SETI's Alien Telescope Array (ATA) listens day and night for a signal from space. Credit: SETI

If ET Calls, Would We Be Told?

7 Apr , 2008 by

If a verified message from aliens is ever received, would the public be told about it? SETI — the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence – does have an international protocol that if an alien signal is ever received, it would be disseminated among the astronomical community and made public. And of course, says Mac Tonnies at the SETI Blog, “international cooperation might be necessary in order to distinguish a legitimate alien signal from any number of phenomena capable of generating false alarms.” But what if the signal is more than just extra-terrestrials saying hello? Tonnies believes SETI’s plans for full disclosure only makes sense if the message is fairly benign. If the signal was a notice of impending doom from a black hole, supernova, or alien invasion –something we on Earth had little power to do anything about — Tonnies questions whether governments would choose to make such information public. But could something of this magnitude really be kept under wraps?

Frankly, I hadn’t really considered this scenario. When I think about SETI and the possibility of communication with an alien species, I envision, perhaps naively, what Tonnies calls the “lofty, abstract dialogue immortalized by Carl Sagan.” But of course, we have no idea of what any alien intelligence would like to say to us. If it was bad news, would governments of the world elect to withhold the information from the public?

Intrigued by Tonnies’ blog post, I contacted him to ask that question.

“I think it’s a very real possibility that generally goes unspoken,” said Tonnies, an author, essayist and blogger. “In the event of a bona fide signal, the public may only be made privy to part of it. It depends on the content and context of the message.”

Tonnies questions whether governments would elect to gamble with their respective economies and socio-political agendas for the sake of imparting knowledge that might only cause mayhem.

But wouldn’t governments want the people of the world to know so that intellectual resources could be pooled to try to find a solution to the problem? And what about the concept of an alien message bringing the world together?

“I think uniting the people of the world is the last thing governments want,” said Tonnies. “A rush to counter some cosmic threat is likely to have a war-time character, at least among scientists. And this is assuming that the threat we’re being warned about is something that can be acted upon with the technology available to us. If we happen across a generic warning, there’s no promise we’ll have the savvy to do anything about it given our level of development. If that’s the case, why would we expect prompt disclosure?”

Logically, however, it seems unlikely that aliens would call just to tell us we’re doomed. “It’s pretty foolish to expect aliens to conform to our definition of altruism — although I’m drawn to the idea of a ‘Galactic Emergency Broadcast System,'” said Tonnies. “Maybe ETs feel compelled to give less advanced civilizations a “heads up” in the event on some interstellar crisis because we might make for meaningful companionship a few million years from now.”

Maybe I’ve watched too many movies, but I’m still doubtful that an alien message, whether good news or bad, could be withheld from public knowledge. It would be too big, too transformational, too altering an experience not to be shared.

Original News Source: SETI BLog


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Victor Sheckels
Guest
Victor Sheckels
April 7, 2008 9:06 PM

“I believe life is pervasive throughout the universe, but just as on our planet, the “intelligent” creatures are far outnumbered.”

That works WITHIN a species too… as we’ve seen…

Polaris93
Member
April 7, 2008 11:40 PM

Gray Goo Lovechild — I’m not worried about an avalanche of cosmic spam, because I’m already getting that in my email inbox, from completely terrestrial sources. No, the *real* danger is from cosmic *phishing* attempts and those Aldebaranian Scams, you know, “Good day to you, I am by the Grace of God Hakuna Matata, the nephew of the late etc. etc. etc. . . .”

Polaris93
Member
April 7, 2008 11:42 PM

David Raven Moon tells us where to look: they’re under our noses, crawling across the baseboards and up the wall, along the countertop, looking for food and water — somebody hand me that can of Raid!

Don Alexander
Member
Don Alexander
April 7, 2008 4:44 PM

It probably strongly depends on how it is sent. The signal in “Contact” was very powerful, anyone with a decent radio telescope could pick it up. If it’s a laser signal at the 20th magnitude, then it’s something that can be kept secret.

H-town Mack
Guest
H-town Mack
April 7, 2008 5:13 PM

Something tells me that “they” already know that E.T’s exist. I honestly think they’ll never tell us because too many people would go nuts.

Gray Goo Lovechild
Guest
Gray Goo Lovechild
April 7, 2008 6:54 PM
We received the call in 1989. Needless to say, it was a harrowing moment in history. We are here today because of a brave anonymous captain against a villain known only as “CATS”. I have the complete transcript: Narrator: In A.D. 2101, war was beginning. Captain: What happen ? Mechanic: Somebody set up us the bomb. (spoken in the Flash animation as Someone set up us the bomb) Operator: We get signal. Captain: What ! Operator: Main screen turn on. Captain: It’s you !! CATS: How are you gentlemen !! CATS: All your base are belong to us. CATS: You are on the way to destruction. Captain: What you say !! CATS: You have no chance to survive… Read more »
Rue
Guest
Rue
April 7, 2008 7:05 PM

There is another scenario. What if the message is too boring?

