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Who Speaks For Earth?

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Sat, 15 Dec 2007 09:55:38 -0500
Archived: Sat, 15 Dec 2007 09:55:38 -0500
Subject: Who Speaks For Earth?

Source: SeedMagazine.Com - Montreal, Quebec, Canada


December 12, 2007

Who Speaks For Earth?
by David Grinspoon

After decades of searching, scientists have found no trace of
extraterrestrial intelligence. Now, some of them hope to make
contact by broadcasting messages to the stars. Are we prepared
for an answer?

Alexander Zaitsev, Chief Scientist at the Russian Academy of
Sciences' Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, has
access to one of the most powerful radio transmitters on Earth.
Though he officially uses it to conduct the Institute's
planetary radar studies, Zaitsev is also trying to contact other
civilizations in nearby star systems. He believes
extraterrestrial intelligence exists, and that we as a species
have a moral obligation to announce our presence to our sentient
neighbors in the Milky Way=97to let them know they are not alone.
If everyone in the galaxy only listens, he reasons, the search
for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is doomed to failure.

Zaitsev has already sent several powerful messages to nearby,
sun-like stars=97a practice called "Active SETI." But some
scientists feel that he's not only acting out of turn, but also
independently speaking for everyone on the entire planet.
Moreover, they believe there are possible dangers we may unleash
by announcing ourselves to the unknown darkness, and if anyone
plans to transmit messages from Earth, they want the rest of the
world to be involved. For years the debate over Active SETI
versus passive "listening" has mostly been confined to SETI
insiders. But late last year the controversy boiled over into
public view after the journal Nature published an editorial
scolding the SETI community for failing to conduct an open
discussion on the remote, but real, risks of unregulated signals
to the stars. And in September, two major figures resigned from
an elite SETI study group in protest. All this despite the fact
that SETI's ongoing quest has so far been largely fruitless. For
Active SETI's critics, the potential for alerting dangerous or
malevolent entities to our presence is enough to justify their

"We're talking about initiating communication with other
civilizations, but we know nothing of their goals, capabilities,
or intent," reasons John Billingham, a senior scientist at the
private SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Billingham
studied medicine at Oxford and headed NASA's first
extraterrestrial search effort in 1976. He believes we should
apply the Hippocratic Oath's primary tenet to our galactic
behavior: "First, do no harm." For years Billingham served as
the chairman of the Permanent Study Group (PSG) of the SETI
subcommittee of the International Academy of Astronautics, a
widely accepted forum for devising international SETI
agreements. But despite his deep involvement with the group,
Billingham resigned in September, feeling the PSG is unwisely
refusing to take a stand urging broad, interdisciplinary
consultation on Active SETI. "At the very least we ought to talk
about it first, and not just SETI people. We have a
responsibility to the future well-being and survival of

Billingham is not alone in his dissent. Michael Michaud, a
former top diplomat within the US State Department and a
specialist in technology policy, also resigned from the PSG in
September. Though highly aware of the potential for
misunderstanding or ridicule, Michaud feels too much is at stake
for the public to remain uninvolved in the debate. "Active SETI
is not science; it's diplomacy. My personal goal is not to stop
all transmissions, but to get the discussion out of a small
group of elites."

Michaud is the original author of what became the "First SETI
Protocol," a list of actions to take in the event of a SETI
success. In the late 1980s, several international organizations
committed to its principles: First, notify the global SETI
community and cooperate to verify the alien signal. Then, if the
discovery is confirmed, announce it to the public. Finally, send
no reply until the nations of the world have weighed in. A
future "Second SETI Protocol" was meant to refine the policy for
sending mes- sages from Earth, but the effort quickly became
complicated. Everyone agreed that if a message were received,
broad global dialogue concerning if and how to respond must take
place before any reply could be sent. The rift arose over
whether or not the Protocol should also address Active SETI
transmissions made before any signal is detected.

At a meeting last year in Valencia, Spain, a divided PSG voted
to change Michaud's draft of the Second Protocol. They deleted
language calling for "appropriate international consultations"
before any deliberate transmissions from Earth, overriding the
concerns of Billingham and Michaud and triggering Nature's
editorial. As Michaud describes it, "Last fall, this became an
unbridgeable gap. They brought it to a vote but there was no
consensus. Those with dissenting views were largely cut out of
the discussion." Michaud and Billingham feel that by not
explicitly advocating a policy of international consultations,
the SETI PSG is tacitly endorsing rogue broadcasters.

