home space exploration and seti Shall We Shout Into the Cosmos?

Shall We Shout Into the Cosmos?

by David Brin, Ph.D.

Plans are apparently afoot for certain groups, equipped with large radio telescopes, to engage in "Active SETI." This translates into a program aimed at broadcasting messages into the cosmos on humanity's behalf.

Shall We Shout Into the Cosmos?

Should the endeavor called SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) augment and transform itself into something new? Should "Active SETI" depart from the traditional passive program — patiently listening and sifting for signs of advanced civilizations — and switch over to doing something new: Deliberately and vigorously transmitting into space, in order to draw attention our way?


the crux: how SETI has veered in new directions

Plans are apparently afoot for certain groups, equipped with large radio telescopes, to engage in "Active SETI." This translates into a program aimed at broadcasting messages into the cosmos on humanity's behalf, with the intent of persistently and dramatically (by many orders of magnitude) increasing the observable brightness of Earth civilization. Some prefer METI — or "Message to ETI" — to mean the same thing.

This endeavor — a dramatic departure from "passive SETI" or listening for signals from space — is apparently planned by several groups worldwide. Take a few examples of this trend:

Internet classified ad site "Craigslist" has taken bids, offering to "beam your garage sale to ET." Yes, it was a stunt, but one pursued in earnest by the Deep Space Communications Network, a private organization near the Kennedy Space Center. DSCN has announced intention to market this kind of activity vigorously, beaming commercial, private and personal postings "trillions of miles into space, using redundant klystron transmitters and a satellite dish."

Another group offering to blare personal and commercial messages skyward wass "Cosmic Connexion." They apparently intended to begin transmitting via an antenna at the French space agency: a precedent within the EU.

Far more serious is a Russian group of radio astronomers, led by Dr. Alexander Zaitsev. They claim to have already beamed forth a handful of interstellar messages, including pictorial and musical transmissions, from the Evpatoria radio telescope in the Ukraine. But these so far have been minor test blips. Their more ambitious intent is to create an eager and persistent program, vastly expanding Earth's visibility signature. Another group in Brazil claims to have sent forth some narrow casts.

Of greatest importance, the SETI Institute, based in California — the field's acknowledged lead institution and operator of a dedicated SETI instrument, the Paul Allen Array — has officially declared that it has no intention of engaging in "Active Seti." However, its leadership has expressed friendly support for these endeavors and — more importantly — has acted vigorously to block even mild efforts, through the International Academy of Astronautics, to ask that these groups meet international bodies first, presenting their plans and discussing repercussions, before acting unilaterally to make the Earth vastly more visible across the cosmos.


the issue at hand: should the debate be expanded?

Should we blithely accept that Active Seti (or some variant) will take place simply as a peremptory act, on individual initiative or whim? Not everyone considers this activity to be automatically benign. A few examples:

An editorial in the prestigious journal Nature joined the call for wide-open and eclectic discussions of this issue.

A more detailed description of the problem: "Should SETI Transmit?"

"Declaration Of Principles Concerning Activities Following The Detection Of Extraterrestrial Intelligence" — also called the "First SETI Protocol" — was accepted by most of the radio astronomers, research groups and observatories capable of engaging in SETI research, and (sometimes informally) by many of their funders and supervising agencies. The First Protocol might be seen as an archetype of consensual and collegial self-policing by a scientific community, agreeing in advance to sensible standards of behavior, in case the Seti dream of contact ever does come true.

"A Decision Process for Examining the Possibility of Sending Communications to Extraterrestrial Civilizations" — the proposed "Second SETI Protocol dealing with transmissions from Planet Earth.

My appraisal of the commonly held assumption that alien technological species will automatically be altruistic.

"'Active SETI' Is Not Scientific Research," a discussion by a former senior US diplomat, of some reasons to be concerned about prematurely attracting attention to our world.

A collection of quotations and comments about the wisdom of broadcasting to the stars, written by great scientists, including many of the founders of SETI.

Invitation to ETI shows the view of one set of enthusiasts, who believe that ETIS may be closer than most think.

