Movies, books and other storylines have featured the idea that humankind should reach out and try to contact extraterrestrials should there be evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
“ET phone home” became a catch phrase from the classic movie about an extraterrestrial who was stranded on Earth and used an old record player, some string and a few other baubles to “phone home” so that he could be rescued by his own kind.
But now there’s a developing train of thought that it might not be such a good idea after all.
“Those who think we should stay mum point out that not even Will Smith could defend Earth from an extraterrestrial foe,” writes Jordana Cepelewicz at the Cosmos.Nautilus blog.
Cepelewicz, an editorial fellow at Nautilus, reports how the issue turned into a “testy” and “confrontational” argument in Valencia, Spain, in 2006 at an international conference.
Eventually, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence committee approved a plan allowing people to reach beyond Earth’s neighborhood with “signals, prompting several individuals to quit.”
The argument was resurrected this year, when British cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned of betraying humanity to “advanced alien civilizations” and multitudes commented, including the International Business Times, which said Hawking “wants us to eavesdrop but not join the conversation. He wants us to keep our head low.”
“That sounds like a reasonable idea. Better safe than sorry. But in the spectrum between paranoia and unjustifiable fear on one side, and reasonable caution on the other, where does keeping your head low fit in?”
“Scientists are no closer to consensus today,” writes Cepelewicz, “and the question is more urgent than ever. New SETI technologies are greatly expanding the scope of the search; if aliens are out there and are sending radio or light signals, we could hear from them within a decade. We need to decide whether we would respond to an extraterrestrial message.
“Moreoever, the very success of the search may hinge on our willingness to communicate. A number of SETI scientists think the reason we may not have heard from aliens yet is that they’re waiting for us to reach out to them first.”
But critics warn of a danger that cannot be overlooked, Cepelewicz writes.
“Our only real protection, they argue, is to stay hidden. ‘We have to realize that we know almost nothing about ET,’ said John Gertz, a former chairman of the SETI Institute board of trustees and a Hollywood producer. ‘We don’t know how advanced they are, we don’t know what their intentions are – whether they’ll be hostile or friendly, or, in my opinion as a businessman, simply want to barter or trade with us.’
“‘But if their intentions are hostile, their abilities to do us harm can be absolute.'”
There might be other reasons, Cepelewicz writes.
“Perhaps aliens are silent because they’re petrified of some threat we’re too primitive to perceive or even contemplate.”
Or it might be too late to even make the decision.
“Scientists who favor Active SETI, or METI – Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence – think it’s too late to hide. We’ve been broadcasting our presence into space since the 1930s. ‘Any civilization slightly more advanced than we are could pick up I Love Lucy going off into space,’ says astronomer Douglas Vakoch, who founed METI International, an organization dedicated to researching active approaches to SETI,” Cepelewicz writes.
Others assert an international agreement on exactly what to do is unlikely.
And still others, Cepelewicz points out, note that signals from Earth to date have been relatively weak. Maybe Earth, so far, is just “whispering” its presence.
“In the end – for all the disputing theories on how advanced an extraterrestrial civilization may be, what intentions it might harbor toward us, or how we might craft a message should we manage to agree on a unified dispatch – this debate says more about us than it says about the alien subjects of the conversation. Do we fear contact or welcome it? Do we see our own history of intercultural exchange, which includes humanity’s worst evils as well as its highest achievements, as a net positive or negative? Can we find common ground for true international collaboration?”
Two years ago, the Collective Evolution blog wrote about how scientists told Congress they are convinced extraterrestrial life exists, based on the sheer size of the universe.
And they concluded the world needs to prepare for contact with other life.
The statement from the scientists at the time said: “If you find microbes, that’s one thing. If you find intelligence, it’s another. And if they communicate, it’s something else, and depending on what they say, it’s something else! The idea is not to wait until we make a discovery, but to try and prepare the public for what the implications might be when such a discovery is made.”
The report continued: “Scientists estimate that at least 10 billion habitable Earth-sized planets exist in the Milky Way alone (which is, again, just 1 galaxy out of billions), but it’s important to keep an open mind about the necessary conditions for life. Some extraterrestrial lifeforms could require an entirely different environment in order to thrive. Accordingly, all habitable planets do not necessarily need to be Earth-life.”
It might not be so theoretical either, soon.
The London Observer reported just a few months ago the scientists in SETI were “investigating mysterious signal spikes emitting from a 6.3-billion-year-old star in the constellation Hercules – 95 light years away from Earth.”
“The implications are extraordinary and point to the possibility of a civilization far more advanced than our own,” the report said.
The signal first was noticed in 2015 at the Russian Academy of Science-run RATAN-600 radio telescope in Russia.
“The signal conceivably fits the profile for an intentional transmission from an extraterrestrial source,” Alan Boyle, who reported on the developments for Geekwire, commented.
“In any case, the blip is interesting enough to merit discussion by those who specialize in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”