Are we sending a bit too much information into the cosmos?

On Monday (February 4, 7 pm EST) NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) sent a transmission toward the North Star, Polaris. The transmission sent was the song “Across the Universe” by the Beatles intended for any sufficiently advanced extra terrestrial life to listen to. Although this is a nice gesture and may nurture Beatles fans beyond our solar system, some scientists have expressed concerns for advertising our planet’s location to the universe, just in case the aliens listening in aren’t that friendly after all…

Scientists attending the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) “Sound of Silence” meeting at Arizona State University in Tempe this week are worried. Their concern focuses on some aspects of the scientific community who want to advertise and educate sufficiently advanced lifeforms beyond Earth about our presence and location in the cosmos. Previous efforts have included information about our biology on the Voyager and Pioneer probes, and a broadcast by the Arecibo observatory in 1974. These attempts at communication plus accidental “leakage” of TV and radio signals can all travel vast distances through space and perhaps be received by aliens.

The main argument against trying to communicate with other civilizations is the possibility that if there are aliens out there listening in, then perhaps they might not be friendly. By giving away our location, critical facts about our society, biology and intelligence, we have already given possible alien aggressors a strategic advantage. This threat is obviously very far-fetched, but sending information about our current state of humanity will be inaccurate when signals are received in hundreds, thousands or millions of year’s time, perhaps putting our future generations in a negative light.

Before sending out even symbolic messages, we need an open discussion about the potential risks […] It’s very charitable to send out our encyclopedia, but that may short-change future generations.” – Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California.

Vakoch is not concerned that we are risking an alien invasion any time soon, but does highlight the need to discuss the implications of attempted extra-terrestrial communication in an open scientific forum before acting.

If there are any advanced alien beings out there however, they are keeping very quiet. The purpose of the “Sound of Silence” meeting is to discuss why the SETI project has, thus far, not found anything compelling to suggest there are any life forms transmitting their presence to the universe.

Have we been looking in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong way?” asks Prof Paul Davies of Arizona State University. “The purpose of this meeting is to brainstorm some radically new thinking on the subject.


50 Replies to “Are we sending a bit too much information into the cosmos?”

  1. It is a sad indictment that we should judge another possible civilisation by our own standards. Hopefully if they are advanced enough to hear us and decide to come visit they would have advanced beyond our tragically provincial attitudes. If not then we are shafted anyhoo.

  2. Seems to me we haven’t found anyone yet because we are listening at the wrong radio frequencies. We, as a world, do not broadcast at the frequencies we are listening for others. If we listened within the frequency range we broadcast, we would very likely find others. Problem is we will never hear anyone else because we can’t hear through our own babel. We need to get on the other side of the moon and listen outward from there. The moon will block our transmissions allowing signals from the deep beyond to be heard – if there are any.

    Well, let’s keep listening, maybe we’ll get lucky and pickup some of their comedy or political speeches, of mindless advertising. We should immediately recognize the alien adverts – it’ll make us want to go forage in the frig for a snack.

  3. Let’s send some real information, like our genetic code. ‘Their’ first question will be, “What are you like?” so why not anticipate it. Come on now, are you guys and gals going to be cosmic communicators or cosmic censors?

  4. If there was an alien civilization advanced enough that it could intercept our transmissions, decode them and come here to attack us in a reasonable amount of time, then they could easily park themselves somewhere on the edge of the solar system and collect information that isn’t purposefully sent out like the transmission from NASA. They would also likely have technologies that far outstripped our own and could easily wipe us out if so desired. I ain’t worried.

  5. I’m sorry, but the odds of our being targeted by some hostile alien force are so long that it’s barely worth worrying about.

    First, the short term threat is essentially nil. The odds of any life, let alone intelligent life, let alone space-faring life, let alone hostile space-faring life being within 100 light years of Earth is almost certainly tiny, so we’re not going to have anyone turning up on our doorstep for hundreds of years at least in response to any signal we sent out.

    If FTL space travel is possible (very unlikely) then the odds are that any alien civilization capable of using it already knows we’re here. Estimates are that even an advanced non-FTL alien civilization could explore the whole galaxy with self-replicating probes within 100,000 years or so, which is a mere blip in the 4 billion year history of our planet.

    You have to think of the time factor as well as the distances involved. We have risen from a hunter-gatherer species to a technological society in barely 10,000 years after a very slow 4 billion year start. What are the odds that the alien species out there are at around the same stage (where they are most likely to feel threatened by us and be hostile)? It’s much more likely that they are either still trundling along without technology or that they have already surpassed us in technology by millions of years and already know we’re here.

    Finally, what possible reason would they have to want to do us harm? Resources? There’s nothing on Earth that can’t be found in abundance in any of the billions of solar systems. Even if there are only a few Earth-like planets, terraforming nearby worlds is likely to be more practical than a wholesale migration across 100s of light years to a planet that is not likely to fully suit them anyway.