The Great Silence. A 1983 review article, now called a "classic" — concerning the probability of contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life, including the possibility that such life might ever have visited Earth.

Concerns range from worries about potential existential danger all the way to a desire for consensus about what should be said in such messages. Others simply hope for some exchange of views about the topic, before it begins. Is it unreasonable to ask that such a dramatic step be openly deliberated, addressing all concerns before the international scientific community?

So far, a small amount of discussion has taken place within a very narrow group of a dozen or so insiders, unbeknownst not only to the public, but to peers and even those who are funding the radio telescopes involved. Now — frustrated by an incredibly insular attitude within this community, a few of us have decided to widen the circle a bit.


quotations to consider in the debate about "Active SETI"

The following quotes were collected by Michael A. G. Michaud. During his career with the U.S. State Department, Michaud served as Director of the Office of Advanced Technology, and as Counselor for Science, Technology, and Environment at the American embassies in Paris and Tokyo. He led U.S. delegations in the successful negotiation of international science and technology agreements. He played an active role in reviving U.S.-Soviet space cooperation, and in initiating U.S.-Soviet talks on outer space arms control. He represented the State Department in interagency space policy discussions, and testified before the U.S. Congress four times on space-related issues.

None of these quotations prove anything, one way or the other... except that this topic is a legitimate concern, worthy of discussion by humanity's best minds, before anyone starts gambling with our destiny, shouting on impulse, based on a theory and a whim.

Project Cyclops Report, 1972: "Before we make such a response or decide to radiate a long-range beacon, we feel the question of the potential risks should be debated and resolved at a national or international level."

SETI 2020 Report, 2002: "Transmission is a diplomatic act, an activity that should be undertaken on behalf of all humans."

Carl Sagan and William Newman, 1981: "The radar and television announcement of an emerging technological society on Earth may induce a rapid response by nearby civilizations, newly motivated to reach our system directly."

Astronomer Seth Shostak, 1998: "Any aliens who take the trouble to either signal their presence or transport themselves beyond the bounds of their own solar system will be, by definition, aggressive."

Astronomer Robert Rood, 1981: "The civilization that blurts out its existence on interstellar beacons at first opportunity might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling "Here, kitty" to a sabre-toothed tiger."

Astronomer Zdenek Kopal, 1972: "Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God's sake let us not answer, but rather make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible to avoid attracting attention!"

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond, 1992: "If there really are any radio civilizations within listening distance of us, then for heaven's sake, let's turn off our transmitters and try to escape detection, or we're doomed."

Jared Diamond, 1999: "Those astronomers now preparing again to beam radio signals out to hoped-for extraterrestrials are naïve, even dangerous."

Project Cyclops, 1972: "There is no limit to the kinds of threats one can imagine given treachery on their part and gullibility on ours. Appropriate security measures and a healthy degree of suspicion are the only weapons."

Project Cyclops, 1972: "By revealing our existence, we advertise Earth as a habitable planet."

Physicist Freeman Dyson, 1964: "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."

Freeman Dyson, 1972: "We are more likely to discover first the species in which technology has got out of control, a technological cancer spreading through the galaxy. We should be suitably alarmed if we discover it and take our precautions."

Carl Sagan, 1980: "There is almost no chance that two galactic civilizations will interact at the same level. In any confrontation, one will always utterly dominate the other."

Psychologist Albert Harrison and historian Steven Dick, 2000: "Dominance may be a natural, indeed inevitable, stance of any advanced life form."

Astronomer Eric Chaisson, 2000: "Advanced life, anywhere in the cosmos, will tend to control other life."

U.S. Congressional Research Service, 1977: "Previous experience with warlike peoples might have convinced them to arrive at a new planet well armed and ready for combat."

Astronomer Ronald Bracewell, 1983: "I don't believe that we would find any space ship that had taken the trouble to come all this way and was not armed."

Astronomer Sebastian von Hoerner, 1971: "If we come into contact with some superior civilization, this would mean the end of our civilization."

