If ET Calls, Who Answers?

Meet Paul Davies, chairman of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup.

Paul Davies  The Eerie Silence
Paul Davies. Photo by Dave Tervis.

If we’re ever suddenly confronted by evidence of alien intelligence, Paul Davies will be one of the first to know. Davies, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University, is chairman of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, a volunteer committee whose mission is to “prepare, manage, advise and consult in preparation for the discovery of a putative signal of extraterrestrial intelligent (ETI) origin.” Never mind that the chance of humankind being contacted by aliens is remote. “It makes sense to think through some of the implications should it happen,” he says. While the group is a think tank (it has no legal status and no authority to impose or enforce its recommendations), it has reflected on all manner of post-detection issues and made preparations to counsel all parties concerned.

Earlier this year I sat down with Davies in his office at the Beyond Center in Tempe, Arizona, to discuss the themes of his mind-bending new book “The Eerie Silence” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), in which he suggests reorienting and expanding the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). “Traditional SETI is stuck in a conceptual rut,” he maintains, and fails to account for the possibility that an alien species may not look, think, or behave like us. In part one of this Failure Interview—which coincides with SETI’s 50th anniversary next month—Davies addressed issues like: What has SETI accomplished in its first 50 years? And have scientists been looking for ET “in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in the wrong way?”

In part two, we look back at two mysterious signals detected by astronomers, then forward to consider what might happen in the wake of a genuine signal or message from ET. Like any good ambassador, Davies emphasizes that the lines of communication are open, and if an extraterrestrial wishes to get in touch, it can log on to the Invitation to ETI Web site (founded by Canadian researcher, Allen Tough) or send an email to hello [at] ieti.org. Should you find yourself tempted to try to impersonate ET, be advised that Tough and Davies have established a series of tests designed to weed out hoaxers, one of which is revealed below.

What is the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup?

It’s a curious group made up of leading SETI scientists and activists, as well as representative members of the media, two lawyers, a theologian, a philosopher, and a couple of science fiction writers. Everyone is involved one way or another with SETI or SETI research. We met here at Arizona State University in February 2008. We are planning a meeting in October 2010 in Prague, and possibly a second meeting this year in Texas [as well as get-togethers in Cape Town in 2011 and Naples in 2012]. The group considers its job to anticipate the Big Day and to act as an advisory body for any astronomers confronted with this momentous discovery. But I don’t think it’s a very representative committee. I would like to add some sort of elder statesman, as well as representatives of the world’s religions.

I understand astronomers have detected at least two mysterious signals. First, tell me about the “Wow” signal [a 72-second radio signal detected on August 15, 1977].

I’m pretty doubtful it was ET. The “Wow” signal was discovered on a computer printout some weeks after it actually happened. I’m not an expert observational astronomer, but I understand that it doesn’t have any very obvious natural explanation. Maybe someday we will see other “Wows” and they will be tied to some recognizable physical object and explained. But it could just be “one of those things,” and go down in the annals of history as a mystery.

What about Lorimer’s pulse [a half-millisecond blip whose discovery was announced in September 2007]?

That’s much more powerful, but the evidence seems to be that it’s way, way outside our galaxy, so it’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from an extraterrestrial community. It could be something like a cosmic string undergoing convulsions. Or it could be something we haven’t thought of—where the physics is not yet worked out. It doesn’t to me have the sort of smell of what I would expect an intelligent civilization to be doing—a pulse that lights up the whole universe and then doesn’t do anything else. If we’re puzzling over whether it’s natural or artificial, that’s not a very good signal.

What would follow from a successful detection? That would certainly be disruptive.

It’s probably the most disruptive discovery one can imagine. What would follow depends on the nature of the discovery. If it is simply that we figure out that some sort of intelligent technology once was at work on the other side of the galaxy, that’s like coming across a technological fossil. Then we could probably go right ahead and encourage everyone to look and say, “Isn’t it amazing?” But I don’t think things would change much; we wouldn’t have people getting hysterical and rioting.

Then there is an intermediate scenario where we pick up a radio message and don’t know what it is. We’re not sure whether or not it’s intended for us, and if the message contains content, it probably takes us a while to figure out what it means. That’s when the task group would really have to put its thinking cap on. And then it would really matter who gets to call the shots. At the moment, governments aren’t interested in such a scenario—they don’t want to know. I would like to feel that the scientific community would remain in control. But what would be really important in the early days would be preventing anyone from sending [return] messages. The best way of doing that would be to withhold the position of the source. That would be a responsibility that the task group would assume; it would pressure the astronomers concerned until we knew what we were dealing with.

At the far end of the spectrum—which would in a way be truly awful—is if we picked up a message like: “Hello, humans. Have we got news for you!” Then I think all bets would be off.  Nothing would be the same again.

Is there a written protocol for what happens if we detect intelligent alien life?

There is a protocol. It’s very boring and tedious prose. It calls for people to behave in a responsible way and to refrain from responding without consultation. It calls for involving governments and scientific bodies and other things that might not actually happen in practice. You can imagine that if this happens for real, it’s likely to turn into a media circus. It would be the biggest story of everybody’s career and everyone would want to be first.

I hear there’s a Web site where ET can log on and establish a dialogue. How are visitors tested to verify that they are indeed extraterrestrial?

There is a list of hurdles they have to get over. In the one case where I got involved directly, there was a contender who swiftly got over the basic hurdles so it was looking a little more positive. Then Allen Tough, who runs the site, contacted me and asked me to suggest a definitive test. I suggested that he send back a hundred-digit number composed of the product of two primes and ask ET to factor it back to the original, because that’s the sort of thing you need a very big computer to do. We obviously picked a number that was too small, because the answer came back right away. So we doubled the size of the number. That’s when the hoaxer, a bored computer operator from Birmingham, England, threw in the towel. The problem with the prime-number test is that it could be defeated by a quantum computer—the Holy Grail of quantum physics—should one ever be built. So if ET has a quantum computer it could come up with the answer. But it seems like a good test, as you can grade it immediately by taking the claimed answer and doing the multiplication. It’s not one of those things where you give ET a test and it takes a long time to work it out.