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Question: What major issues would we confront if we discovered life elsewhere in the universe? 

Paul Davies:  People are amazed that there is something called the SETI Post-Detection Task Group and I chair this, and it’s an awesome responsibility.  I say if ET calls on my watch I’ll be among the first to know and not only the fate of the earth, but the fate of the entire galaxy may rest in my hands, so it’s not something to be undertaken lightly.  Of course the people on this committee think it’s very hypothetical, that it’s a tiny, tiny chance that this is ever going to happen, but it is as well that we think through the issues, and there are a number of issues because I think if we suddenly did discover we’re not alone in the universe the ramifications for that could be very profound indeed.  Now I like to make a distinction between two extremes.  One is that we just stumbled across some sort of evidence that there is somebody out there, that there is alien technology.  We can’t say anything more than that.  It might be some distant star that has got some signs of tampering or the planets around that star, some signs of tampering.  It’s worth remembering that all technology leaves a footprint.  For example, our own technology is leaving a footprint in terms of global warming, which could be detected from a long way away.  One assumes that a very advanced civilization that has been around maybe millions and millions of years would have an even bigger footprint that might extend beyond its planet to its immediate astronomical environment.  It might even be large scale astro-engineering.  We could look for that. 

Supposing we found something like that, it wouldn’t be a message.  It wouldn’t be contact with aliens, but it would mean we could say definitely that there is or was somebody out there, that these are the fruits of their intelligent activity.  Now that would be in my view the most profound scientific discovery in the history of mankind, and its impacts would be a little bit like when Copernicus announced that the Earth is going around the sun.  There was no change in the price of beer, no rioting in the streets, nothing of that sort, and yet over the centuries it has enormously colored the way we see ourselves and our place in the universe, same thing with Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Again, no rioting, no dramatic changes in society, but over the decades very definitely it has changed the way we think, think about ourselves and in the same way, if we knew we were not alone in the universe it would have a very, very deep impact on our worldview, on our understanding of our place in the universe, but I think it could be announced in the same way… well not quite in the same way as Copernicus.  He waited until he died before he published it because he was afraid of being killed by the church, but we don’t have that fear I don’t think, but I think it could be announced in the same way as a major astronomical discovery with a published paper and a press conference and all the rest of it.

Now that is one extreme and that’s the most likely thing that we’re going to find, but the other extreme is the Holy Grail of SETI, which is the message.  You know, a message from ET for mankind: “Earthlings, have I got news for you.”  That sort of thing, and then all bets are off because the effect of such a message could be enormously disruptive.  If it is a message with content we have to think, what is that content.  We can imagine all sorts of things ranging from, “Stop burning fossil fuels, you silly people. You’re heating our planet.”  To, “There is a comet coming your way. You’re going to be wiped out in 100 years.”  Or it could be a more helpful thing along the lines of, “Here is a way of gaining control over nuclear fusion to give yourself a cheap energy source.”  Now these things will all have enormous impacts on society, even just some helpful tips about technology would change the economic and technological balance of the planet and could be very, very disruptive, so we would need to think very carefully about how that sort of information was handled.  We’d also need to think very carefully about whether we should reply and if so what should we say and who speaks for Earth and that gets us into all sorts of difficult territory, but the one thing I think we’re all agreed with this task group is we should not disclose the coordinates in the sky of any transmitting source.  

Supposing we knew that up there is some alien civilization and it’s sending radio signals our way we should not tell the public where that is.  We could say that we’ve got… we’ve picked up a signal, but we should not tell them where for the simple reason that anybody could commandeer a radio telescope, set themselves up as some self appointed spokesperson of mankind and start beaming all sorts of crazy messages back to the aliens.  I think if we’re going to send messages to the stars then it needs a great deal of thought that it’s something that should involve the entire not only scientific community, but the entire world community.  We need to think very carefully indeed.  So that should be prevented, but SETI is not a secret enterprise and this task group is itself completely public.  It’s completely open.  Our conclusions are available on the internet.  It’s not anything we want to keep from the public, but the effects are very sobering.  We do really do have to think about what the affect on society would be and the effect on religion for example could be very profound and we know what an explosive issue religion is on planet Earth, so those are the sorts of things we deliberate on.

Recorded April 15, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

More from the Big Idea for Saturday, April 27 2013

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