Astronomer Robert Jastrow, 1997: "Will we survive the encounter? I see no grounds for optimism."

Computer expert Roger MacGowan and space expert Frederick Ordway, 1966: "An advanced extrasolar society would recognize from our manner of signaling that we have only recently emerged, scientifically speaking. If it were malevolent, such a revelation on our part might spell doom for terrestrial civilization."

Astronomer Frank Drake, 1978: "Space provides us with...an endless supply of new places to explore, new things we have never seen before, new sources of joy, perhaps even new sources of fear."


how you can participate in this debate

Feel free to view the articles on this page, including those in the 'articles, films & books cited here column.'

A closed discussion group has been established, by invitation to high-level people in a number of fields, considerably more diverse than the narrow group who were involved till now. If you were invited, it is necessary to assertively join the group. (It is opt-in, so that busy people will not be unduly bothered.)

If you were not invited, but feel qualified and have something to contribute, write to me at david.brin@gmail.com. Otherwise, you are welcome to form a separate group to consider these "cosmic" issues! Let the ideas percolate openly. It is time for humanity to get involved.

We expect discussion to be interesting, on topics such as:

If broadcasting is such a good idea, why aren't other civilizations doing it?

If we attract hostile attention, what could "they" do to us, worst-case?

If broadcasting is potentially a bad idea, how can it be delayed long enough for further discussion?

What factors might be driving this change of emphasis, away from the long-term program of patient (and quiet) listening? Is the Seti community becoming frustrated?

Should this discussion be broadened to include mass media?

THE END


Shall We Shout Into the Cosmos?

about this article

Copyright © 2006 by David Brin. All rights reserved.


"Shall We Shout Into the Cosmos?" (published in full here) is an information/resource page concerning a fast-developing scientific controversy: the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). Naturally, since this site was established by a group of dissenters, the materials listed here may seem tilted in one direction. But then, after all, our fundamental point is that there should be more open discussion of the issues involved, rather than pursuing new and fate-fraught endeavors in quasi-secret, away from the public eye. We look forward to augmenting these materials, as time goes on.


articles, films & books cited here

David Brin, "A Contrarian Perspective on Altruism: The Dangers of First Contact" (pdf)

David Brin, Existence (book)

David Brin, "The Great Silence: The Controversy Concerning Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1983 (Vol. 24, No.3, P.283-309)

David Brin, "The Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: Should We Message ET?"

David Brin, "SETI: A collection of introductions" (Scoop.It! compilation)

David Brin, "Shouting At the Cosmos"

David Brin, "Xenology: The Science of Asking Who's Out There"

Deep Space Communications Network (website)

International Academy of Astronautics (SETI Permanent Committee), complete SETI Protocols list

International Academy of Astronautics (SETI Permanent Committee), First SETI Protocol: "Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence," adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics, 1989

International Academy of Astronautics (SETI Permanent Committee), Second SETI Protocol: "A Decision Process for Examining the Possibility of Sending Communications to Extraterrestrial Civilizations" (pdf)

Invitation to ETI (Professor Allen Tough's website)

Thomas Kuiper and David Brin, eds., Extraterrestrial Civilization (book)

Jonathan I. Lunine, Bruce Macintosh and Stanton Peale, "The Detection and Characterization of Expolanets" (pdf)

Michael Michaud, "'Active SETI' Is Not Scientific Research"

Nature magazine, October 2006, "Ambassador for Earth" (pdf)

The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the search for signs of ETIS in the radio spectrum. The "main" SETI outfit, they operate the Paul Allen Array.

The SETI League is the international grass-roots organization dedicated to privatizing the electromagnetic Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

Sara Seager, "Is There Life Out There? (pdf)

Jonathan Starling and Duncan Forgan, "Virulence as a Model for Interplanetary and Interstellar Colonisation"

"Genevieve Valentine, You Never Get a Seventh Chance to Make a First Impression"

Dr. Alexander Zaitsev, "The Drake Equation: Adding a METI Factor"


messages to alien lurkers

David Brin, "An Open Letter to Alien Lurkers"

David Brin, "Those Eyes"


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