserkers and auxiliary machines. The name is a reference to the human “Berserkers”, warriors of Norse legend. The Berserker stories (published as novels and short stories) describe humanity’s fight against the berserkers. The term “humanity” refers to all sentient life in the Galaxy, emphasizing the common threat the berserkers pose toward all forms of life. Homo sapiens, referred to as Earth-descended or ED humans, or as Solarians, are the only sentient species aggressive enough to put up a fight.”
THEY’RE MADE OUT OF MEAT
BY Terry Bisson
(From OMNI, April 1991. This story, which was a 1991 Nebula nominee, has been appearing around the internet lately without my name attached. Several people were kind enough to alert me, but the truth is I’m more flattered than offended. )
“They’re made out of meat.”
“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”
“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”
“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”
“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”
“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”
“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”
“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”
“Maybe they’re like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”
“Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take long. Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?”
“Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”
“Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.”
“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“So … what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”
“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”
“Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they’ve been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years.”
“Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?”
“First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual.”
“We’re supposed to talk to meat.”
“That’s the idea. That’s the message they’re sending out by radio. ‘Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.’ That sort of thing.”
“They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?”
“Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat.”
“I thought you just told me they used radio.”
“They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”
“Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?”
“Officially or unofficially?”
“Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.”
“I was hoping you would say that.”
“It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?”
“I agree one hundred percent. What’s there to say? ‘Hello, meat. How’s it going?’ But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?”
“Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can’t live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact.”
“So we just pretend there’s no one home in the Universe.”
“Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You’re sure they won’t remember?”
“They’ll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.”
“A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.”
“And we marked the entire sector unoccupied.”
“Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?”
“Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again.”
“They always come around.”
“And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …”
OR MAYBE (HOPEFULLY) THEY LOVE LUCY
“Dr. Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute discusses some of the most basic issues behind listening for signals from advanced civilizations in the vast sea of space.”
Q. Why doesn’t SETI transmit?
A. It’s not for paranoid reasons… not because someone’s afraid that if we make our presence known, the aliens will come to Earth to steal our chlorophyll or our women. After all, I Love Lucy is already announcing our presence to neighborhood extraterrestrials. The reason we don’t broadcast is far simpler. Suppose the nearest
civilization is 100 light-years away (not so far, astronomically speaking). Our “message” would take 100 years to get to the aliens, and if they deign to reply, their answer would take another 100 years to make the return trip to Earth. Total elapsed time: two centuries. By that time, all the scientists involved with the project will have
lost interest and, probably, funding!
Q. So how many star systems has I Love Lucy already reached?
A. I Love Lucy was popular in the fifties, so the earliest shows have travelled 40 light-years into space. There are about 100 stars within that distance, and if there are any inhabited planets encircling these nearby stellar sites, they might be watching Lucy and Desi if they’ve bothered to build a very large antenna capable of
working at the relatively low broadcast frequencies of television (about 100 MHz).
Q. How powerful would the aliens’ transmitters have to be in order for us to hear them?
A. This depends on two things: how far away are the extraterrestrials, and how large a transmitting antenna are they using? As a typical example, suppose the nearest cosmic civilization is 100 light-years distant (there are about a thousand stars within that distance, incidentally). And further suppose that their transmitting antenna is comparable in size to the antennas we use for receiving — for SETI — here on Earth, a few hundred feet in diameter. Then they would need a 500,000-watt transmitter for us to hear their call. That’s not very much; there are radars and TV stations that burn up that many kilowatts here on Earth.
Q. Would the aliens be friendly?
A. Obviously no one knows the answer to this. If we pick up a signal from an alien society, that civilization will almost surely be far in advance of our own. They will presumably have survived the aggressive instincts in their own society, and may have a benevolent view towards others. On the other hand, aliens that undertake interstellar travel and land in our backyard might be of a different sort. The history of such expeditions on Earth has always been that it is better to be the visitor than the visitee. Consider the Indians of North and South America; their societies didn’t survive contact with the Europeans, even in those few instances when the latter weren’t deliberately malicious.
Q. Why would any real, detected extraterrestrials be much more advanced then the familiar aliens from sci-fi films?
A. We won’t hear anything from aliens that are less technically advanced than we are, that’s obvious. But what are the chances that they have just invented radio in the past 100 years, as we have? That’s highly unlikely. It would be like getting on the freeway and finding that the first car that passes you has the same license plate number as your own, except incremented in the last digit. It could happen, but most probably won’t. Any aliens we overhear will be thousands to millions of years more advanced than our own civilization.
Q. Could we ever understand anything we pick up? If so, could we short-circuit a million years of history, and leap into the future?
A. If the aliens are sending deliberate broadcasts for the benefit of emerging societies, such as ours, then they will make the messages easy to understand. In that case, we might grasp their meaning. If, on the other hand, we merely happen to “eavesdrop” on internal traffic, there’s little chance we’ll ever be able to make anything of it. It would be like giving a Neanderthal the output from your modem. He might have considerable cranial capacity, but he’d never understand a bit of it!
Q. What about UFOs? Are the aliens already here? Or stacked up somewhere by the government?
A. The answer is no. This would be the biggest science story of the millennium. If scientists thought there was even the slightest chance that this was true, thousands of them would be working on the problem. They’re not!
FROM: Alexander L. Zaitsev
date Thu, Feb 14, 2008 at 4:15 AM
subject IF THEY’VE BOTHERED
I am Dr. Alexander Zaitsev, IRE, Russia.
Just now I detected and read your post ” IF THEY’VE BOTHERED” with great interest and would like to make only two notes:
1) In Aug-Sep 2001 we transmitted the TAM not one, but SIX times to the six nearest Sun-like stars, see, for example:
2) Also, in the sentence:
Now, after a long period when there were no deliberate transmissions into space, a new round is about to take place and more are planned. A team led by the astronomer Alexander Zaitsev has already beamed forth a series of interstellar messages, including pictorial and musical transmissions, from the Evpatoria radio telescope in the Ukraine. was established a fact that the TAM was the world-first musical IRM (Interstellar Radio Message). Therefore, the NASA Beatles Transmission was the second musical IRM and all NASA’s declaration:
about theirs palm of supremacy in music to space transmission is not correct.
With best regards,
Dr. Alexander L. Zaitsev, IRE, Russia