The SETI mission is scanning the skies for signs of alien life. So what will the researchers do when they receive a signal and send a message back?
Everything seems so simple in the movies. An astronomer, often a maverick, is sitting alone in the control room of a radio telescope when a strange signal comes through the speakers. Somehow, the astronomer instantly knows that he is from another world, and a few computer clicks later, the message is decoded and the plot begins to unfold.
But how easy would it be to understand what an alien civilization is telling us in real life? With renewed interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) spreading across the globe, that is the question that linguists and other scientists are increasingly discussing.
“I am optimistic. I’m pretty sure there’s no point in sending a signal that you don’t want to be understood. Then it will be understandable,” says Sheri Wells-Jensen, an associate professor of linguistics at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, and a board member of the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) organization.
However, that doesn’t mean it will be easy to understand. Without direct access to the beings who wrote the message, it could take us years, decades, or centuries to decipher the message. Or we may never decode it all. And this is where things really take a turn. According to the thinking of some researchers, it may be that never decoding the signal is the best and safest option because we will have no way of knowing what the message contains.
It’s easy to assume that a message would be benign, perhaps giving us information to shorten centuries of scientific research, but some experts now think the message could have a darker, even dangerous, intent. If so, is our quest to answer the question of whether we are alone a case of being careful what we wish for?
When did we first think aliens existed?
The idea of other life in the Universe dates back to ancient times. But according to David Dunér, professor of the history of science and ideas at Lund University, Sweden, it became more realistic to consider the possibility in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was the time of the Copernican revolution, when the Earth realized that it was a planet revolving around the Sun, and the Sun was accepted as just another star. This meant that all other stars in the Universe also had the potential to have planets around them.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists began to think of ways to communicate with aliens. Thinking that the Moon might be inhabited, German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss suggested cutting down large tracts of Siberian forest to reveal geometric shapes. To be sure that the signal was not misinterpreted as a natural phenomenon, he suggested that the forest be cut into a geometric representation of the Pythagorean theorem.
It was in 1960 that the American astronomer Frank Drake released SETI as it exists today. He used the Green Bank Radio Observatory’s 26-meter dish to search for extraterrestrial radio signals from nearby stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. He received nothing that stood up to scrutiny, but he did establish the idea of using radio telescopes to search for extraterrestrial radio signals.
Why are we looking for extraterrestrial life now
While interest in the effort has waxed and waned over the years, things are looking up these days. “There is a resurgence in SETI right now,” says Professor Michael Garrett, director of the Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics and current chair of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) SETI Standing Committee.
He says a catalyst for this new interest is the investment made by Russian-Israeli venture capitalist Yuri Milner, who studied theoretical physics at Moscow State University. As part of his Breakthrough Initiative program, Milner has set aside $100 million in funding for SETI. Beginning in 2016, Breakthrough Listen began using radio telescopes at the same Green Bank telescope where Drake began the search.
The program is expected to last a decade. Although this is primarily an American project, Garrett believes it is sparking new interest in Europe and beyond. And with more observatories than ever spending at least some time looking for signals, there’s never been a greater chance of spotting anything.
In the event that someone does receive a signal, the IAA’s SETI Standing Committee has established a protocol for verifying the authenticity of a signal before making it public. While the protocol is designed to reflect the highest standards of scientific rigor to maintain credibility, the news would almost certainly leak beforehand, especially as the circle of people in the know widens as confirmation is sought. Independent.
“Even the best intention can be problematic to implement in practice,” says Yvan Dutil, an independent researcher at SETI and a member of the standing committee.
How will we translate an alien signal
Regardless of how and when the signal is made public, once confirmed as alien, the question will be: what does it say? Finding out will almost certainly be difficult. Dunér, who is also a METI board member, refers to the difficulty we encountered in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The meaning of that ancient writing system was lost to us for some 1,500 years.
The Rosetta Stone was key to our understanding of the language of Ancient Egypt, as it is inscribed with Egyptian and Ancient Greek hieroglyphs © Getty Images
We only managed to decipher it after Napoleon’s troops found the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which had the same text inscribed in three languages, one of which was hieroglyphics. Even so, it was another 20 years before the French philologist Jean-François Champollion fully understood Egyptian writing.