Seth Shostak, the current chair of the SETI PSG, maintains that
Nature got it wrong, that in Valencia there was no organized
effort to discourage open and transparent debate about the
wisdom of sending signals. As the SETI Institute's senior
astronomer, Shostak has been involved in the science and policy
of SETI for many years, and often seems to act as public
spokesman for the Institute and for SETI in general. He says
it's inappropriate for the PSG to set global guidelines for
Active SETI. "Who are we to tell the rest of the world how to
behave? It would be totally unenforceable."

Michaud and Billingham agree that the PSG can't make policy for
the whole world. But rather than sweep the question under the
rug, they believe it is the responsibility of the SETI community
to facilitate the wider conversation that must take place. "We
feel strongly that the discussion must involve not just
astronomers, but a broad spectrum of social scientists,
historians, and diplomats," explains Billingham.

"This was simply about jurisdiction," Shostak insists. The First
Protocol, he says, is about self-policing; the Second isn't. "If
we found a signal, it would be a result of our own research.
Therefore we felt it was responsible to have an agreed-upon
policy about what to do next." Shostak also worries that
drafting guidelines for sending messages to aliens could
generate bad press. SETI has always struggled for
respectability. In the 1970s and 80s, NASA supported some
listening programs, but government funding was cut off in 1993
amid congressional ridicule. Thanks to private funding, SETI has
rebounded since then, but is still vulnerable to association
with tabloids and talk radio guests claiming personal contact
with aliens. Publicizing the real debate over rules of conduct
for talking to extraterrestrials, Shostak reasons, wouldn't do
much to help counter this vision.

Long before he was an eager practitioner of Active SETI,
Alexander Zaitsev was already a respected astronomer
investigating planets using huge blasts of radar energy from the
70-meter radio telescope at the Evpatoria Deep Space Center in
Crimea, Ukraine. Planetary radar studies rely on powerful,
focused beams to "illuminate" distant objects, though much of
this energy misses its target. The beams would be fleeting if
seen from other stars that, by chance, lay along their path. But
aimed and modulated to contain pictures, sounds, and other
multimedia, they very easily become calling cards from Earth. On
balance, it's relatively simple to send signals, so why have we
just been listening?

SETI doctrine states that anyone we hear from will almost
certainly be much more advanced than we are. Simply put, our
capabilities are so rudimentary that any chance of detecting an
alien transmission would require that it be broadcast powerfully
and continually on millennial timescales. We can't predict much
about alien civilizations, but we can use statistical
mathematics to derive simple, robust relationships between the
number of putative civilizations, their average longevity, and
their population density in the galaxy. The chance of getting a
signal from another baby race like ours is infinitesimally
small. As Shostak says, "We've had radio for 100 years. They've
had it for at least 1,000 years. Let them do the heavy lifting."

This is one reason why most SETI pioneers advocated a "first,
just listen" approach. But there is another: What if there is
something dangerous out there that could be alerted by our
broadcasts? This ground has been explored in numerous scientific
papers and, of course, in countless works of science fiction.
Few people alive today embody the convergence of hard science
and fictional speculation better than David Brin, an author of
both peer-reviewed astronomy papers and award-winning science
fiction novels. In an influential 1983 paper titled "The Great
Silence," Brin provided a kind of taxonomy of explanations for
the lack of an obvious alien presence. In addition to the usual
answers positing that humanity is alone, or so dull that aliens
have no interest in us, Brin included a more disturbing
possibility: Nobody is on the air because something seeks and
destroys everyone who broadcasts. Like Billingham and Michaud,
he feels the PSG is dominated by a small number of people who
don't want to acknowledge Active SETI's potential dangers.

Even if something menacing and terrible lurks out there among
the stars, Zaitsev and others argue that regulating our
transmissions could be pointless because, technically, we've
already blown our cover. A sphere of omnidirectional broadband
signals has been spreading out from Earth at the speed of light
since the advent of radio over a century ago. So isn't it too
late? That depends on the sensitivity of alien radio detectors,
if they exist at all. Our television signals are diffuse and not
targeted at any star system. It would take a truly huge
antenna=97larger than anything we've built or plan to build--to
notice them.

