Alien search won’t doom planet Earth, say scientists who want to contact ET

It’s interesting how these related stores seem to come in batches: Alien search won’t doom planet Earth, say scientists who want to contact ET | Science | The Guardian.

Fears that a major program to contact alien life could spell disaster for planet Earth were dismissed as “paranoid” on Thursday by scientists who hope to beam messages to distant worlds from powerful radio telescopes.

Researchers at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) Institute in California want to broadcast greetings to potentially habitable planets in the hope of receiving a reply, but the proposal has met with serious objections from critics, including the cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who claim that yelling into space is reckless.

…Under an active Seti program, messages would be encoded in powerful radio signals and sent repeatedly for hundreds of years to planets that lie in the habitable zones around stars. Seth Shostak, director of the Seti Institute, advocates beaming the entire contents of the internet, giving an intelligent recipient the opportunity to decipher the history of human culture, the rules of cricket, and countless hours of porn.

…Active Seti, as the approach is called, is not universally supported though. Hawking has warned that Earth’s own history provides ample evidence that an encounter with more advanced ETs could go badly for humans. By drawing attention to ourselves, he notes, Earthlings might suffer the same fate as befell Native Americans when Columbus landed in America. Others agree. Simon Conway Morris, an evolutionary paleobiologist at Cambridge, has urged governments to prepare for the worst because aliens might be as violent and greedy as humans – or worse.

I did a post yesterday talking about how much of a long shot SETI is.  Active SETI is an attempt by SETI scientists to increase their chances.  In my mind, the results of Active SETI fall into three possibilities:

  1. Civilizations are very rare and the nearest is millions of light years away, at least.  In this case, we’d be beaming out messages into the dark, and no one would be hearing them.  Unfortunately, for reasons I’ve written about before, I think this is the most likely scenario.
  2. Civilizations are pervasive, but interstellar travel is unfeasible.  (Which is why aliens aren’t here.)  In this case, neighboring civilizations may hear our signal, respond, and an exchange of ideas, across decades and centuries, could ensue.  Some of these exchanges might dramatically increase our knowledge and capabilities.  Both civilizations could be enriched.  This is the scenario SETI hopes for.
  3. Civilizations are pervasive, interstellar travel is feasible, but for some unknown reason, on one has visited us yet.

It’s in considering why 3 might be true, that people become concerned about Active SETI.  Would we be shouting out into the wilderness and making our presence known to hungry predators?  Could it be that the reason no one is broadcasting is because it’s dangerous?  Science fiction stories abound with scenarios like this, such as Fred Saberhagan’s berserkers or Alastair Reynold’s inhibitors: alien machinery that seeks out either life, or specifically intelligent life, and, for some reason, destroys it.

It’s worth noting that if interstellar travel is feasible, the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years circling the galaxy, with unmistakable signs of life in the spectrum of light reflected off our planet.  If anything were interested in annihilating us, conquering us, eating us, or whatever, we’ve been an easy target for a very long time, for almost one third the life of the universe.  Even if all they want is raw resources, those are a lot easier to get in the Kuiper or asteroid belts without having to deal with gravity wells or pesky resisting natives.

The only scenario where we might be in danger is if there is something out there that just doesn’t like intelligent life.  While I can’t see a way to eliminate this possibility, it’s worth considering Shostak’s retort about this concern.

But the Seti scientists have now fought back. “It’s clearly too late to worry about provoking aliens with deliberate transmissions. Any alien society that is advanced enough to launch an attack and vaporise Swindon can easily pick up the broadcasts we’ve been sending into space since the second world war,” said Shostak,

He argues that a ban on sending signals into space would have to proscribe airport and military radar systems and even city lighting which can betray the existence of technology on Earth. “Such paranoid actions would cripple the activities of every succeeding generation of humanity,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Jose.

In other words, if there is a danger from broadcasting, we crossed that rubicon long ago.  There is already a sphere at least 70 light years in radius announcing our presence.

Of course, given that, you have to wonder how likely sending deliberate messages will be to provoke a response if all the voluminous content already broadcasted hasn’t.  (In the movie ‘Contact’, the aliens initially responded by broadcasting back the first thing they received from us, a speech by Adolf Hitler.)

So, my attitude toward Active SETI is that it’s still a longshot, but that it’s unlikely to put us in any danger we’re not already in, a danger I think is pretty unlikely anyway.

Unless I’m missing something?

8 thoughts on “Alien search won’t doom planet Earth, say scientists who want to contact ET

  1. Remember “How to serve humans”? 😮

    My disagreement with Hawkings involves the idea that a civilization advanced enough to be star-faring might also be extremely moral. Assuming morality is a function of advanced intelligence. We dreamed up the “Prime Directive” in the 1960s, and have come a long way since (Kirk ignored it, Picard not so much). How carefully might we approach this in the distant future?

    The gotcha there is the idea of “harvesters” who need something only inner planets with water-based life can provide.

    There is some difference between our general broadcasts (which follow inverse-square law) and a coherent or collimated beam. The “Vegans” in Contact were sending their broadcast specifically at us. It looks like Active SETI would be the same thing.



    1. Is that a reference to the Twilight Zone episode? I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, although reading the summary, it sounds like it follows the usual TZ storyline.

      The Prime Directive always struck me as a combination of a just-so story on why aliens haven’t landed on Earth, and colonial guilt. I think it’s a questionable doctrine, similar to how many cultural anthropologists often resist “contaminating” uncontacted tribes. What right do we have to deny those natives the choice of whether or not to partake of the benefits of modern medicine, technology, etc? If there’s a benevolent interstellar federation looking down on us, I sure wish they’d come down and interfere. Yes, it would disrupt our culture, but I think the benefits would outweigh the costs, although I know others might disagree.