    Would they be scare of what we could do to them? Again, given the tiny odds that we have anything that could harm a space-faring civilization would seem preposterous (and presumptuous) in the extreme.

    Perhaps the only plausible argument would be that their psychology made them indifferent or implacably hostile to all other life, but I suspect while it makes for good scifi, there is no real reason to suspect that’s at all likely.

    So, add all that up and you probably get odds of something in the range of millions-to-one for any signal we send out bringing the destruction of our civilization.

    And what if there were other civilizations out there who all decided it was better to stay silent than to say “Hello”? No one would ever discover that they weren’t alone, and that would be very sad.

  6. There is another argument. If there was an overtly aggresive Alien civilisation, it is far more likely that they would have destroyed themselves before they had the opportunity to travel to Earth to do us harm. The only klingons you are likely to come across are not the ‘outer space’ variety!

  7. While I would like to believe that we as a society are mature enough to broadcast to the heavens what we please, I will not let myself do that. We’re not ants… but we’re not civilized either. We don’t speak with one voice, we don’t even get along with each other, so I haven’t the slightest clue how we could possibly expect to get along with a species not of our own planet. We don’t even take care of our planet, or any of the other species that reside here with us. It’s my opinion that we should keep our mouths shut until we have something important to say…. like we have overcome our differences and errors in judgement, and now have reached a point where we can live in peace with ourselves. Maybe then, some one else will listen to what we have to say. Until then, I imagine we are just dogs barking aimlessly in the dark at something we can’t quiet comprehend. As for the aliens being hostel, I’d have to agree with the others commenting. For the most part, we are harmless to them, but at the same time, we are ignorant or their intentions, and ignorant to pretty much the entire universe still. so it never hurts to error on the side of caution. I’d like to think we are the laughing stock of the local aliens if they have a sense of humor. They probably like when we broadcast, it keeps them amused, just like we are at the zoo.

  8. I suppose this argument assumes that humanity has a history (and present) that it should be ashamed of. Okay…I can see that.

    But if we are talking about another intelligent civilization, then who is to assume they are any different. Just because they are as, or more, intelligent than we are means they have less to be ashamed about (environmental destruction, wars, abuses of power, what have you…)? Says who?

    I know a lot of terrible things went on in Germany in the 40s, but I am not going to outright judge it as a country because we all make mistakes and no single person or group of persons is flawless.

    I think any other civilization considered intelligent (at least as intelligent as we) would take our words, actions, and history into context rather than pass judgment based on some radio/tv signals.

  9. If we don’t want any potentially hostile species coming here, we should broadcast Monty Pythons “The Galaxy Song”, into space instead.

  10. Many of the respondents seem to think that the Earth is a flawed imperfect place. Well, boys, think of this. The Universe is homogenous. That is, it appears the same everywhere.

  11. Frasier, man. It seems the quality is lacking in some of your blogs. What`s up dude, are you feeling black & blue?

  12. these scientists that are afraid should be ostracized and made fun of. If there are any aliens out there, WE will know about them waaaaaaaaay before they know about us. Our signals are weak and have a short shelf life. do the math! especially you reporters that know nothing it seems about science!

  13. It’s economics, guys. If we have something useful to offer to an alien civilisation they would take it. Much like the discovery of the Americas, Australia, etc. The technologically richer civilisation takes what they need to the detriment of the indigenous inhabitants. More technologically advanced civilisations conquer lesser advanced civilisations. It’s just survival of the fittest.

    Put another way – why would an alien civilisation waste all those resources coming here unless there was something in it for them? Do you think that the laws of biology that have been tried and tested time and time again on our own planet wouldn’t hold true on others?

    Conversely, if we went exploring and found a planet inhabited by chickens, do you think that we’d try and make friends, or try and eat them?

  14. I think if they canhere,I doubt they will come with the mind to capture us and take over ,I believe it would be us ,who would be dumb enough to try and capture one of them and experiment on them,either out of greed for their advances or for profit ,face it the human race is like that.

  15. What will it matter if we are sending out information about our presence accidentally or not. If there are advanced civilizations out there, they may have well known of our presence long before we even became aware that this planet was not flat.

    Basically, if an aggressive civilization of technically superior beings are watching us, it’s already too late to worry about it. But hey, sometimes an alligator with a full belly just scrolls past it’s potential prey. 🙂

  16. It seems a bit too late to worry about sending transmissions into space. We have been babbling into the RF spectrum for longer than most of us have been alive. Scientists have also beamed strong radar signals into space to study the aurora, and these radar signals are reported to far outshine our communication signals.

    It is hard for me to imagine why ET would travel light years to wipe out a species that is not really a threat to them.

