What If We Do Find Aliens?


Time to talk about my favorite topic: aliens.

We’ve covered the Fermi Paradox many times over several articles on Universe Today. This is the idea that the Universe is huge, and old, and the ingredients of life are everywhere. Life could and should have have appeared many times across the galaxy, but it’s really strange that we haven’t found any evidence for them yet.

We’ve also talked about how we as a species have gone looking for aliens. How we’re searching the sky for signals from their alien communications. How the next generation of space and ground-based telescopes will let us directly image the atmospheres of extrasolar planets. If we see large quantities of oxygen, or other chemicals that shouldn’t be around, it’s a good indication there’s life on their planet.

We’ve even talked about how aliens could use that technique on us. We’ve been sending our radio and television signals out into space for the last few decades. Who knows what crazy things they think about our “historical documents”? But Earth life itself has been broadcasting our existence for hundreds of millions of years, since the first plankton started filling our atmosphere with oxygen. A distant civilization could be analyzing our atmosphere and know exactly when we entered the industrial age.

But what we haven’t talked about, the space elephant in the room, if you will, is what we’ll do if we actually make contact. What are we going to say to each other? And what will happen if the aliens show up?

War of the Worlds
I’m hoping that first contact doesn’t start out like this. Credit: Henrique Alvim Correa, 1906, for the novel “The War of the Worlds”

Although there’s no official protocol on talking to aliens, scientists and research institutions have been puzzling out the best way we might communicate for quite a while.

Perhaps the best example is the SETI Institute, the US-based research group who have dedicated radio telescopes scanning the skies for messages from space.

Let’s imagine you’re a SETI researcher, and you’re browsing last night’s logs and you see what looks like a message. Maybe it’s instructions to build some kind of dimensional portal, or a recipe book.

Whatever you do, don’t try out the recipes. Instead, you need to make absolutely sure you’re not dealing with some kind of natural phenomenon. Then you need to reach out to other researchers and get them to confirm the signal.

The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. The telescope is currently being used in a new SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempt to look for possible alien radio signals from Tabby's Star. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF
The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. The telescope is currently being used in a new SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempt to look for possible alien radio signals from Tabby’s Star. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

If they agree it’s aliens, then you need to inform the International Astronomical Union and other international groups, like the United Nations, Committee on Space Research, etc.

Unless they’ve got some good reason to stop you, it’s time to announce the discovery to the worldwide media. You made the discovery, you get to break the news to the world.

At this point, of course, the entire world is going to freak right out. Whatever you do, however, you have to resist the urge to send back a message or build that dimensional portal, no matter how much you think you understand the science. Instead, let an international committee mull it over while you stockpile supplies in a secret alien proof bunker in the desert.

What kind of message should we actually craft to our new alien penpals? Will we become fast friends, jump starting our own technological progress, or will we insult them by accident?

In 2000, and international group of SETI researchers including the famous Jill Tarter devised The Rio Scale. It really easy to use, and there’s even a fun online calculator.

Step 1, figure out the class of phenomenon. Is it a message sent directly to Earth, expecting a reply? Or did we merely find some alien artifact or old timey Dyson sphere orbiting a nearby star?

Step 2, how verifiable is the discovery? Are we talking ongoing signals received by SETI researchers, or a hint in some old data that’s impossible to confirm?

Step 3, how far are we talking here? Hovering over Paris? Within our Solar System, or outside the galaxy?

Step 4, how sure are you? 100% certain, and everyone agrees because they can all see that enormous mothership floating above London? Or nobody believes you, and they’ve locked you up because of your insane ramblings and misappropriation of government equipment?

Punch in your numbers and you’ll get a rank on The Rio Scale between 0 and 10. Level 0 is “no importance” or “you’re a crank”, while level 10 is “extraordinary importance”, or “now would be a good time to panic”.

Movie poster from 'Independence Day.' Credit: 20th Century Fox
Not the best outcome. Credit: 20th Century Fox

SETI researcher Seth Shostak, calculated the Rio Scale for various sci-fi movies and shows. The first message from aliens in Independence Day would count as a 4. While the obliteration of the White House by a massive floating alien city that everybody could see would count as a 10.

the messages received in Contact, and independently confirmed by researchers around the world would qualify in the 4-8 range, while the monolith discovered on the Moon in 2001 would be a solid 6.

Now you know how important the discovery is, what do you say back to those chatty aliens?

This falls under the term CETI, which means Communications with Extraterrestrial Aliens, which shouldn’t be confused with SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Aliens. And it turns out, that horse has already left the stable.

When the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft were constructed, they were equipped with handy maps to find Earth’s precise location in the Milky Way.

The famous "Golden Record" carried aboard both Voyager 1 and 2 contains images, sounds and greetings from Earth. (NASA)
The famous “Golden Record” carried aboard both Voyager 1 and 2 contains images, sounds and greetings from Earth. (NASA)

In 1974, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake who composed a message in alienese and broadcast it into space from the Arecibo Observatory.

