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Ask Dr. SETI ®

Chapter 5: Sociology

Transmitting from Earth

Dear Dr. SETI:
In 1974, Frank Drake sent a radio signal from the Arecibo radio dish to M13 (a globular cluster about 20,000 light years away). I don't know about anyone else, but I have a problem with Drake's transmission. I am not worried about the religious implications behind a successful SETI project, nor am I worried about the political differences that would result from such a project.

No one could argue that a successful SETI project would have worldwide impact. I am worried about Drake's transmission, however, because he crossed national boundaries. The people of Papua New Guinea were not consulted regarding the transmission, yet Drake's decision affected them. Isn't Earth their planet too?

An extra-terrestrial civilization might be well aware of these ethical problems, and refrain from transmission until they have attained the degree of unity required to accept the consequences of transmission together. Ethical behavior may not always be convenient or cheap, but perhaps a high sense of ethics contributes to long-term survival.

I also think that any civilization that doesn't care about the ethical problems associated with transmission would be more likely to destroy themselves.

If we are to accept this argument, then we must add another factor to the Drake equation to serve as a filter for those civilizations that don't acheive ethical unity.

If we are to use our United Nations as an example (and we use ourselves as an example with many factors of the Drake equation), then is it any surprise that many civilizations may be listening while very few may be transmitting?

Sincerely, K.L.

The Doctor Responds:
Thanks, KL, for your interesting thoughts, which add a new dimension to The Fermi Paradox. I should point out that the question of transmitting is highly controversial, and in fact international protocols are currently under consideration. One model has recently been proposed by Dr. John Billingham, who chairs the International Astronomical Union's committee on SETI. Although I have just received a draft of JB's proposal on this subject, I have not had a chance to study it yet, so will reserve comment. However, I can tell you that the Arecibo message was the ONLY deliberately beamed interstellar microwave communication from Earth to date, and was primarily a stunt (I use the term advisedly) to mark the ceremonies associated with the re-dedication of the refurbished 305 meter reflector surface.

Interestingly, Arecibo is even now undergoing another major upgrade. I asked Arecibo director Paul Goldsmith just two weeks ago whether another transmission was planned for the re-re-dedication ceremonies, and he told me that none was in the works. So there is some thought being given to the concept of presenting a unified planetary front.

On the other hand, for the past 50 years Earth has been radiating microwave signals of sufficient amplitude to be easily detectable at interstellar distances. These have not been beamed transmissions at all, but rather our radio pollution from radars, UHF TV, and satellite uplinks. It is just such incidental radiation (the likes of which now makes Earth detectable out to 50 light-years) which SETI hopes to encounter from other civilizations. We hypothesize that, at least at some stage of its technological development, most civilizations will go through an RF polluting stage. So even if your line of reasoning proves true with regard to beamed transmissions, there is still hope that we can gain the existence proof we seek, to discredit the notion of our uniqueness in the Universe.

By the way, it happens that The SETI League has a member in Papua New Guinea. I checked with him and, you're right, nobody asked him!

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