    But then, these aliens are not likely to have motivations we can hope to understand. And Arthur C. Clarke and many others have proposed a plausible motive we can understand: something along the lines of simple pest extermination, before the infestation gets too hard to eradicate 🙂

    So maybe its a good thing that most communications are gradually migrating to fiber optics…

  17. Is this conference set up by politicians perhaps?
    The scientists attend and have a good belly laugh over “putting us in a bad light” and “strategic advantages” that the little green men have over us. It just doesn’t smack of the kind of thing that a group of concerned, intelligent people would waste the time discussing.
    The only likely outcome (if anyone IS out there) is some lively, intragalactic chat! That way, you’d only have to wait 431 years to your inquiry “OMG, wassup?”

  18. Two light years downrange and all our extra terrestrial transmissions become nothing but undecipherable noise. Ditto for all hypothetical transmissions from hypothetical aliens. So, why are we spending all these tax dollars on “scientific” myths and expensive “toys” merely to satisfy the fixations prepubescent space junkies?

  19. Cato, if all radio transmissions become indecipherable noise in only two light years, why is it that we are getting so much valuable information from our radio telescopes?

  20. Perhaps alien “hostiles” are the reason why we haven’t detected anyone else out there? Maybe the “hostiles” got there first, and they’re already on their way to “visit” us? Uh oh. Better enjoy the time you have. *grin*

  21. I think of two facts (or theories) when I read this story. The first is that more intelligent life is usually found in predators. The second is that we can’t always assume that civilizations have the same philosophies and outlook that we do. For example, most would consider the ancient Greek civilization “civilized” but even the Greeks that were the most enlightened and had democracy had vastly different views on how to treat their neighbors (the strong rules the weak) than we do. It is worthwhile to think about this topic.

    In the end, it may not matter anyway. Someone has to the first advanced lifeform in the Universe. Maybe its us!

  22. David Brin here, author and former member of the committee that drafted the SETI Protocols.

    I have to agree with Doug, here. People who make assumptions about the state of the cosmos, and who are willing to bet our posterity on those assumptions, should at least discuss the matter with the rest of us, first.

    There is momentum building toward an open and eclectic meeting to discuss this in public. It should at least be very interesting!

    For more, see:

    (Ignore the lurid illustrations!)

    David Brin

  23. I tell you what. I look at Polaris every time I polar align my scope when I’m observing. If I see anything heading this way, I’ll let you know.

  24. We are already here…
    So much for Fermi’s Paradox …
    We sent you directed GRBs i.e.”Turkey Calls” in the form of a sequence of Prime numbers of Type ..
    K*2^n – 1
    and you foolishly replied.
    We intercepted an Internet reply by someone named Bo Inc from your Planet ….
    We are Grateful to Bo and he and his entire family will be spared on our Festive Day of Gratitude …

  25. If alien life forms and civilizations exist, and if they come into contact with human civilization, then eventually, there will be conflict and hostility. Can there be any possibility of doubt on this, knowing the nature of humanity?

    Anihilation and extermination would seem unlikely outcomes, as a symbiotic relationship benefts all and individuals within technically advanced civilizations will not be stopped in the pursuit of profit.

  26. After a bit of reflection I conjectured that any life-forms that are likely to be capable of travelling several light years through space (and not dying or becoming irreparably damaged in the process) would be artificial ones, some sort of cybernetic organisms created by biological ones (such as ourselves) for the express purpose of exploring a relatively nearby solar system. If humanity lasts long enough, we should be able to create such exploratory organisms ourselves. They would be able to hibernate for years at a time, and undergo a periodic renewal of internal and external structural parts that would be damaged by cosmic rays (or accidents) on their journey.

  27. Not to worry. CATO is nearly 100% correct He is probably wrong, however, about the residual rf noise at two light years. I don’t believe even noise from a multi-million watt transmission would be detectable at that distance. There is only the tinniest fracton of a femto-watt remaining that far out. Do the math for undirected rf loss. As for Peter K’s question about our valuable radio telescope information. That’s an easy one. The rf energy output from cosmic radio sources is in the googol watt range. There is no comparison between ordinary high-powered radio communication rf and stellar radio sources. On the matter of life elsewhere, as you may have guessed, I believe SETI is actually wasting their time and tax money searching for evidence of life outside the solar system. Just too much cosmic distance and not enough residual rf to detect. And a final word. I suspect the cosmos is bubbling with an unimaginable number of life forms interspersed with a very rare, below, average or advanced earth-like, intelligence. And as for man leaving the solar system as a sensible science project to Alpa C., I rather doublt it.

  28. ># Sjock Says:
    >February 8th, 2008 at 12:39 am
    >The main idea was to send the RIAA along.

    Day 1: The Aliens finally arrive here on earth after the beatles song is a big hit on their home planet.

    Day 2: The RIAA sues alien world for illegal downloading.