“It was very difficult, even though we had exactly the same brain as the Egyptians in 2000 BC. Interstellar communication is much more challenging because we won’t share the same biology or the same brain. We don’t even share the same planet,” says Dunér.
Without these things in common, communication is much more difficult. This is why some have suggested that mathematics and the laws of physics are the best things to start a communication with because they will be universal.
And if the aliens are transmitting, then they have clearly developed technology, which means they have an advanced understanding of physics. But just because everywhere in the Universe is governed by the same laws of physics, that doesn’t mean that aliens conceive of them the same way we do.
“The way we express mathematics depends on our culture, our history and also how our earthly brains are built. So, they could express mathematics in different ways,” says Dunér.
The same goes for the structure of language. For example, it seems entirely reasonable to expect your language to contain the equivalent of nouns, since there will be ‘things’ in your world. The aliens must also perform activities, so there will also be verbs. But thinking like that could be a trap.
“The more convinced I am that I know things, the more danger I’m in intellectually if I’m wrong,” says Wells-Jensen.
In other words, to resist any attempt to decipher a message, we must not rule out anything. She says the best way to make sure that happens is to make all the data public, so anyone who wants to can try to crack it.
“I have a deep trust in human curiosity. So we’ll take that sucker and prod it and nurse it until we get it,” says Wells-Jensen.
Will the alien message be friendly?
What exactly could the aliens put in their message? Wells-Jensen expects some useful advice and says, “It seems we’re not doing very well here and maybe we could use some information.” She subscribes to the idea that any signs of extraterrestrial intelligence throughout the Galaxy would be older and more advanced than our society, simply because of the technology required to accurately target a planet in another star system.
Dutil, on the other hand, strikes a note of caution. What if the message is a Trojan horse, he wonders, a subtle attack wrapped up in a help message? It draws the analogy with disinformation campaigns during war, where information is leaked to an enemy in order to undermine them. “Imagine that you are the most advanced civilization in the Galaxy and you don’t want to share the Galaxy,” he says.
One scenario he suggests is the dark inversion of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. In that story, benign aliens send humans the plans to build a gigantic machine. On paper, no one can understand its purpose, but they build it anyway. It turns out to be a device for interstellar travel, putting us in contact with aliens.
But what if the plans had been totally bogus, with the machine being all misinformation and nonsense? “So it has absorbed a lot of resources and commitments for nothing,” says Dutil. Or worse yet, the message contains plans for something that will work, but is a weapon to destroy the planet.
Even if the aliens do not intend to harm us on purpose, they may end up fundamentally changing our intellectual capacities, especially when it comes to practicing science. Imagine the effect of deciphering the signal and discovering that it is a “core dump” of the aliens’ knowledge base, and that they are scientifically far more advanced than we are. Surely a gift? Not necessarily, says Dutil.
Receiving a massive amount of knowledge risks undermining the core skill of our science: blue-sky thinking. This is because, instead of investigating lines of inquiry based on personal interests or current world issues with no fixed idea of where that work might lead, researchers will work toward a known end goal. If you know the outcome you’re working toward, Dutil says, then “you might lose the basic scientific skill of understanding how we ask fundamental questions and do research.”
These are dark thoughts and they raise the possibility that perhaps the best result is that we cannot understand the message. Even if that were the case, Wells-Jensen thinks we’d still stand to gain a lot. “Even if we can’t squeeze the intended meaning out of the message, we will squeeze some meaning out of it. Just the realization that we are not alone out here would be a revelation. So even if we don’t understand what they are trying to tell us, we will draw some lessons from it. And that will be a success.”
The detection of an alien signal is often described as the greatest discovery science could make. Clearly, that seems to be true for the mere act of detection. It would show us once and for all that we are not alone; that the dark realms of space are alive with intelligence watching us.
But when it comes to deciphering that signal, the consequences become much more difficult to navigate. Rather than a simple gift, it almost certainly seems like it would be more like opening Pandora’s box. When it comes to SETI, be careful what you wish for.