Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


26.1.1  Remote Contact

In the standard SETI scenario, Remote Contact may occur when human radio receivers located on Earth or in Earth orbit pick up signals beamed at our solar system by an advanced technical race near some other star. First perhaps a beacon; later, after anticryptography and various frequency and equipment refinements, the complete text of the Encyclopedia Galactica streams rapidly into the waiting radiotelescopes of humankind.

There are three possible avenues of detection: military, radioastronomical, and SETI. Of the three, SETI researchers are vastly more likely to bag a beacon (if one exists) since they are actively and specifically looking for them.3653 Radio astronomers are far less likely to pick up alien transmissions, since their equipment normally is broadband (wide bandwidth) whereas ET signals are expected to be narrowband. (And if these scientists ever did happen to record a transmission that was clearly artificial, the data would doubtless be ignored as irrelevant terrestrial radio interference.) As for the military, direct serendipitous acquisition is unlikely in the extreme, since military radars are tuned to very exact frequencies that the transmitting extraterrestrial civilizations probably won’t be using.

If SETI researchers are most likely to be the first beneficiaries of alien informational largesse, how would they respond to the event? Would they keep the news entirely to themselves, or perhaps circumspectly inform selected government officials, or would they simply treat the discovery in the normal scientific manner? On the whole, the SETI community appears to favor the latter approach, but this opinion is not unanimous.

For instance, Canadian signal searchers Paul Feldman and Alan Bridle apparently are concerned about the implications of interstellar contact. They feel the release of SETI information "depends very much on the apparent content of the message."3257 Dr. Benjamin Zuckerman has also expressed some reticence to go public immediately with the data:

I think that we would try to confirm beyond a doubt that it was a CETI signal before we let the world know about it. I would also think very hard about replying to "Them" before we made our results public.3257

But most xenologists active in the field favor candor. Carl Sagan’s first response would be to ask for confirmation of the extraterrestrial signal from other radio astronomy observatories around the world. If there were really something there, he says, "it would be very hard to hide the existence of a message." In similar vein, radioastronomer Patrick Palmer notes:

Since we use a national facility {the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank is open to qualified investigators from many sources} rather than our own observatory, keeping something secret is very difficult because of the sheer number of people passing through and the openness of the observatory operation. ... My desire has always been to handle it as a normal scientific discovery. Our greatest interest would be in understanding the message and communicating, and we would certainly need the aid of many other scientists to do this as efficiently as possible. I believe that it is essentially always wrong to try to withhold basic scientific information."3257

(In three years of SETI work, Palmer claims he has never been contacted by any government agency.)

Finally, Philip Morrison, Professor of Physics at MIT and an early SETI pioneer, recently stated in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications:

What we will first see most likely will be a false, alarm. We have had many false alarms already. ... That is true in spite of our best efforts when computers and signal processing is new. If they tell you it’s a real signal only a few times, I think you might still be wrong.

The way to be sure will be to conduct the whole thing in the ordinary manner of scientific exploration -- relatively publicly, with freedom of access to any competent, well-behaved observer who wants to work with the group. This should be done in the familiar scientific fashion. I don’t think it should be regarded as a secret or a matter of state. It should be regarded as a scientific exploration.

I don’t think that means you can allow arbitrary people to come and grab the data, take it home, make their own things out of it. It should be done in an orderly, systematic way, with great hospitality, with an effort to show to the press, especially to those able to judge the validity of the signal, whether it is a real signal.

If we had such a candidate signal the first thing would be to summon an. international committee to study the data. Are we being fooled by something we haven’t understood? It’s quite likely we will in fact be fooled a number of times before we understand that the signal is unmistakably coming from beings alien and yet like ourselves.3286

So much for opinions. But what has actually happened in similar or analogous situations in the past?

The first "false alarm" in recent times occurred during the SETI search undertaken by Frank Drake in 1960, called Project Ozma. On the very first day of monitoring, Drake and his co-workers picked up what appeared to be an artificial signal coming from Epsilon Eridani. The fleeting transmissions stopped before they could be positively verified. There was no thought of a public announcement.702 What did Drake do next?

