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Jill Tarter is Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution[…]

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?

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

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

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

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

Jillrn Tarter: I would be so overwhelmed and excited simply to have an rnanswer to this old question, even if there is no message, even if it’s rnjust kind of a cosmic dial tone that’s a proof of existence. I mean, rngood heavens, we’ve answered a question that we’ve wondered about for rnages and it’s interesting because in this field the number two is rnreally, really critical, so we have one example of life, life here on rnthis planet. We don’t know about any other, but the moment you get a rnsecond example then you know there are many. In physics we tend to countrn one to infinity, so with a single example it could be unique. The rnmoment you get a second, you know it’s abundant. So the moment that we rnfind that evidence of the second technology we’ll start looking for morern because we know they’re going to be out there and so understanding rnactually how we fit in, what the diversity is, what physics and rnchemistry have managed to concoct other places, what other kinds of rnbiology. That is what interests me rather than sending a message about rnus. I’m really interested in them. 
Recorded on June 3, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman