Last Spring, I had the pleasure of meeting with The SETI League's executive director at the annual Contact conference, which is devoted to thinking about communication with extraterrestrial intelligence (CETI) and other possible interactions. That added to the enjoyment of what is always a great learning experience.
This time there was even more to learn than usual. Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute emphasized that no serious worker is listening for messages, or equipped to receive them. First must come the identification of the carrier wave. To find the presumably broad-band signal acompanying the narrow-band carrier, work out its encoding, and then begin to understand its meaning will be separate and much more difficult tasks. That alone should calm fears that every crank on Earth with access to a transmitter will at once start beaming his stuff to the stars.
It seems increasingly likely that signals are the only signs of ETI we will ever find. As technology advances, it becomes more and more energy efficient. Already, while the volume of communication grows by leaps and bounds, Earht's radio brightness is diminishing. Other forms of waste radiation should also become slight, and the need for grandiose construction projects, such as Dyson spheres or Kardashev civilizations, observable by astronomers, may well never arise anywhere. Of course, this does not mean we shouldn't be on the lookout for them, just in case. Likewise for other search strategies, such as Allen Tough's posting on the Internet (http://members.aol.com/WelcomeETI). None can yet be ruled out, none will cost much, and who knows what else we might discover along the way?
To make contact will simply be a wonderful beginning. The work of comprehension and communication will almost certainly prove long, challenging, oftening frustrating, and full of surprises. When humans whose societies had never before been in touch met in the Age of Discovery, they quickly mastered each other's languages. But they were human, with no significant genetic differences, able to point to objects and perform actions. It will scarcely be like that between us and ETI.
Even with a common language and no transmission lag, understanding wouldn't come easy. This was vividly illustrated by a simulation played out at Contact. The alien team was assumed to be here on Earth and to have learned English, sort of, by listening in. They sent messages via the Net. In the context of this year's theme, the human team knew that the aliens were probably machines of some kind. There was also input from the audience. Nevertheless, at first the humans were utterly baffled, and it seemed impossible to get the simplest questions across. Although some progress was made, it was not until everybody met afterward and shared what they had in mind that matters became clear.
If ever SETI succeeds, CETI will then stretch over a period of years, decades, or quite possibly centuries. An organization dedicated to it may become something like a church, outliving nations as it carries on its magnificent mission.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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