Day after day, as we turned to Epsilon Eridani, we tuned to the frequency on which the signal had been heard. We listened for a half hour or so, and then we would go back to our frequency scanning. A week went by and the signal didn’t return. To our chagrin, one of our employees called up a friend in Ohio and told him about the signal. The word was passed to a newspaper reporter friend, and suddenly we were deluged with inquiries about the mysterious signal -- "Had we really detected another civilization?" "No." "But you have received a strong signal with your equipment?" "We can’t comment on that." And so, aha, we were hiding something. To this day many people believe falsely that we received signals from another world, and that some fiendish government agency has required us to keep this a deep dark secret.3442

In 1967 radio astronomers at Cambridge, England were confronted with a similar situation when they detected the f lashing radio sources known today as pulsars. Several writers had, suggested that the most rational alien signal would be a series of pulses, designed to show intelligent origin. On 28 November 1967, research student. Jocelyn Bell observed a series of pulses, equally spaced exactly 1.3 seconds apart. When she contacted her supervisor, Tony Hewish, he at first suggested that they were manmade. But careful investigation in the following weeks indicated that the source of the transmissions was definitely outside the Solar System but well within the Galaxy. Such a fast ‘pulsation rate was far too fast for anything like a star. Wondered Bell:

So were these pulsations man-made, but made by man from another civilization?... Just before Christmas I went to see Tony Hewish about something and walked into a high-level conference about how to present these results. We did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem -- if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe, how does one announce the results responsibly? Who does one tell first? We did not solve the problem that afternoon, and I went home that evening very cross -- here was I trying to get a Ph.D. out of a new technique, and some silly lot of little green men had to choose my aerial and my frequency to communicate with us....3443

The discovery was kept a closely guarded secret to prevent the media from publicizing what came to be called the LGM (Little Green Men) Hypothesis. The Cambridge astronomers were still discussing what to do when, in January 1968, new data came in which showed that the signals had a natural origin. Only then was a public announcement of the discovery made.

In both of the above cases, putative alien messages were not reported either to the public at large or to any governmental agency. In each instance, the scientists decided to sit on the information until sufficient data had accumulated so that a proper determination of the nature of the transmissions could be made. As Drake admitted, however, this self-imposed secrecy coupled with subsequently accidental publicity may have weakened the credibility of the denials of ET contact later issued by the Ozma staff. Perhaps it would have been better policy to let the public know what was happening at each stage of the operation, to help allay common fears, suspicions, and misapprehensions.

What if a real alien message were received? Some scientists probably would feel obligated to alert the authorities before going public for reasons of national welfare. Others would simply want to turn the whole thing over to the government and let them take responsibility for making the hard choices. And of course, in any event, once the fact of the discovery is released to the public the government will know about it too and will have a variety of policy options open to them at that point. How might government and the military establishment react in this kind of situation?

In a Remote Contact situation, the primary governmental concern will be the suppression of dangerous extraterrestrial information and the possible military or economic advantages that might accrue to those nations capable of receiving and translating the alien transmissions. While scientists engaged in SETI cannot yet agree on the probable contents of such messages, there is an excellent chance that data of military interest could be included -- new technologies, new sources of energy, or even new ideas so radical that their mere disclosure might constitute an act of psychological or ideological warfare. Remarks one writer:

No doubt the generals would itch to classify CETI "top secret," frantic that the Soviets might get the jump in a decoding race. Congress might agree. A multibillion dollar crash program to decipher CETI for its scientific and technical insights seems an ominous possibility.3310

On a more pragmatic level, if it could be proven that extraterrestrial life existed, then it might be possible, say, for one side to mimic an invasion, cause widespread panic and confusion, and disrupt communication channels.3653

Advanced technical data from the stars, perhaps detailing the design of machines which render obsolete our telephones, aircraft, automobiles, sources of fuel, and computers might severely injure major corporations on the stock market, causing a recession or even a depression. Large companies will be stuck with billions of dollars of investment in equipment that has suddenly become obsolete. For instance, what will AT&T do with the 133,000,000 telephones in service as of 1978 (total system value $111 billion3540) when the aliens hand us blueprints for simple transporter-booth technology and nobody wants to phone anymore (but would rather travel)?

