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A Fresh Approach to SETI
by Dr. Allen Tough (email tough77 @
SETI League Regional Coordinator for Central Canada

An innovative SETI project recently celebrated its third anniversary.

On October 27th, 1998, a few SETI scientists placed an invitation to extraterrestrial intelligence on the World Wide Web. This Invitation to ETI encouraged any form of alien intelligence that has reached Earth to engage in a dialogue with humankind.

In the three years since then, the group has grown to more that 80 members. Most of them are scientists, artists, and graduate students active in the SETI or interstellar field, or the annual CONTACT conference. The group includes several SETI League members, of course, including Executive Director H. Paul Shuch and Founder/President Richard Factor.

I have the honor and pleasure of serving as the Coordinator of this group. Every time I read through the list of members I am inspired by their energy, talent, enthusiasm, courage, and commitment. This is surely one of the most impressive and remarkable groups ever to band together in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence!

We are remarkably diverse, as you can see from our one-paragraph biographies. But we are united by our belief that advanced civilizations may use interstellar probes to explore their galaxy, and by our eagerness to establish contact with them.

Any other civilizations in our galaxy are likely older than we are (maybe millions of years older) and therefore have more advanced technology. Because of their advanced competence ini nanotechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence, they can probably manufacture small super-smart probes to explore the galaxy. One of these probes might be 100 times smarter than me but only 1% of my mass!

How can we detect such a probe if it has reached our solar system? We could try to sneak up on it despite its cloaking capabilities. Or we can assume it is monitoring the World Wide Web as part of its efforts to study our civilization. Taking this fresh approach, the group of 80 has placed on the Web an invitation to ETI to engage in dialogue with all of humankind.

The SETI field is generally very supportive of this innovative project. Almost every SETI scientist now agrees that (a) any extraterrestrial technology we detect will be far older than ours and (b) it is quite feasible for an extraterrestrial probe to reach Earth. And, of course, many SETI scientists have joined in issuing the invitation.

The two main fears raised in the early days of the project have turned out to be groundless. Some people feared negative publicity from the media, but in fact almost all media attention so far has been quite positive. Some feared that we would foolishly succumb to hoaxes, but this has not happened, as you can see below.

Three events stand out as particularly significant during the project's third year (2000-2001).

  1. Several web pages have been re-thought and revised. Some of the changes arise from my recent thinking about communication and security during the first 30 days after detection/contact. (I will report on this thinking at SETICon02.) The website is now in all major search engines and directories, so ETI should have no trouble discovering us.

  2. In July, we were selected by (the website for one of America's national daily newspapers) as a Hot Site. The editor explains that "We look daily for websites that are likely to be sure hits with readers -- sites that seek to astound and delight, inform or amuse -- by exhibiting something remarkable in graphics, content, or both." (In our case, it certainly wasn't the graphics!)

  3. The July 28th issue of New Scientist devoted a 2-page spread to the project. This in turn sparked much additional publicity. As a result I was swamped with email for a few weeks, including about 30 messages claiming to be from ETI. When I asked for evidence of authenticity, all but two of these faded away. One promised to shut down British television for one minute at 8:00 on a particular evening. The other asked for a mathematical test, which I provided with the help of Ray Norris and Paul Davies. Both perpetrators took off their masks within a few days and confessed that boredom had led to their prank. I was pleased by the speed with which these hoaxes were resolved with absolutely no publicity or embarrassment.

The only sad note during the year was the loss of 74-year-old science fiction writer Poul Anderson. He was a valued member of the Invitation to ETI group as well as the SETI League's Advisory Board and the annual CONTACT conference.

Paul Shuch has written a song about the Invitation to ETI, along with his many other delightful SETI songs. Called "Welcome, ETI," it is sung to the tune of "Scarlet Ribbons," copyright © 1949 by Jack Segal and Evelyn Danzig. Lyrics copyright © 2000 H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D. (Dr. SETI®). Here is the song.


I logged on to surf the 'net, when
This amazing page I spied.
It was beamed from planet Earth,
And it said, 'Welcome, ETI.'

Many probes have cruised the cosmos,
Searching long for such a sign
From an open, peaceful species
Having an inquiring mind.

Every planet, moon, and nation
Join us in confederation...

Fearing interstellar contact,
Most retreat behind their sun.
Might there be some world to talk to?
So far, Earth's the only one.

Stars we visit, by the billions,
Never knowing when, or why...

Some small world will dare to reach out
Saying 'Welcome, ETI.'

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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