In 1999 and 2003 a series of signals were transmitted towards various interesting stars. The messages contained images of Earth, as well as various mathematical principles that could be used by aliens as a common language.

We’ll know if that was a good idea in a few decades.

In 2015, scientists like David Grinspoon, Seth Shostak and David Brin collected together to discuss if it’s a wise idea to send messages off into space, to broadcast our existence to potentially hostile alien civilizations.

According to Seth Shostak, the best message we can send is the entire internet. Just send it all, they’ll work out what we’re all about.

The science fiction author David Brin thinks that’s a terrible idea, and we should keep our mouths shut.

Personally, I think the aliens already know we’re here. If they wanted to invade and destroy our planet, they would have done it millions of years ago when early life made it obvious this planet was inhabited. The jig is up.

It’s a mind bending concept to imagine what life might be like if we knew with absolutely certainty that there’s an alien civilization right over there, on that world. I’m sure people will freak out for a while, but then we’ll probably just go back to life as normal. Human beings can get bored by the most surprising and amazing things.

If you learned there was definitely an alien civilization out there, how do you think humanity would respond? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Your Weekend Movie: Beyond The Visible: The Story of the Very Large Array

While some of you will no doubt be heading to the theaters to see the new release of “Gravity,” for those that want to stay in for the weekend, here’s the perfect short film. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has released a new 24-minute film about the recently renovated Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope. The film is narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Jodie Foster, star of the 1997 Warner Brothers film, “Contact,” which was filmed in part at the VLA.

“In ‘Contact,’ I played the role of an astronomer using the VLA,” Foster said. “In narrating this new film for the VLA Visitor Center, I have the privilege of introducing tomorrow’s scientists, technicians, and engineers to the amazing complexities of this great telescope, and to the wonders of the universe that it reveals.”

Beyond The Visible: The Story of the Very Large Array from NRAO Outreach on Vimeo.

From NRAO’s press release:

Titled “Beyond the Visible,” the film tells the behind-the-scenes story of the operation and scientific achievements of the VLA, which has been at the forefront of astrophysical research since its dedication in 1980. Spectacular ground and aerial footage of the iconic radio telescope is augmented by first-person interviews with staffers who keep the telescope working and scientists who use it to discover exciting new facts about the universe. The film also depicts many of the technical tasks needed to keep the array functioning at the forefront of science.

“Since the last film for the Visitor Center was produced in 2002, we’ve completed a massive technological upgrade that turned the VLA into a completely new and vastly more powerful tool for cutting-edge science,” said Dale Frail, NRAO’s Director for New Mexico Operations. “It was time to update the story we tell our visitors,” he added.

The film replaces an earlier video that ran at the VLA Visitor Center auditorium, which is visited by some 20,000 people annually. You can’t currently go to the Visitor Center to see the new film at the moment, however, because of the US federal government shutdown. So, watch it here. Hopefully the shutdown will be resolved soon so that people can resume their visits to the VLA.

SETI Astronomer Jill Tarter Recalls ‘Contact,’ 15 Years On

 

In 1985, famed astronomer, author and TV host Carl Sagan invited Jill Tarter to dinner at his house near Cornell University. Tarter, heavily involved with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, gladly accepted the chance to speak with Sagan, a member of SETI’s board of trustees.

Seated with Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, Tarter learned that Sagan had a fiction book on the go.

“Annie said, ‘You may recognize someone in the book, but I think you’ll like her,'” Tarter recalled in an interview with Universe Today.

Suspecting the character was based on herself, Tarter’s response to Druyan was: “‘Just make sure she doesn’t eat ice cones so much.’ It was something I was teased about.”

Female, in a male-dominated field

It was 15 years ago this month that the movie Contact, based on Sagan’s book of the same title, expanded to a run in international theatres after a successful summer in North America. The movie explores the implication of aliens making contact with Earth, but does it from more of a scientific perspective than most films.

While Contact, the movie did not talk about the pi sequences or advanced mathematical discussions in Contact, the book, it did bring concepts such as prime numbers, interference with radio telescopes, and the religion vs. science debate to theatres in 1997.

Tarter, who has just retired as the long-time director of the SETI Institute, said she was stunned by the parallels between her own life and that of Ellie Arroway, the character based on her in Contact. Both lost parents at an early age. Both also had to make their way in a field aggressively dominated by males.

Tarter recalls a meeting with fellow female scientists of her generation some years ago.

“A huge percentage of us had been, in high school, either cheerleaders or drum majorettes. This is so counterintuitive, right? Because we’re the nerds, we’re the brainy ones … (it was because) we were all competitors, and there weren’t any (female) sports to compete at. These sports were open, and we competed, and we generally won.”