It has been suggested that the tremendous unbridgeable gaps of interstellar space will prevent any sort of harm from ever reaching us. But Arthur C. Clarke believes this is a naive and unrealistic view:

Even if star travel is impossible; "mere" communications could do a lot of damage. After all, this is the basis on which all censors act. A really malevolent society could destroy another one quite effectively by a few items of well-chosen information. ("Now, kiddies, after you’ve prepared your uranium hexafluoride....")81

Information, like technology, can always be abused. As the Russian scientist-dissident Sakharov has pointed out: "Such information would be useful for sensible and kind men and would be dangerous for silly and rude men."22

What about international political implications? F.C. Durant, Assistant Director of Astronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, speculates that receipt of alien messages will further the cause of peace:

I think it will have the effect of bringing men closer together, certainly on our own planet. I suggest at that moment national boundaries might mean very much less.1558

Carl Sagan echoes this sentiment when he infers the uniqueness of the human race from the tortuous evolutionary record of life on this planet. We will come to view ourselves, says he, as One Species:

The diversity which some people are so quick to see among human populations is going to dwindle overnight. So in a very real sense, I think that the receipt of an interstellar radio message will make all of mankind brothers and sisters.1620

Others disagree. Political scientists Jiri Nehnevajsa and Albert S. Francis of Columbia University surveyed about 100 legislators and 100 university students in Brazil and Finland, in April-June 1960. The respondents were asked to indicate which of a series of circumstances they foresaw as being changed by the discovery of civilized alien life in space. As the data in Table 26.1 indicate, the general feeling was that not much would be changed by such an event.


Table 26.1 Results of 1960 Survey of Brazilian and Finnish Legislators and University Students on the Political Effects of Discovering Alien Life1336
World Political Event 
Respondents Claiming Event Would Occur
Increased chances for East-West reconciliation
Increased chances for emergence of third political force
Increased status quo
Increased likelihood of global disarmament 


In fact, it is possible that international relations could actually be destabilized by Remote Contact. Although in theory every country with a radio telescope can pick up the same messages,24 some nations will be in better position to listen than others. Perhaps an orbital receiver station will have to be constructed to ensure continuous 24-hour reception, giving a tremendous advantage to those governments having a more mature space capability. In the modern environment of global mistrust and resentment, nonreceiving nations will not be confident that the receiving nations aren’t holding back useful data having military or economic significance. And even if we assume that all nations can hear the extraterrestrial signals equally well, there still may be trouble. All governments cannot utilize the information equally. Those countries with the biggest R&D laboratories, the cleverest mathematicians, the greatest number of linguistic experts, and the most money available to throw at the problem may develop a real advantage over the others. The ensuing competitive scramble surely will not be conducive to peace.

All this is not intended to suggest that only harm can come from Remote Contact. Quite the opposite: It seems most likely that the wealth of information and knowledge of other cultures may enrich humanity beyond our wildest dreams. Benefits almost certainly exceed risks. Nevertheless, any first contact represents change, and it is one of the principle duties of modern human government to provide for orderly and regulated nondestructive change in the status quo.

Congressman Don Fuqua from Florida, following-testimony by Philip Morrison that alien messages should be publicized, made this remark:

I concur wholeheartedly in your answer. My response has always been similar to the lines that you have expressed. I don’t think there is any way that the Government should or could keep anything of this type under wrap. I see no reason that it should.3286

Science fiction writers agree. In The Cassiopeia Affair by Chloe Zerwick and Harrison Brown, the President goes on national television to explain the significance, of radio contact with the Cassiopeian culture.1748 In The Listeners by James E. Gunn, the President at first slaps a tight security lid on the radiotelescope installation that receives the alien message, but later relents and even permits a response to be sent out.70

Philip Morrison’s "international committee" approach is probably the best bet to ensure goodwill among nations. But there always exists the possibility that a government, informed of the fact of Contact before the news is made public, could attempt to keep it classified as Top Secret and to quietly pursue the knowledge from the stars for its own selfish purposes. Scientists of all countries who wish to prevent this from happening would do well to call in reporters before notifying their government of the Contact.


Last updated on 6 December 2008