If We Find Signs of Intelligent Life, Then What?

The potential detection of signals from outer space raises many questions. What’s the overarching plan? Who would speak on behalf of our planet? What would they say?
  • Transcript


Question: What will we do if we detect a signal? 

Jill Tarter: We do plan for success, so at every observatory we’ve ever worked and now at the Allen Telescope Array, our own telescope we keep champagne on ice. We intend to celebrate if we have a detection and then of course there is a lot that needs to be done. First you need to verify that what you’ve detected is actually what you think it is. With SETI, because it is so attractive to so many people, you have to worry that it might be a deliberate hoax. So we have to take precautions and one of the easiest things to do and one of the most sensible things to do is to call up a telescope to the west of us that has the capability to detect the frequencies that we’ve detected and ask them to go looking with their equipment to see if they see a signal. If they can confirm that they can see something with equipment that we didn’t build and software that we didn’t write, than it is a pretty good independent confirmation that it’s a real signal and it probably is exactly what we think it is—either that or it’s a whole new brand of astrophysics. That could happen, too. We’re looking for signals of a particular type because we don’t think nature can make them. If we find that kind of signal, it’s either the engineering we’re looking for or something amazing and new about nature, so we’ll try and get that independent confirmation then we’ll go through a whole process where we first send out an IAU telegram, which is essentially an email to all the world’s observatories and it says, “Here is what we found. Here are the details about the discovery.” And any observatory could, in fact, choose to look with whatever equipment they have to see what else might be there. But the other thing that does for you is informs your scientific colleagues about the details and these are the people who are most likely to be reachable by the world’s media and journalists who when we make an announcement and we certainly will hold a press conference and tell the world. When that happens the world’s media are not going to be able to call up the SETI Institute and get a comment and we don’t want to leave them without some authoritative source. So by sending out this telegram to the observatories around the world, the discovery information is in the hands of people who can hopefully help interpret it to the journalists, to the media, and we don’t leave them awash in making up their own stories. Then of course we do tell the world. We first probably make some very discreet courtesy calls to our major donors to let them know what is happening. We’ve never been asked to do that, but I think as a thank you we certainly would and then we try and hold a press conference and try and make sure that everybody who had anything to do with the discovery is appropriately credited... and then I don’t know what happens. That is as far as we go in terms of planning and thinking. We’ve tried to put a little effort into "Gee, how do we keep our phones working and our Internet up, right when we expect a huge deluge of people wanting to know more." And how the world will react is a guess. Maybe it will be as Carl Sagan pictured in “Contact.” Maybe it will be different. 

We’ve actually held some workshops, brought in some experts from the diplomatic religious journalistic communities, social scientists and said, “How will the world react to this news?” At the end of the day, what could we say? We said that people will react in accordance with the belief systems that are in place at the time. It doesn’t tell you a lot, so I guess the other thing that came out of these workshops was the importance of trying to educate and inform people in advance that this is a possibility. This could happen. This could show up on their television screen or in their newspapers tomorrow and they might be thinking about what that means for them and that is another avenue that we’re trying to go down right now. 

Question: If you had to send the message, what would you say? 

Jill Tarter: I would be so overwhelmed and excited simply to have an answer to this old question, even if there is no message, even if it’s just kind of a cosmic dial tone that’s a proof of existence. I mean, good heavens, we’ve answered a question that we’ve wondered about for ages and it’s interesting because in this field the number two is really, really critical, so we have one example of life, life here on this planet. We don’t know about any other, but the moment you get a second example then you know there are many. In physics we tend to count one to infinity, so with a single example it could be unique. The moment you get a second, you know it’s abundant. So the moment that we find that evidence of the second technology we’ll start looking for more because we know they’re going to be out there and so understanding actually how we fit in, what the diversity is, what physics and chemistry have managed to concoct other places, what other kinds of biology. That is what interests me rather than sending a message about us. I’m really interested in them. 

Recorded on June 3, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman