In my previous column I examined the difficult relationship between ufology and SETI. In particular, I highlighted the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope, an instrument so powerful, that when fully operational, in 2024, it will be able to detect an airport radar at a distance of 50 light years. I speculated that this might be the moment at which the human race learns of the existence of other civilizations.
My previous column proved controversial and many people expressed surprise that I was giving publicity to SETI’s search for life ‘out there’, when – as they believe – it’s already ‘down here’. I don’t know about that, but given the fact that if there’s a detectable civilization anywhere in our small part of the galaxy, the SKA may be the tool that finds it, it seems prudent that ufologists give some thought to this. Because make no mistake about it, this would be a scientific proof that would tick all the boxes in terms of universal, undeniable verifiability.
All too often, it seems to me, the UFO community gets so hung up on trying to prove the reality of extraterrestrial visitation (and the associated government cover-up that they believe keeps this knowledge from the public), that it fails to ask the killer question: what next? What would happen if we really did get absolute and undeniable proof of the existence not just of alien life, but of other civilizations?
There are, of course, a few honorable exceptions. While I disagree with many of their points, Richard Dolan and Bryce Zabel attempted to ask “what next?” in their book “AD. After Disclosure”. Steve Bassett has discussed some of what he sees as the implications in various lectures and interviews. My own view is that a lot of this gets bogged down in discussions about the political and legal consequences of there having been a UFO cover-up, e.g. sanctions or amnesties for those who were part of the conspiracy, depending upon the reasons for the cover-up. But what if there is no cover-up? What if 2024 genuinely is the first time that anyone in government and the scientific community learns that we’re not alone? What then?
Let’s take this as our start point: in 2024 the SKA detects a signal. What next? SETI has a document on this, revised on September 30, 2010, entitled “Declaration of Principles Concerning the Conduct of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”. Essentially, it states that if a candidate signal is detected, there should be proper verification, followed by a public announcement. It concludes by stating “In the case of the confirmed detection of a signal, signatories to this declaration will not respond without first seeking guidance and consent of a broadly representative international body, such as the United Nations”
There are three problems with this. Firstly, it’s not a legally binding document. Secondly, it largely omits the role of governments. Thirdly, it’s a classic example of what the military would call a plan that wouldn’t survive contact with the enemy – what I mean by this last point is that word would almost certainly leak out within hours, if not minutes, whatever the aspirations.
What are the practical issues and questions? Firstly, is the signal a beacon or a message? A beacon (e.g. a string of prime numbers) is simply an attention-getter that tells us there’s a civilization out there. But if it’s a message, is it decipherable? If it isn’t, do people really think governments would want it put out there, without first knowing what it says? What if it’s an ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’ that includes information on energy sources that – if misused – could create a bomb capable of destroying the Earth?
The next question is, if it’s a message, should we reply? In other words, is it wise to announce our existence and location to other civilizations that may be more technologically advanced than us? What if they have hostile intentions and what if they’ve found a way around the light speed barrier and have developed viable interstellar travel? Many scientists have expressed doubts over the wisdom of replying to an alien message. Professor Stephen Hawking summarized these fears by saying that first contact between humanity and aliens could be like the European explorers meeting the Native Americans - only this time, we’re the Native Americans. For the same reason, some scientists oppose radio astronomers who actively send messages into space, trying to attract the attention of other civilizations.
Suppose we do decide to reply. Who replies and what would they say? In other words, who, if anybody, truly speaks for Planet Earth - surely not a politician or a religious leader, representative of only certain sections of the human race? What about the Secretary General of the United Nations? It sounds good on paper, but ask yourself when you last read a UN declaration and whether it had any practical, beneficial effect. And ask yourself if you really want a bureaucrat speaking for humanity.
Finally, what would we say? A simple greeting, along the lines of the one sent onboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which was signed by the then Secretary General of the UN and read, in part, “I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship”.
The chances are, in reality, that lots of political and religious leaders, and a whole bunch of other people, would want their say, and that there would be a mad scramble for transmitters capable of sending such a signal. So there would doubtless be a confusing jumble of contradictory messages. It might be untidy, but perhaps it’s the best and most accurate reflection of the human race, with all our diversity!
But ask yourself this: if the decision was yours, what would you say?
Nick Pope is a former employee of the UK Ministry of Defense. From 1991 to 1994 he ran the British Government's UFO project and has recently been involved in a five-year program to declassify and release the entire archive of these UFO files. Nick Pope held a number of other fascinating posts in the course of his 21-year government career, which culminated in his serving as an acting Deputy Director in the Directorate of Defense Security. He now works as a broadcaster and journalist, covering subjects including space, fringe science, defense and intelligence.