Alien telescopes could perhaps detect Earth's strange oxygen
atmosphere, created by life, and a rising CO2 level, suggesting
a young industrial civilization. But what would draw their
attention to our solar system among the multitudes? Deliberate
blasts of narrow-band radiation aimed at nearby stars would=97for
a certain kind of watcher=97cause our planet to suddenly light up,
creating an obvious beacon announcing for better or worse, "Here
we are!"

In fact, we have already sent some targeted radio messages. Even
now they are racing toward their selected destinations, and they
are unstoppable. Frank Drake sent the first Active SETI
broadcast from the large radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto
Rico, in November 1974. In its narrow path, the Arecibo message
was the most powerful signal ever sent from Earth. But it was
aimed at M13, a globular star cluster about 25,000 light years
away. At the earliest, we could expect a reply in 50,000 years.

More recently, Zaitsev and his colleagues sent a series of
messages from their dish at Evpatoria. In 1999 and 2003 they
sent "Cosmic Call" I and II, transmissions containing pictograms
meant to communicate our understanding of the universe and life
on Earth. In 2001, Zaitsev and a group of Russian teenagers
created the "Teen-Age Message to the Stars," which was broadcast
in August and September of that year in the direction of six
stars between 45 and 70 light years from Earth. The Teen-Age
Message notably included greetings in Russian and English, and a
15-minute Theremin symphony for aliens. Unlike Drake's Arecibo
message, Zaitsev's messages target nearby stars. So if anyone
wishes to reply, we may receive it in the next century or two.

Along with the famous plaques attached to Pioneer 10 and 11 and
the two phonograph records carried by Voyager 1 and 2=97four
spacecraft that will soon leave our Solar System=97these messages
are mostly symbolic efforts unlikely to betray our presence to
the denizens of planets orbiting other stars. Our civilization
is still hidden from all but those ardently searching for our
kind, or those so far beyond our level of sophistication that we
couldn't hide from them if we wanted to. To date, all our
"messages to aliens" are really more successful as
communications to Earth, mirrors reflecting our dreams of
reaching far beyond our terrestrial nursery.

For now, the dissenters have given up on the SETI PSG, but
there's still hope for a solution to the standoff. At the PSG's
2007 meeting held in Hyderabad, India this September, the group
implicitly accepted the reality of Active SETI risks by adopting
a standard called the "San Marino Scale," a formula for
assessing the risk of a given broadcast program. Michaud admits
that the scale "is a useful starting point for discussion."

When pressed, everyone involved in the recent controversy agrees
that harmful contact scenarios cannot be completely ruled out.
Active SETI critics like Billingham, Michaud, and Brin don't
support a blanket ban on transmissions, and even Zaitsev accepts
that open and multinational discussion is needed before anyone
pursues transmission programs more ambitious and powerful than
his own. The major disagreement is actually over how soon we can
expect powerful transmission tools to become widely available to
those who would signal at whim.

At present, the radio astronomy facilities potentially capable
of producing a major Active SETI broadcast are all controlled by
national governments, or at least large organizations
responsible to boards and donors and sensitive to public
opinion. However, seemingly inevitable trends are placing
increasingly powerful technologies in the hands of small groups
or eager individuals with their own agendas and no oversight.
Today, on the entire planet, there are only a few mavericks like
Zaitsev who are able and willing to unilaterally represent
humanity and effectively reveal our presence. In the future,
there could be one in every neighborhood.

So far SETI has turned up no evidence of other intelligent
creatures out there seeking conversation. All we know for
certain is that our galaxy is not full of civilizations
occupying nearly every sun-like star and sending strong radio
signals directly to Earth. In the absence of data, the questions
of extraterrestrial intelligence, morality, and behavior are
more philosophy than science. But even if no one else is out
there and we are ultimately alone, the idea of communicating
with truly alien cultures forces us to consider ourselves from
an entirely new, and perhaps timely, perspective. Even if we
never make contact, any attempt to act and speak as one planet
is not a misguided endeavor: Our impulsive industrial
transformation of our home planet is starting to catch up to us,
and the nations of the world are struggling with existential
threats like anthropogenic climate change and weapons of mass
destruction. Whether or not we develop a mechanism for
anticipating, discussing, and acting on long-term planetary
dangers such as these before they become catastrophes remains to
be seen. But the unified global outlook required to face them
would certainly be a welcome development.

[Thanks to 'The Norm' for the lead]

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