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If you're out there, ET, log on
by Prof. Paul Davies
Adelaide, Australia

Until recently, attempts to communicate with alien civilisations have been pursued using radio telescopes. This program, known as SETI (for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), has mostly been passive. Scientists have scanned the skies in the hope of stumbling across a radio signal from a distant planet. From time to time, however, human astronomers have beamed powerful messages into the galaxy, saying, in effect, "hello". Unfortunately, the galaxy being so vast, such messages are really only symbolic gestures. They are extremely unlikely to reach any alien civilisations for tens of thousands of years - even supposing there is anyone at all out there listening.

Now a Canadian SETI League member, Allen Tough, has come up with a novel idea. Rather than mess about with large bits of expensive equipment, why not simply invite ET to log on to the Internet? Wacky though this proposal may seem at first blush, there is a certain rationale behind it. While it is highly improbable that aliens could come here in the flesh, it is not inconceivable that they would send a small, smart space probe to eavesdrop on our activities. Such an object would go unnoticed by us. It might be no more than the size of a pea, and could be anywhere in earth orbit. From this vantage point, the probe could monitor and analyse all our communications, including the Internet.

If you find that prospect hard to believe, reflect on the fact that the American and British security services already do much the same thing. Every day, the world's radio and telecommunications traffic is tapped by secret agencies and sifted by supercomputers to seek key-word associations to do with terrorism, drug trafficking and the like. And that is using human technology. With a multimillion-year technology at its disposal, ET could easily wire-tap our most mundane exchanges, and thereby build up a comprehensive picture of human life. Part of that picture would be the Internet, which has now evolved into the World Wide Web. As Net surfers know well, you can access just about every aspect of human affairs with an efficient search engine. If ET is eavesdropping, the Web would be a fast way to learn about us and our society - warts and all.

What better way, then, to persuade ET that we are finally ready for that great cosmic encounter than to create a customised website for our galactic cousins to access? Tough has financed a suitably welcoming website, featuring patrons drawn from the international scientific community (myself and The SETI League's executive director included) in the hope that someone, or something out there might come to the party.

Now this has to be regarded as a long shot, but then so is conventional SETI, with its needle-in-a-haystack search of the heavens. The great advantage of going online with a nearby alien probe is that there isn't an annoying thousand-year time delay in the conversation, due to the transit time of the radio waves. In the event that ET visits the website and decides to log on, I promise that readers of this column will be the first to know.

Editor's Note: This Guest Editorial is based upon a column which first appeared in The Adelaide Advertiser on 14 September 1998. Prof. Davies is the author of numberous books related to SETI. His latest is The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin of Life.

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