      From what I understand about astrobiology, the probability that our biology would be compatible enough with aliens to allow them to eat us is very low. But maybe I’m missing the harvester reference?

      Good point on general broadcasts versus tightly focused ones. I actually think if 2 is a reality, there might be a web, a network, of solar systems linked by communication lasers, that we would eventually want to join.

      But if we can detect an oxygen atmosphere in exoplanets across interstellar distances, and it sounds like we might be able to in a few years, then it stands to reason that a more advanced civilization can detect that, city lights, or our radio waves.


      1. Sorry, they Freshly Pressed my π day post, so there’s been an avalanche of various notifications. I never got back to your question.

        My memory failed me slightly. The title is: To Serve Man. It was originally a short story by Damon Knight from 1950. It was made into a TZ episode in 1962. It sounds like you found the TZ page on Wiki? Typical TZ arc is really typical old SF short story arc. A lot of those had twisty punchlines. In most cases the game was to hold the reveal until the very last paragraph or sentence.

        (One of my favorites is the Arthur Clarke story, The Nine Billion Names of God. The very last line reads, “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” 😀 )

        That’s a fair point about the Prime Directive. I can see it either way. To be clear: I don’t think it’s a reason why we haven’t had visitors; I agree that’s not a good argument. I do wonder if high intelligence equates to high morality (as atheists seem to believe). I mainly see something along its lines as a reason not to fear what Stephen Hawkings fears.

        (I wish all the Stevens and Stephens would get together and agree on a spelling of their name. Drives me crazy having to double-check all the time. :\ )

        By harvesters I meant more those seeking rare elements that might only be found on rocky worlds that had evolved close to big supernovas. As you may know, the prevalence of gold on Earth is due to there having been one in our neighborhood. (Which, ironically, makes the otherwise kinda silly Cowboys & Aliens actually have some basis. Then they ruined it with slavering monster aliens. On the other hand: Olivia Wilde!)

        But why would meat be incompatible with other biology? Proteins severely incompatible? We humans eat a wide variety, but — obviously — all Earth-evolved. Biology isn’t one of my stronger sciences, so I can’t really say.

        Thing is, what if — rather than being incompatible — we were a rare delicacy? A meat unlike any they could obtain anywhere else? Couldn’t that go either way? o_O

        I like your idea of an intergalactic interweb! How much of it’s bandwidth do you think is taken up with alien cat videos?

        By the way… if you haven’t gotten into Greg Egan, I think you’d love him. His “Amalgam” stories involve a multi-race sub-light galactic civilization where uploading to, and living in, machines is common.


        1. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! You’ll probably find your overall volume higher moving forward.

          I knew heavy elements came from supernovae, but I assumed that meant our whole solar system formed from a cloud generated by one or more of them. But if that’s accurate, then wouldn’t those same elements be in the asteroids, or Kuiper belt objects?

          On biology, Carl Sagan, an astrobiologist, often said that our biologies are very unlikely to be compatible. All life is predominantly chains of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. But the mixture and exact compounds is crucial. Apparently Earth life falls within a narrow subset of possible configurations, and configurations outside of that narrow subset are generally toxic to us.

          That said, who knows? Maybe there’s some physical necessity we’re not aware of that causes life to follow the same molecular patterns. But I right now I think Sagan’s view is more likely.

          I have read some Egan, and generally enjoyed it, particularly his short stories (although I’m not sure if I’ve read any Amalgam ones), and the novel Diaspora. But I have to admit that I haven’t read any of his more recent stuff.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yeah, I’ve picked up almost 150 new followers. The SR series will probably chase them off. 😀

            My understanding is the heavier elements gravitate inwards, which is why Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, are rocky while Jupiter, Saturn, etc. are gaseous. I don’t know the composition of the asteroids, but they’re certainly on the rocky side and we’re already thinking about commercial mining interests.

            My understanding of the Kuiper and Oort cloud is lots of CHON, but probably light on the heavier elements. (But I’m kind of going by memory here; I’d have to research it to be sure.)

            I agree our biologies would be different. Certainly we couldn’t interbreed (one would assume). Even here on Earth, there are CHON molecules (tetrodotoxin, for example) that are deadly poisons. There are others that are interesting hallucinogens. Or spices.

            Proteins could also be a problem. Prion disease (mad cow), for example, is a protein disease.

            But what if human flesh is like puffer fish to some alien? Properly prepared, it’s a delicacy that provides (supposedly) a physical rush plus the mental rush of risking death? Or maybe it has a hallucinogenic effect! Apparently people eat live scorpions and crazy stuff like that, so who knows what a decadent alien race might be into.

            Our stomach acid is extremely powerful stuff and can deal with some fairly suspect things. Other animals have even more ability to eat things we never could.

            [shrug] Who can say! Might make for some interesting SF if nothing else!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I suppose that there might be a difference between the generalized, diffuse broadcasting of the past century, and a specific directed broadcast aimed at possible locations of alien civilizations. In fact, if there isn’t a difference, then the whole programme is a waste of time. (It probably is anyway, since sending signals into space is really like looking for a needle in a haystack.)

    The only scenario in which this poses a danger is if there is a malevolent civilization sitting around waiting to be contacted so it can send its war fleet over to zap us. This seems entirely implausible. If they are intent on destroying other lifeforms and have the capability to do so, why would they wait to be contacted? They would surely come looking for us in the first place.


    1. Well said. And as I noted above, we’ve been a sitting duck for billions of years, right up until about 70 years ago. (Of course, for a species advanced enough to cross interstellar distances just to zap us, we’re almost certainly still a pathetically easy target, but at least now we could annoy them with nuclear explosions.)

      Liked by 1 person

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