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Active SETI And The Public

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Sun, 30 Dec 2007 11:10:06 -0500
Archived: Sun, 30 Dec 2007 11:10:06 -0500
Subject: Active SETI And The Public

Source: Centauri Dreams The News Forum Of The Tau Zero Foundation


Thursday, December 27th, 2007

Active SETI And The Public

When it comes to understanding possible extraterrestrial
civilizations, I'm with Freeman Dyson, who had this to say:

"Our business as scientists is to search the universe and
find out what is there. What is there may conform to our moral
sense or it may not...It is just as unscientific to impute to
remote intelligences wisdom and serenity as it is to impute to
them irrational and murderous impulses. We must be prepared for
either possibility and conduct our searches accordingly."

As quoted in a 2005 essay by Michael Michaud, Dyson saw two
alternatives: Intelligent races may rule their domains with
benign intelligence, occasionally passing along the knowledge
they have accumulated to a universe eager to listen. Or
intelligence may be purely exploitative, consuming what it
encounters. We don't know which of these alternatives prevails,
if either, and that's one reason that Michaud, a former diplomat
who became deputy assistant secretary of state for science and
technology, resigned from the International Academy of
Astronautics' Permanent Study Group dedicated to SETI in
September. The issue: Active SETI, not just listening but
beaming signals at will to other stars.

M31 galaxy

If you want to have a good look at the controversy, read David
Grinspoon's article "Who Speaks for Earth," as comprehensive a
look at the issue as I've seen. Grinspoon is a scientist at the
Southwest Research Institute (Boulder, CO) as well as the author
of Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (Harper,
2004). Two years ago we looked at his provocative ideas about
life on Titan in a Centauri Dreams posting.

Image: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Are ‘cities of stars' like
these home to benign species exchanging information, or are
there threats we know nothing of that make silence a better
choice? Credit: NASA.

Running in SEED Magazine, Grinspoon's latest article should
receive plenty of attention, a good thing given the fact that
most people either don't know that signals have already been
sent (not just from Arecibo but to nearby stars from the
Evpatoria planetary radar site in the Crimea), or else think
that sending signals is a harmless exercise, because surely
extraterrestrial civilizations are, though entertaining, pure
science fiction.

And perhaps they are - people like me think they're vanishingly
rare - but the point is that we have nothing more than
speculation to work with. Meanwhile, what would we do if we ever
did receive an actual SETI signal? The First SETI Protocol was
drawn up in the 1980s to address the issue, laying down
procedures that begin with notifying the worldwide SETI
community, verifying the potential alien signal, then announcing
it to the public. No reply would be sent without first
establishing a global consensus.

That latter, of course, is the sticking point. As Grinspoon
explains, a Second SETI Protocol should have tuned up our policy
for sending messages from Earth, but arguments over whether it
should only affect responses to received messages - or messages
sent before any extraterrestrial signal was detected - have
complicated the picture. Language calling for international
consultations before we make further deliberate transmissions
was deleted from Michaud's draft of the Protocol when the
Permanent Study Group of the SETI subcommittee of the IAA met
last year in Valencia.

Grinspoon's article is a calm assessment of the current
situation, and I recommend it to you. He discusses the work of
Alexander Zaitsev at Evpatoria, whose team has sent a series of
messages toward nearby stars. Remember that Frank Drake's
Arecibo message of 1974, the first active SETI attempt I know
of, was aimed at the globular cluster M13, some 25,000 light
years away, and was thus something of a scientific exercise
rather than a active attempt to open a communications channel.
But the stars reached by the Evpatoria messages are between 45
and 70 light years from Earth, more or less in our back yard.

Discussions between the two camps continue. But two Grinspoon
points merit special attention. One is that the kind of
facilities that can make active SETI broadcasts are today
largely in the hands of national governments or large
organizations answerable to public opinion. Will it always be
so? Grinspoon says no:

"...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

Which is one reason why public indifference to the question of
broadcasting to the stars may not last much longer. In fact, the
Grinspoon article may be a watershed event in changing
awareness. The issues are clearly large. As David Brin has been
pointing out since the 1980s, one possible answer to our failure
to detect other civilizations is that there may be a reason why
such civilizations would want to remain silent. Is there a
threat to emerging intelligence that could make our attempt to
draw attention to ourselves a dangerous mistake? We can't know
at this juncture, which makes deliberate broadcasts something of
a shot in the dark. And that dark is quite impenetrable at

Grinspoon also makes the point that the entire discussion on
active SETI may in itself be a good thing for our own
understanding. Let me quote him again:

"...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."

These are welcome words, highlighting the fact that the issues
we confront as we look for extraterrestrial civilizations are
just as significant for our own dealings here on Earth, where
other cultures can sometimes seem as inscrutably alien as
anything we might find through a radio telescope search. And
Grinspoon is surely right about the proliferation of
technologies expanding active SETI in the future. We need to be
raising public consciousness on this issue and getting the
entire active SETI question into broader forums, where people
from a wide range of backgrounds, in and out of the sciences,
can address it. We need to do that so we act not as individuals
but as a species, looking out into a universe that may or may
not welcome us as friends.

[Lead thanks to Stuart Miller @ http://www.alienworldsmag.com]

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