Gray Goo Lovechild
Guest
Gray Goo Lovechild
April 7, 2008 7:20 PM

What if answering back causes an avalanche of intergalactic spam?

A thorny question indeed.

mang
Member
mang
April 7, 2008 7:46 PM

“We are away from the galaxy on vacation in the LMC and will return in …”

Earthbound
Guest
Earthbound
April 7, 2008 7:59 PM
The message will say “Hey guys whatever you do, DO NOT ELECT GEORGE BUSH” but will have been a few years late in its million year journey. Doh! Really though I think time is a commonly overlooked factor in the question of alien intelligence. It’s only been about a century since we’ve even been able to detect a signal from space, and the timelines we’re talking about for star system and planet formation are just goliath in comparison. I believe life is pervasive throughout the universe, but just as on our planet, the “intelligent” creatures are far outnumbered. We’re very concerned about missing a signal from ET, but I think more than likely we’ll be the ones sending… Read more »
Crissysdad
Guest
Crissysdad
April 7, 2008 9:13 PM

Read Charles Stross’s “Accelerendo”. It is the ‘2001. A Space Odyssey” of the early 2000’s.
IMHO
DaveRose

Robbo
Guest
April 8, 2008 4:58 AM

I suspect our own signals have already been duly noted and whatever more intelligent species exist out there in the dark are, wisely, keeping their distance.

Leg3nd
Guest
Leg3nd
April 7, 2008 11:13 PM

Ok, lets see the universe is 13-15 billions years old the earth is about 4-6 billion years old and modern humans have only been around for a few hundred thousand years….

Intelligent life could have destroyed its self. Either something done to the planet, Engineered virus, Technology(Nano tech\AI), War or a whole host of other things…..

Intelligent life might have evolved to a point that this tiny blue dot we call earth is not important enough to take notice.

David
Member
David
April 7, 2008 11:30 PM

Why would we think they would be using radio waves, and that we would have the proper equipment to understand them?

We can’t even read old formats of computer disks after 30 years!

SETI is a big waste of time, as they are looking in the wrong place… but that keeps everyone distracted.

Plus.. we are listening as if someone is sending signals meant to be found.. but are we sending similar signals? maybe they aren’t either!

Then you have the big issue of how long the signals take to get here. If we do pick up something, they might long be gone by now.

We need to look closer.. much closer. They are under our noses.

bridventure
Member
bridventure
April 8, 2008 12:24 AM

Lets us think outside the Box called English. For instance, how would an Aboriginie communicate with an Eskimo If they were to meet, say, in the Sahara Desert? MInd you … no English.

Alien signals for sure won’t be in Endlish wink) and hence the very basics of HOW TO INTERPRET WHAT IS EXPRESSED needs to be very clearly delineated. This further could lead to various possibilities and conflicting conclusions … GOOD LUCK!!!

Emission Nebula
Member
April 8, 2008 12:47 AM

DavidRavenMoon,

Yes, SETI is a waste of time. Created when we thought “radio signals” was some great accomplishment.

For us on Earth it is. But I just dont honestly think that, if there were some highly intelegent species out there, they would be using the same old technology that weve been using for over 50 years.

And, we have been sending radio signals out to space. Ever since the very first TV broadcast was broadcast, its been flying out into space ever since.

I dont think anyone will ever hear it though.

RubineBoy
Guest
RubineBoy
April 8, 2008 7:13 AM
Hello folks! Don’t worry … You’re not alone out there! I am currently orbitting your little blue planet. Sorry it took me a while to get here but well … lightyears you know. Actually I hoped you guys could help me out. I have a little problem with my flying dish, hehe … I ran out of gas. Now … hola! I get a blipblip here! My sofisticated sensors tell me that your mother earth also ran out of gas! Damn … That means I am stuck here. Well anyway … Is there anyone out there with a free bed and a glass of water? I think I’ll have to stay here for a while … Oh! And… Read more »
kcuhC
Member
April 8, 2008 4:38 AM

If non-Earth intelligent life is discovered or strongly suspected, it will be hidden — if it can be. Then, once the aliens are standing on a street corner, some will still not believe it.

Al
Guest
Al
April 8, 2008 4:44 AM

But would we believe it if we did see the message? Look at how many bogus emails we get, how many urban legends are floating around–would we believe a bunch of emails from unknown sources, alledging to be reliable, that we will crash into an asteroid in 50 years or that a Klingon warship is coming to incinerate our planet?

pieropiero
Guest
April 8, 2008 5:08 AM

I wish the signal will be in french. Because my english is not so god.

wpDiscuz