Credit: José Antonio Peñas/Sinc
Credit: José Antonio Peñas/Sinc

Astrobiology, SETI

Are we Ready for Contact?

6 May , 2014 by

A common criticism of science is its quick decision to experiment, without thinking about whether or not it should. While many argue that philosophical implications do not belong within the realm of science, others argue that scientists should absolutely consider the broader implications of their results.

Now, neuro-psychologist Gabriel G. de la Torre from the University of Cádiz is questioning whether or not astronomers, who have previously only looked for signs of extraterrestrial life, should actively send messages from Earth.

The idea that we might not be alone in the universe has been around since at least the fifth century B.C., when the Greek philosopher Democritus posited innumerable worlds, none of which were devoid of life.

With the founding of NASA and other space agencies in the 20th century, human beings began to explore the solar system and actively search for alien life. The most ambitious search began in 1960, when astronomer Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope at two stars similar to our Sun and listened for a signature of intelligence.

Drake’s work inspired the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, an initiative that began in the 70s with funding from NASA, but has now evolved toward the collaboration of millions of Internet users for the processing of data from the Arecibo Observatory.

But then there is “Active SETI — also known as METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) — which is the attempt to send messages to potential ETs via radio signals. Some astrophysicists, such as Stephen Hawking, have already warned against the risk this implies for humanity. It would favor the arrival of beings with more advanced technology and unknown intentions.

So “can such a decision be taken on behalf of the whole planet?” asked De la Torre. “What would happen if it was successful and ‘someone’ received our signal? Are we prepared for this type of contact?”

To answer these questions, De la Torre surveyed 116 American, Italian and Spanish university students. The questionnaire assessed their knowledge of astronomy, their religious beliefs, and their beliefs on the likelihood of contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life.

The results indicate that as a species, humanity is still not ready to actively contact a supposed extraterrestrial civilization. The students lacked awareness on many astronomical aspects, despite the enormous progress of science and technology. It also revealed that they lack preparation and would instead rely on political and religious figures.

De la Torre encourages SETI researchers to look for alternative strategies until society can better prepare itself. “This pilot study demonstrates that the knowledge of the general public of a certain education level about the cosmos and our place within it is still poor,” said De la Torre. “Therefore, a cosmic awareness must be further promoted – where our mind is increasingly conscious of the global reality that surrounds us – using the best tool available to us: education.”

The paper has been published in the journal Acta Astronautica.


Shannon Hall is a freelance science journalist. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. Currently, she is working toward a second M.S. from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. You can follow her on Twitter @ShannonWHall.

16 Responses

  1. Max Fagin says:

    So we aren’t ready for contact with extraterrestrial life until college students display a better understanding about the universe and our place in it? That sounds kind of . . . stupid.

    Look, I am just as bothered by the generally poor level of science literacy in our world as the next scientist, but I can’t image what relevance it could have to assessing how “ready” we are for extraterrestrial contact. Pre-colonial Europe didn’t need to have a population well versed in nautical navigation and ship building before they were “ready” to contact people living across the ocean. All that mattered was that SOME people in these civilizations had enough knowledge and drive to care about those things.

    I’m not saying improved science literacy is a bad thing (does anyone ever say that?), but I can’t image why poor science literacy among our students (which is all this study looked at) would make our species “unready” for extraterrestrial contact.

    • philw1776 says:

      “we aren’t ready for contact with extraterrestrial life until college students display a better understanding about the universe and our place in it? That sounds kind of . . . stupid”

      Spot on.
      Neuro-psychologist Gabriel G. de la Torre from the University of Cádiz really needs to find something else worthwhile to do.

    • The Universe says:

      “Pre-colonial Europe didn’t need to have a population well versed in nautical navigation and ship building before they were “ready” to contact people living across the ocean.”

      So you’re saying that the introduction of Extraterrestrial living species to Earthlings will be no different than Europeans being introduced to Native Americans & vice versa (in the sense of being ‘ready’)???


      Oh lawd.

      I’ll spare you.

