Despite the impression given by films like Contact, no government in the world - apart from Argentina - is supporting the search for alien life. The quest is left to grass-roots outfits like the SETI League. I have contributed financially towards some of these efforts and have a wide network of friends working towards SETI-related research and fund raising. Unfortunately, although we've tried to find intelligent life in Washington DC, so far we've failed.
But what happens if we do receive a signal? There has been extensive discussion on the social, cultural, religious and psychological impacts of the detection of an ET signal from outer space, but what happens after a signal will depend on who receives and decodes it. If the scientists are left to themselves, I think the wider scientific community and, very quickly, the general public will get to know about this. I cannot imagine anything more profound than the detection of a signal which can only have an artificial origin, i.e. from another intelligence. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has an expert committee which is trying to work out protocols to be followed when such a signal is first detected. I am a member of this committee, and we are hoping that we can prevail upon the governments of the world to have a common understanding on this crucial matter.
Then there's the possibility we've already seen evidence of intelligent life without recognising it. Some years ago, I suggested that supernovae are industrial accidents of civilisations whose technological advancement has far surpassed ours. This is an interesting hypothesis, but its very difficult to test!
Another possibility is that alien asteroid defence systems might produce some kind of detectable signal. In my 1993 novel, The Hammer of God, I described the possibility of a gigaton bomb being exploded in Earth orbit, but on the other side of the Sun, so that microwaves from that explosion will sweep right across the solar system, in all directions. Thus Project EXCALIBUR helped detect not only all the known satellites, comets and asteroids, but every object more than a metre in diameter. It is entirely plausible that advanced civilisations will try out something similar. I remain optimistic that we would be able to communicate with intelligent ETs when we finally encounter them. The chances are that such an encounter will initially take place over vast distances, and not in person. Whichever way it occurs, we will need a common language or medium to understand one another. Mathematics is an obvious possibility, but some have also suggested music as another common medium, as was done in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Until then the closest we can get is communicating with fellow intelligent mammals like whales and dolphins. There has been considerable research done but I sometimes wonder if these gentle creatures are too disinterested in exchanging messages with us; they may he too playful and not bothered by our attempts.
Of course, one can only guess at the effects of alien contact. Even if the aliens are benign, the sheer differences between our civilisations could wipe us out. We know that in the past, civilisations that once thrived were marginalised and/or wiped out by colonisers. As for hostile ETs... Like Steven Spielberg, I, too, cannot imagine hostile aliens for the simple reason that a truly space-faring race will have to overcome more primitive traits such as violence, or they would destroy themselves in a relatively short time. You might argue that this is wishful thinking, and that there could indeed be greedy and vicious aliens roaming the universe. Well, for all our sakes, I hope you are wrong.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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