Day 6

Debating the search for alien life

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is donating $100 million to the search for alien life. But should we be trying to communicate with aliens? Are we ready for what might be out there?
This artist's impression shows the surface of the distant dwarf planet Makemake. System European Southern Observatory/Nature/AP Photo

They're calling it earth's bigger, older cousin. On Thursday, NASA announced the discovery of the earth-like planet Kepler 452b. It's located in the 'habitable zone' of a star similar to our own sun, and the discovery has sparked new speculation of life beyond earth. The discovery also comes on the heels of the announcement that Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is donating $100 million to the search for alien life. But as we venture further and further out into the cosmos, are we ready for what might be out there?

The organization getting the $100 million is SETI (a.k.a. the search for extraterrestrial intelligence). It says part of the money will go towards investigating the sending of messages into space, known as Active SETI. According to director of California's Center for SETI research, Seth Shostak, "If SETI were to pick up a signal there would be a strong movement I'm sure to respond to that."

But not everybody agrees that we should be so keen to connect with extraterrestrials. Physicist Stephen Hawking supports listening for them, but he's warned against making contact. He's compared aliens coming to earth to Christopher Columbus landing in America, which, as he puts it, "didn't turn out well for the Native Americans."

David Brin is an astrophysicist and science fiction author. He understands Hawking's hesitations and he broke off his relationship with SETI in protest over their push to transmit messages into outer space without broader consultation. We reached David in San Diego, California. 

And arguing in favor of reaching out into the cosmos is Nick Pope. He is an author and journalist and he used to run the British government's U.F.O. project back in the '90's. He joined us from Tucson, Arizona.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Helen Mann: Nick, let me start with you. Why do you think we should be sending messages out into space?

Nick Pope: Well, I think the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe is one of the biggest and most profound questions we can ask. But if we just listen, we're limiting our options. If we listen and talk as well, we're doubling our chances in that particular search. 

HM: David, you're calling for a more cautious approach. What are your concerns? 

David Brin: My main concern as a scientist is the incredibly unprofessional way in which this has been proceeding. We have resigned from various SETI-related international committees in protest over those who have rushed to beam 'Yoo-hoo' shouts out into the cosmos without ever exposing their concepts to collegial or peer review. And it is this rush to say, "Of course we know exactly what we're doing" just like in a Michael Crichton movie. That we're assuming that the universe can only be altruistic, the universe can only be benign."

HM: Nick, do you think there's something to that, that it could be irresponsible?

NP: I certainly understand the caution. I don't think you can get the genie back into the bottle though. I do think that we have been and still are a detectable civilization and any extraterrestrial civilizations out there doing the sorts of things that we're doing are probably already aware of us. Particularly since we're actually quite a young civilization in the cosmos. Imagine a civilization or multiple civilizations with billions of years head start on us. They know about us. 

If they already know we're here, and they're ancient and wise, why have they not spoken up? Is it possible that it's because they know something we don't know about the cosmos and its dangers?- David Brin, astrophysicist and sci-fi author 

HM: David, you seem to disagree...

DB: This is called the barn door excuse. And that is, that the horses have already left the barn and it's too late to close the barn door. And it is incredibly ironic that grown scientific people would actually broach this. Listen to the argument here. First off, it's easily disproved. "I Love Lucy" fades into static within one light year and the nearest star is four light years away. It would take a tenth of the size of Hampshire or Connecticut staring at us relentlessly to detect our broadcast, even [SETI's] Seth Shostak admits that. This is a Hollywood cliche! But let's say that it's true, that all the aliens out there already know we're here. Then what the heck are you trying to do with Active SETI when you're saying that they already know we're here? If they already know we're here, and they're ancient and wise, why have they not spoken up? Is it possible that it's because they know something we don't know about the cosmos and its dangers?

NP: I think maybe they're waiting for us to do something interesting. I think reaching out in hope, in friendship is a good thing. And imagine the potential knowledge that we might acquire by tapping into a sort of hypothetical Encyclopedia Galactica. But if we took that view that we should be careful of what's out there, what might be out there, humanity would have probably never gone out of its first few villages, climbed the mountain ridge to see what's on the other side, sailed the oceans. 

HM: David, what's a worst case scenario for you in this though? What could be the unintended consequence of sending any of these messages? 

DB: A lot of people who sailed beyond the sunset and were explorers were willing to weigh the possible pros and cons. All we have been asking for is a worldwide discussion of the odds and risk appraisal of the various possibilities. Now we're not talking about slathering Cardassian invaders, even though as a science fiction author I've made a lot of money off stories about first contact and about exploring the diverse possibilities of what aliens might be like. And I admit that the range of possibilities includes the possibility that they may be altruistic and beneficent. But if they're so beneficent and they know we're here, why have they not already sent us the Encyclopedia Galactica? So harm is possible. 

HM: So Nick what do you think? In terms of consultation, what's the problem with getting thinkers like Stephen Hawking? He's a SETI supporter and yet he's warned about making contact with aliens. He's compared it the idea of them coming to Earth to Christopher Columbus landing in America, which as he put it "didn't turn out so well for the Native Americans."

NP: I have absolutely nothing against a discussion, let's have it. But we should face the facts. The technology is getting to the point where publicity and marketing companies say that they will actively broadcast messages into space as a result of competitions for various alien-themed marketing campaigns. So this is happening already. I mean curiosity and intelligence are fundamentally linked. We humans, we are explorers. 

HM: I just want pick up on one thing here though because we've all seen the same sci-fi movies. Nick, is David potentially right about there being risks here? 

NP: Yes, I think he is. You can't of course ever say there is a zero risk of this. I mean I've written a couple of sci-fi novels myself about alien invasion so clearly it's on my mind too. 

HM: So David, if SETI ends up sending messages into space with or without consultation, what would you want to say?

DB: I'd like a message that's contingent; saying, "If you are getting this message and you refused to talk to us because you're scared of us" and then I'd give a little riff off that, "If you're talking to us, if you're listening to us right now and you happen to be the U.F.O. aliens who twirl wheat and disembowel cattle and terrorize our farmers, then up yours! We're coming after you! Please tell your parents we'd like to talk to them." We should be writing a whole suite of messages. And my favourite is, "You have been silent because you're stealing our intellectual property and copyrights and not paying us for our T.V. and our art."

HM: And Nick of course, what message would you send?

NP:  I think I would broadcast out. Sorry, David, to give away our intellectual copyright. I'd want to tell them about our achievements here. But of course I'd want to know about theirs too. So maybe there's going to be some exchange of information. Or is that rather like a kid being given all the exam results? Maybe we should work for it. 

HM: Thank you to you both.

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