Working on set

Tarter cautions the parallels did not totally match. The hopes and aspirations of Ellie in the book, and also the movie, were products of Sagan’s imagination. But the producers and actors of the film did want to get a close sense of what it was like to work with SETI.

After Jodie Foster was cast as Ellie, there were multiple phone calls between the actress and Tarter to discuss SETI.

“From her point of view, she was clear she wasn’t going to teach anyone astronomy. She was interested, in a personal way, about what the scientists were like,” Tarter said.

When the crew was filming at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, Tarter flew there to observe the work, meet with Foster and also show the actress around. Tarter recalls bringing Foster up in a cabin that had a perfect view of the telescope, some 500 feet above the dish.

Microphones and walkie-talkies

Filming was an interesting process for Tarter, as well. There were the microphones, and the tools the crew used to check continuity. Most amusingly for Tarter, she observed Foster (reported height 5 feet, 2 inches) needing to stand on a box for most of the close-up shots with actor Matthew McConaughey (reported as 6 feet tall).

Two errors still irk Tarter today. There is a scene when Ellie gives a modified version of the Drake Equation, which calculates the odds of intelligent life who are capable of communicating with other life forms, and the calculations are all wrong. “It’s really infuriating,” Tarter said.

The other large mistake is a scene where Ellie gets a potential signal from space, while working at the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array set of radio telescopes in New Mexico.

“She’s sitting in the middle of the array, in a car, with her laptop, and she gets the signal. And the first thing she does is pick up a walkie-talkie and start broadcasting. That signal is going to wipe out the signal from the sky. You don’t transmit by walkie-talkie.”

But overall, Tarter said the movie did a great job at portraying the feel of SETI. And Foster appreciated Tarter’s help. “She would write me handwritten thank-you notes, which was a kind of manner that most people have lost. A great courtesy.”

Hollywood outreach

Tarter walked the red carpet at the movie premiere and spent most of her time watching the film in tears of happiness. That euphoria evaporated when she saw the SETI Institute was not credited at the end of the film. When she talked to one of the film producers, she said she was informed that lawyers usually draft agreements specifying the length of time the credit appears, and the compensation received for doing so.

“We don’t have a lawyer at the SETI Institute,” she said. “When I write a paper, I acknowledge my collaborators. We got that wrong, so we never got any credit. We might have gotten even more recognition.”

But the professional connection with Foster still remains. Foster happily responded to a request from Tarter to do voice-overs for a video clip used for a SETI high school curriculum for integrated science. She also narrated a show, Life: A Cosmic Story, for the California Academy of Sciences Morrison Planetarium.

Tarter is now shifting into full-time outreach for SETI, saying the budgetary problems that shut down the organization’s Allen Telescope Array for several months last year were a warning call.

One of the organization’s newest initiatives is SETILive.org, which crowdsources analysis of signals from the Kepler Field. SETI solicits the public to take some time looking at the signal patterns, one at a time, in search of extraterrestrial communications.

“SETI is too important to allow it to fail,” Tarter said, adding her focus is finding substantial, stable funding from “that individual or institution that is capable of taking a long view.”

Aliens Don’t Want To Eat Us, Says Former SETI Director

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Alien life probably isn’t interested in having us for dinner, enslaving us or laying eggs in our bellies, according to a recent statement by former SETI director Jill Tarter.

(Of course, Hollywood would rather have us think otherwise.)

In a press release announcing the Institute’s science and sci-fi SETIcon event, taking place June 22 – 24 in Santa Clara, CA, Tarter — who was the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the film “Contact” — disagreed with both filmmakers and Stephen Hawking over the portrayal of extraterrestrials as monsters hungry for human flesh.

“Often the aliens of science fiction say more about us than they do about themselves,” Tarter said. “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets. If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore.

“Considering the age of the universe, we probably wouldn’t be their first extraterrestrial encounter, either. We should look at movies like ‘Men in Black III,’ ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Battleship’ as great entertainment and metaphors for our own fears, but we should not consider them harbingers of alien visitation.”

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

Tarter, 68, recently announced her stepping down as director of SETI in order to focus on funding for the Institute, which is currently running only on private donations. Funding SETI, according to Tarter, is investing in humanity’s future.

“Think about it. If we detect a signal, we could learn about their past (because of the time their signal took to reach us) and the possibility of our future. Successful detection means that, on average, technologies last for a long time. Understanding that it is possible to find solutions to our terrestrial problems and to become a very old civilization, because someone else has managed to do just that, is hugely important! Knowing that there can be a future may motivate us to achieve it.”

On the other hand, concern that searching the sky for signs of life — as well as sending out your own — could call down hungry alien monsters would make a good case for keeping quiet. And a quiet search may not get the necessary funding to keep going. I can see where Tarter is coming from.

Let’s just hope she’s right. (About the eating part, at least.)

Top image: Alien 3, © 20th Century Fox. Tip of the tinfoil hat to EarthSky.org