Be Careful What You Say To Space Aliens
The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, called SETI, used to lie within NASA’s orbit. More recently, the private sector began to fund it in the form of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA. People involved in SETI point powerful radio telescopes at distant stars in hopes of hearing radio signals from other civilizations.
An amateur group called the SETI League has encouraged space enthusiasts to point their own telescopes at the sky with the goal of creating a citizen network that can listen to a wide swath of the cosmos all the time. But the problem comes when humans stop listening and begin to shout.
At least that’s what David Brin thinks.
David Brin is the author of many science fiction books and he holds a doctoral degree in astrophysics from UC San Diego. Brin takes very seriously the possibility that the human race could meet up with extra-terrestrial intelligence.
And he’s gotten very worked up about another acronym; METI, Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. The METI-ists send tight beams of radio transmission to certain stars to try to get the attention of someone (something?) out there.
Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Brin on the subject. You can hear the whole interview by playing the audio file.
Why is METI something you have so many concerns about?
I’ve written about the aliens all my life, both as an astrophysicist and a science fiction author. So I’m friendly to the notion that life is out there. But we cannot dismiss the possibility that such contact might be harmful. Let’s bear in mind that every time human civilizations, that had not known about each other, came into contact over the past thousand years, somebody experienced a lot of pain… usually the less-developed group. And we’re the least-developed in the galaxy right now.
We’re the least developed? How do you know that?
Because we barely have the capability right now to use radio. We’ve only had it for 50 or 60 years. I mean, what are the odds that someone out there is younger than us. The people that these METI guys are looking for are advanced cultures.
If extraterrestrials can hear our shouts into space, don’t they know we’re here already?
This is one of the common misconceptions about this issue. People say it’s too late. They say (the aliens) have already seen “I Love Lucy.” But the people at the SETI Institute themselves admit that our radio, our television and our radar actually fade into static within one light year. (Extra-terrestrials) would need a super cosmic gigantic telescope, knowing to aim it directly at the earth, to pick up even the static.
How would you prevent people or governments from shouting into space, especially in the U.S. where we have freedom of speech?
And I’m all in favor of freedom of expression. And in fact, if the SETI League goes ahead with its plan to have 5,000 backyard telescopes, then sooner or later somebody in their own backyard will have a transmitter powerful enough to shout “Yoo-Hoo” into the galaxy. A moratorium would not be permanent and we aren’t trying to squelch free expression. Nor are we saying that shouting is going to bring slathering invaders here to take our women and our water. But it is rude and it is improper to just go ahead and experiment with our children’s future without holding a conversation about it with the best thinkers and the best scientists on the planet in the open, where the public can also participate in the conversation.
Let me broaden our conversation a little bit. What is the Drake Equation?
The Drake equation was set up by Frank Drake, the original father of SETI, as a mental tool to give rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations of how many alien races there ought to be out there. It’s a useful concept. You take the number of stars in the galaxy and say what fraction of these are stable, and might be the hearth around which a living world might orbit. Then, what fraction of them has earth-like plants in the “Goldilocks” zone, which is neither to close to the star nor too far from the star? And then it goes on to calculate which of these might develop life, which fraction of those might develop intelligence, which fraction of intelligent species would develop technology, and how long do such civilizations exist. Various optimists calculate their may be a million communicating races in the galaxy right now. Some pessimists think there may be just one, and that would be us.
What do you think are the chances the human race will ever meet up with intelligent extra-terrestrials?
I don’t know. There are hundreds and hundreds of possibilities. My best guess is… yes, I think someday we will meet somebody. But I hope it won’t be very soon, and for a very strange reason. I look at how much we’ve done in the last 100 years, especially since WWII. And I look at the horrible mythologies of racism and sexism and prejudice and nastiness that my parents’ generation took for granted. And these notions are all in disrepute right now. We have made so much progress in our souls and in our hearts, not to mention technology. I would hate it if, after doing all this work, some lecturing alien landed in a flying saucer and wagged his finger at us. Then, all of the sudden, we reformed just because of that. And for the next 10 thousand years we gave him the credit for it!
Would the laws of physics actually allow us to build a spacecraft that would cover the distance we’d have to cover to encounter other intelligent life?
There are some potential loopholes that might allow faster-than-light travel like in Star Trek and Star Wars. I don’t think we will find those loopholes to be true because, if they were, why haven’t we seen them already. But even in a universe that is Einsteinian, that limits travel to less than 10 percent of the speed of light, there are types of spacecraft we could make that could cross that vast gulf… and remember we’re already crossing it with the Voyager space probes at a very slow rate. If we could make robots that could cross the gulf to nearby stars, find an asteroid, mine its materials, make copies of themselves and send those on to more stars, there are no laws of physics to prevent that. And there’s no reason to think we couldn’t do that within the next hundred years.
If space aliens came to our world, who would negotiate them? The UN? The President of the United States?
If they came here physically, governments could control the encounter. Governments have guns. They can negotiate with each other and decide. I recently met a woman who is head of the United Nations Office of Space. She would likely be on the welcoming committee. I’ve been told that I may be on the same rolodex. But what if contact happens by radio? Then everybody and his brother and sister will be aiming their home satellite dishes at that part of the sky. And ET will soon learn that we’re a fractious, rambunctious, diverse, sometimes brilliant bunch of scatterbrained monkeys. And I’m proud of that!
You’re a science-fiction writer. This discussion of life on other planets and the possibility we might encounter other life… what’s driving the discussion? Is it science or imagination?
Science and imagination should interface with each other. That’s what good science fiction is really about; to shine light into the future, to explore possibilities. But it’s best done in an interface with the real world. One of the things that’s so exciting is back in 1995 we knew of no planets outside of our solar system. Now it’s approaching one thousand. We’re learning so fast!