The following is a reprint of an article which appeared in the May/June issue of Technology Review. The article was written by Stephen Strauss, a science reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail.
What should astronomers do if they detect what might be a message from intelligent beings from outer space? Who should they tell first?
Principles of scientific openness should guide all responses to outer-space signals, according to an international group that includes a space lawyer, astronomers, and the director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Advanced Technology. After four years of debate, the group formally presented an international protocol for such occasions at an International Astronomical Congress meeting in Bangalore, India, in October 1988.
“Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” (SETI) projects assume that coherent radio signals from outer space must be either beacons from civilizations wishing to attract attention or unplanned evidence of technical competence. But SETI astronomers have long worried that some officials might see a potential for political or technological gain in being the first to reply to aliens. Such politicians might try to keep discoveries of incoming signals secret. Messages would also need decoding, and bringing in professional code breakers could enmesh the response to extraterrestrials in the world of espionage.
Georgetown University law professor Allan Goodman has argued since 1984 for international rules of conduct to keep SETI signal analysis from becoming a political football. Peter Boyce, executive director of the American Astronomical Society, adds, “We want to circumvent political fiat” that would prevent a discovery from reaching the global scientific community. Both Boyce and Goodman are among the authors of the report.
Scientists have also been concerned that unverified alerts might panic the public. News of a SETI event might lead to embarrassment as well, because the signals could turn out to have a less-than-glamorous origin.
In fact, since the first formal SETI searches began in 1960 at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Greenbank, W. Va., a number of “false positives” have been reported. These anomalies have appeared so unique, that an alien civilization has seemed the only explanation. Perhaps the most famous example is a strong signal recorded in 1977 at Ohio State University. A team member wrote “wow” next to his notes, lending that name to such phenomena. The Ohio State wow never reappeared.
Boyce appends a related problem. “We need a breathing spell to avoid being duped by Caltech undergraduates,” he says. Those students have made a name for themselves by penetrating hoaxes. VERIFY AND TRUST
The proposal addresses verification issues first. Those who discover a signal would strive to eliminate the possibility that a natural or human source had emitted it. If they succeeded, they would notify national authorities such as NASA that something significant had been found. They would also inform research organizations that sign the treaty, who would attempt to independently confirm the finding, or provide an alternate explanation.
If the scientists at these organizations agree that some extraterrestrial intelligence is the likely source of the signal, they would notify the astronomical community at large, the United Nations, and space-law bodies, such as the International Union of Space Law in Paris. Only after this would the discoverers go public with their finding, assuming that the secret had not leaked out already.
While secrecy is necessary during the verification process, the protocol places a high priority on ensuring open access to SETI information. The protocol would bind signatories to record and permanently store all data relating to a signal. Moreover, researchers would make data generally available in a variety of formats.
Because replying is a political act, the protocol adds that no single nation should control the answer. It states that “no response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence will be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.” Specifically, the accord looks to a proposal presented at a 1987 meeting of the congress of the International Astronomical Federation, which suggests making all responses on behalf of humanity as a whole. And any communication to outer space must be peaceful, truthful, and express tolerance of differences.
Over the next four years, a number of scientific and space-law bodies will consider the Bangalore proposal. The authors hope to present it to the United Nations before Columbus Day 1992. On that date, NASA hopes to begin a $90 million SETI program that will sweep the skies looking for wow indicators from all directions, as well as radio signals from the 1,000 closest sun-type stars.