      • nigelq says:

        Not enough “O’s”
        The movie Battleship comes to mind. I think a similar statement was uttered in the first few minutes of the movie.
        I would suggest that neither our science, nor our psychology is up to receiving an alien species in person. hopefully communication can be kept at “radio” distances. Although I do remember a BBC series called “A for Andromeda”, where science decided to proceed without thought of consequences.

    • LorinIonita says:

      You see it the other way around. In our case, we wouldn’t be the Europeans. We would be the natives. Not to say that aliens would have bad intentions, but it’s good to take precautions.

  2. Aqua4U says:

    Why would any truly intelligent extraterrestrial civilization want to take more than a cursory look at humanity? Every creature that has come in contact with us is now either extinct or is headed in that direction. LOOK at what we are doing to our planet! Not a very good track record, eh? THIS is the reason we have not been contacted…

  3. Considering the vast distances involved and the fact that it would be a two-way trip, (the signal going out and the aliens traveling here) it would be one hell of a long time before anything happened anyway, and, for all we know, we could be extinct before they arrived. We are talking some seriously long time frames here, so I think we are better off seeking the contact.
    Just considering that our galaxy is about 100,000 ly in diameter, and that our first signals went out around the early 1900’s, nothing is going to see any of our signals unless it is within about 100 ly of us. Spreading fear, in that context, is just plain illogical thinking . . . . and laughable.

  4. Karel VII says:

    Pokoušet se o spojení v rádiovém pásmu je d?tinské. Vzdálenost mezi civilizacemi je ?ádov? v?tší, než ?iní dosah i nejvýkonn?jšího vysíla?e umíst?ného na planet?!
    Zachytil jsem útržky zpráv 28 civilizací, také dokonce z mrak? Magellanových.
    Oznámil jsem to OSN, ale ani mi neodpov?d?li. Tajné služby mnoha stát? však z?ejm? ve ?tení zpráv pokra?ují. Z?ejm? si myslí, že jim n?kdo poradí jak se lépe zabíjet.
    Civilizace Boh?, která lidi stvo?ila, však všem okolním civilizacím oznámila, že si nep?eje, dokud nedosáhneme úrove? planetární civilizace, aby nás kontaktovali.
    Úrove? planetární civilizace znamená, že civilizace ovládla svou slune?ní soustavu, má jednotnou vládu a jednotný cíl! Pozorujeme-li však d?ní na Zemi, probíhá pravý opak. Místo sjednocování dochází k rozpadu v?tších stát?.
    Všechny civilizace ve Vesmíru, používají stejné znaky a stejnou ?e? – je to ?eský jazyk! Pokud si položíte otázku, pro? všechny civilizace ve Vesmíru se dorozumívají jazykem malého národa uprost?ed Evropy, ptáte se špatn?! Správn? položená otázka je, pro? práv? tento národ se nau?il jazyk všech civilizací ve Vesmíru?!
    ?eský jazyk je totiž jazykem Poet? – tak se jmenovala civilizace, která žila ve Vesmíru, který zkolaboval. V?d?li, že Vesmír? je obrovské množství, ale do jejich Vesmíru nikdo nep?ilet?l. Rozhodli se proto stvo?it Vesmír, ve kterém m?že znovu vzniknout život. Je to rotující Vesmír! Jen v takovém Vesmíru mohou vzniknout atomy a hmota, tak jak ji známe. Zárove? do struktury nov? vzniklého Vesmíru zapsali zprávu, psanou jejich jazykem. Proto všechny civilizace se tento jazyk musely nau?it! Je pro dorozumívání tím nejlepším prost?edkem. Má ohromnou redundanci a obrovskou stálost. P?estože 100 let byli ?eši nuceni ve školách používat koncovku sloves, kon?ící na -ti, jazyk se k p?vodnímu tvaru vrátil!! ?teme-li zprávu psanou p?ed 800 lety, každý ?ech jí rozumí. Takovou stálost jiné jazyky nemají. Zprávy jiných civilizací, jsou ješt? lepším p?íkladem nem?nnosti tohoto jazyka! Byly napsány p?ed desítkami a n?kdy stovkami tisíc let. Od nyn?jšího jazyka ?ech? se v?bec neliší.
    SETI však m?lo jiný, mnohem prakti?t?jší smysl, než který uvádíte. Hledalo místo v naší Slune?ní soustav?, ze kterého byl signál vyslán. Nepoda?ilo se však ztotožnit toto místo s polohou planet, ?i t?les Slune?ní soustavy.

