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OK, What If We Hear Something?
by Dr. H. Paul Shuch, Executive Director

With the launch this Spring of Project Argus, we now have ourselves a real live SETI project underway. Soon we will have dozens of amateurs around the world scanning the skies for signs of life. And then hundreds, and some day thousands. But what happens if we actually hear something?

I'm reminded here of an old (and admittedly sexist) joke about a young man who repeatedly made what would today be deemed totally inappropriate overtures toward numerous young women. They all rebuffed him, until one day a certain young lady agreed to his suggestion. "Omigod!" he stammered. "Now what do I do?"

That's kind of the situation we find ourselves in. We're ready to do The Search. But are we ready for success? Have we even contemplated the implications of what we are attempting? I imagine not.

The international community of SETI professionals has already dealt with this question and has its protocols firmly in place. From signal verification techniques to resource sharing to decoding of message content to announcing this greatest of all discoveries to a waiting world, the procedures are codified, and subscribed to by governments and scientific organizing committees. The SETI League, Inc. endorses these international protocols. But because of the nature of our mission, we may wish to establish even more stringent standards for ourselves.

Our very strength, that of involving perhaps thousands of amateurs in an all-sky survey, may well prove our greatest weakness. When SETI was done primarily by governments, it was easy to coordinate among them and arrive at acceptable protocols. But just as we don't attempt to tell our members what frequency is best to search, just as we are loathe to stifle the creative spirit, so we hesitate to dictate to our members how signals should be verified, or how a positive result should be announced.

And yet if we don't, chaos could reign. Just imagine what it would do to the credibility of our organization in particular, and the SETI enterprise in general, if our individual members started announcing unverified "hits" to their local media. We must present an organized, unified front. We must find ways to coordinate, to verify what we observe, to weed out false positives, and to announce our results in a credible, disciplined way. I look to you, the members, to help determine how we might accomplish this.

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