Monday, July 19, 2010

Messy First Contact

Seth Shostak is a prominent SETI researcher and the author of a book called Confessions of an Alien Hunter. The book has several vivid renderings of actual First Contact false alarms. Shostak uses them primarily to show how a real SETI First Contact event might happen. It’s messy and very human in the unorganized way in which it plays out. The primary problem is with the sheer volume of potential signals. From that huge pile you get a few signals that pass the first round of tests. Researchers then try and whittle down the true origin of the signal in question. Along the way other radio observatories are notified and for one event he describes the New York Times, and a network TV crew, getting in on the action.

Shostak is the Senior Astronomer at the SETI institute, which puts him on the front lines of not only the research, but the process as potential signals are discovered.

Shostak uses the false alarm examples to make an important point. The SETI notification protocol is a nice idea in theory, but unlikely to be followed closely in practice. Friends will call friends. Researchers will reach out to other researchers for help in confirmation. Somewhere along the line the media will be contacted. Reporters will start to poke around. Someone will release something on the Internet. And in the end the announcement of a real First Contact event will happen in dribs and drabs over several days or even weeks.

It’s the reality of science at work. Researchers need other researchers to help them confirm potential findings. That network is hard to control and leaves plenty of time for information to leak out to the public.

I have proposed a hybrid method of Direct First Contact. It combines a signal based SETI version of First Contact with an explosive Direct First Contact event. In this scenario the visiting alien civilization would beam a message to Earth from within our solar system. It would have to be done in a way that would show it to be conclusively from outside of human origin. The coordinates would also need to be relayed somehow to SETI researchers so that they could quickly find the signal. Chances are that no one is looking for signals from within our solar system. Taking into account the Shostak descriptions of previous false alarms, one would need to plan for several days of confirmation by researchers. This would most likely get leaked to the media. So, even before the second part of the hybrid scenario can occur (a spacecraft landing on Earth) the news will be out in the public for examination.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. It allows governments to prepare for Direct First Contact. Preparation at least means that there would be a lack of surprise. This could lead to calmer heads and calmer reactions.

The value of the hybrid method is that it takes away much of the surprise, while still moving quite quickly and publicly. Thus you get an introduction for all of humanity without the shock and awe. The restrictive and secretive reactions of governments are bypassed by using the media. The scientific community in brought into the situation from the very beginning and there can be a more orderly flow of events.

Confessions of an Alien Hunter is a good read. Shostak has a keen sense of humor, which helps to bring the subject of First Contact back to Earth where it belongs.

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