    • Karel VII says:

      Nibble at connections in radio band is childish. Distance between civilizations is of an order bigger, than could reach any highest powers transmitter placed on planet.
      I’m captured bits news 28 civilizations, also even from clouds Magellan’s.
      I’m announced it United Nations Organization, but neither to me answered. Secret services by many states however evidently in reading messages continue. To outward seeming thinks that somebody them will advise, how may do better killings.
      Civilization Gods, that the people created, however to all neighboring civilizations announced, that the not wish, until don’t achieve level planetary civilization, to us contacte.
      Level planetary civilization means, that the civilization gain control of his solar system, has uniform government and uniform aim. If observe however events on Earths, be in progress negation. Won’t unification happen, but happens to break up bigger states.
      All civilizations in Universe, use the same characters and the same speech – is that a Czech‘s language. If you put a question, why all civilization in universe communicates by language small nation in the middle of Europe, then you ask badly. Well question sounds – why just this nation learned language of all civilizations in Universe?!
      Czech language is namely Poet’s language – Poet is name civilization, which lived in Universe, which collapsed. Knew, that the Universes is gigantic quantity, but into their Universe no one didn’t fly come. Therefore make up one’s mind we will create Universe, in which the again can originate life. It is spinning Universe! Only in such Universe can originate atoms and matter, just as it we knows. Simultaneously we in the texture newly incurred universe written down message for newly originates life. Therefore each of civilization this language has had to learn! For use to communication, is the best instrument. Has enormous redundancy and colossal stability. In spite of 100 years were Czechs forced in schools use end verbs, terminated on -ti, but language to original form returned!! If read report written before 800 years, every Czech it understands. Such stability other languages have – not. The news other civilizations, are yet better example inalterability this language. Were to be writing before any tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands years. But from present Czech language at all isn’t difference.
      SETI however had other, much more hands-on sense, than which showed in article. Searched place in our solar system, from whose was signal emitted. No succeed however identify this place with position planets, or body solar systems.

  5. jawa says:

    It never stated what kind of education the students had or what they were studying. A student studying languages would have no need to know anything of physics etc, or the laws of the universe and as such their opinion is no more relevant than a bus drivers or a shop keeper. Stating that they are university students is an argument from authority, as if the mere fact that the person is in a university student automatically makes them more skeptically minded than the average lay person.

    The survey appears on the surface to have been a fluff piece that has blatant controversy attached to it in order to gain publicity. If this is the case I feel that such ‘studies’ should not even be reported on, as we validate their existence by having these discussions.

    Also, even if SETI did not continue with their work, we advertise our existence on a daily basis with our atmosphere which can be detected by alien civilisations if they were to be looking at our wee blue dot.

  6. Steven says:

    Some qualifying questions for the students would have seemed appropriate.

    “Have landed men on the moon?” – Eliminate all those who say NO
    “Do you believe in evolution?” – Eliminate all those who say NO

    Now you might have a sample that could make some educated or intelligent responses (“guesses”) about contact.

    The vast majority of college students believe we never went to the moon. The vast majority of college students also do not believe in the “blasphemy of evolution” prefering to believe in biblical “creation” and “creationism”. My roommate in college in the ’70’s studied to be a biologist but told me that he did not believe in evolution and many more so called theories about history. Per his belief, the archeological record was created by God just to amuse man. He was a Southern Baptist Evangelist.

  7. GotToBTru says:

    Given that the gold records sent out with the Voyager spacecraft did not contain any mention of religion (or so I am told), and any transmissions sent on our behalf by SETI fans would also similarly never mention God (again, I am assuming), I expect first contact will be Missionaries. “Those poor people .. they’ve never heard…”

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