  29. So much is made about contacting extraterrestrial life but what isn’t discussed is what happens if they are much less advance than us…

    We expect technologically advanced aliens to give and give (whether it’s tech or knowledge) but we have a history of being the most selfish and self-serving of pr*cks.

    We can’t be bothered to unite as a world. Our focus is capitalism and what we can do for OURSELVES – the hell with everyone else.

    What if alien life needed our help? What if they needed it desperately? What would we do then…

    Probably the same thing we’re doing now… nothing except continued exploitation.

    Until we’re ready to be more than just the animals we already are, our focus should be in terraforming technology, the environment, worldwide peace (so we can focus funds on where they are needed) and other requirements for our worldwide growing population.

  30. A bit off topic, but *why* send an mp3? Wav files are fundamental — it would be easy for the aliens to figure out by examining it, that it might be a direct representation of a sound wave. But, the chances are much slimmer that they’d be able to reverse engineer the mp3 codec from one sample — or even to realize that they have to.

  31. There is no one “out there” to broadcast..ergo
    SETI is listening for a “signal” that will never arrive.

  32. I am afraid you are all that there is.

    If I thought there was a chance that you would develop the technology to travel the distances involved before you destroy yourselves, I would have put life on other planets for you to kill.

    You guys crack me up… Seriously.


  33. Considering the the utterly vast distances I do not think so. Let me know if we hear from anybody.

  34. Who’d want to know us?

    We’re the equivalent of the neighbours everyone gossips about in hushed whispers.

    At the risk of sounding like some of the advanced races in much of the Sci-Fi we all know and love; we’re too primitive to make contact with.

    We’re still bogged down by religion; with most preaching peace, but advocating and practicing violence. Our leaders are little better, tending to think in terms of the next election, and how to further enrich themselves at the expense of the public. Oh, yes; and we also still assign artificial values to material goods, as if they mean more to us than people.

    If foolhardy extraterrestrials landed on the White House lawn tomorrow, they’d probably greet us with open arms, as opposed to our fake smiles, and snipers on the roof. At every turn (as many here have said), we’d be trying to figure out how best to kill them and rob them of their technology; all while trying to make it look like an accident.

    Why are we worth knowing?

  35. I have news for you hucksters. Regardless of how advanced or how backward a civilization may be, the bottom line is that they all share one thing in common.

    Namely, that it’s first priority is survival above all.

  36. Humans were placed here to propogate and consume the earth’s food supply until we’re all fat, lazy and number in the billions. We need to send a signal that we are ready to eat before we exterminate ourselves, which would have wasted the efforts to grow us for dinner in the first place. Turns out dinosaurs and fish don’t taste as good as humans.
    That’s where the mayans went.

  37. Thank you Chuck Lam and Cato for confir-ming my long-term doubt concerning the ne-
    cessary rf power. I once tried roughly to esti-mate the rf TX-power necessary for reaching
    100 ly´s into the cosmos from Earth. At that distance there could probably exist intelligent
    listeners according to the Drake formula. I got
    a TX-power of at least E20 watts when consi-
    derig vacuum qualities for the space. It may
    be wrong, but rises premonitions of rf power
    not feasible on Earth to day. If we are not ca-
    pable, neither Aliens very likely are not. As
    long as authorities avoid discussing this es-
    sential and logic matter, it should be accep-
    table that listening for alien signals looks to be very worthless.
    Kind regards !

  38. Any civilization sufficiently advanced as to be able to intercept our TV and Radio leakage will probably not want to have anything the hell to do with us. Especially if they see any “reality” shows.

  39. It appears doubtful that contact of any kind will ever occur between intelligent life-forms. Cosmic distance and most likely rarity of intelligence capable of the most advanced means of communication is responsible for SETI’s failure.

  40. Maybe the reason why no aliens have responded to us because of the same reason we shouldn’t contact them. They probably think by sending information to another species in the universe that they may be attacked by them.

  41. And not to mention, if there is intelligent life out there, maybe they think that we are not intelligent enough for them to contact us.

  42. Dear Sir(s) etc.:
    About 9 years ago they managed to send a beam of photons(light) accross a lab at x300 times light speed by passing the beam through a cloud of cessium atoms. This was timed on atomic clocks and is real. Would it not make more sense to transmit at x300 plus times the speed of light(x300 c) to Aliens.
    They would of course have the technology to detect such transmissions. Further by entangling such atoms with those in the lab we would be casting a net in the cosmic sea which would allow future instantaneous message exchanges for the future !. Such a system would allow teleportation of Q-bits of data at infinite speeds. With even our current attempts at building Quantum computers we’d be `within range’ of being able to have a meaningfull exchange with them. Our super-smart aliens(or `been there before us’) would then recognise that we had arrived.
    Best Regards
    Chris. Harding

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