Duncan Forgan, University of St Andrews Research Fellow
You’d think that after innumerable hypothetical scenarios of humans establishing contact with alien civilizations, we’d be ready to actually find one. Finding sentient life beyond Earth, on the other hand, is definitely going to be one of the most seismic events in our species’ history.
So, if you’ve just discovered an alien civilization, how do you break the news to the rest of the world? This is a monumental task, and I’ve been involved in the development of some guidelines for scientists working on extraterrestrial life searches. The findings will be published in the Acta Astronautica journal.
Some think that it is just a matter of time until we encounter intelligent life, given the millions of dollars presently being poured in efforts like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Personally, I’m not convinced, but skepticism alone isn’t enough to call off a search. Regardless of our initial preconceptions, the scientific method encourages us to examine our theories via observation and experiment.
I don’t think it’ll be a message from an extraterrestrial civilization or a landing party if we ever locate traces of sentient life.
It’ll more likely be something more mundane, like traces of manmade pollution in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. It might potentially take the shape of massive buildings constructed into the ground to collect energy and offer dwellings
We should be able to spot such megastructures in planetary transit data, such as that acquired by the Kepler Space Telescope, as I demonstrated in a paper a few years ago.
True, Kepler did see strange objects like Tabby’s Star, KIC 8426582, that had characteristics that were predicted to come from artificial structures. But, like most scientists, I’m still skeptical – a swarm of comets around Tabby’s Star, causing extraordinary brightness variations, is the most logical explanation.
What’s particularly promising about this is that it demonstrates that SETI can be done “on the cheap,” using publicly available astronomical data to look for aliens. This appears to be a lot more appropriate method for a pessimist like me.
The explosion of the online activity surrounding Tabby’s star – blogs, tweets, news reports, and a Kickstarter drive to encourage the public to sponsor more observations – exemplifies how different the world has become since SETI began roughly 60 years ago.
A world that is hyper-connected
What should the discoverers do if proof of alien life ever arrived to us from the stars? Astrobiologists have been debating this for decades.
A group of SETI scientists even drafted a set of post-detection guidelines in 1989 to help scientists navigate the processes following discovery.
These procedures involve confirming the discovery with your colleagues and contacting “relevant national authorities” (I’m not sure what this means), then the scientific community, and finally the general public via a press release.
This set of standards, however, was developed before the internet. We used to get our news from the newspaper or the television. Even 24-hour news was still in its infancy at the time.
Nowadays, the news world is a fragmented realm of items shared by our friends and family and presented on our devices and in our feeds via a number of social media channels. Data travels at a breakneck speed and is readily amplified and distorted.
That’s why my colleague Alexander Scholz and I decided to revisit the topic, wondering how SETI’s post-detection methods might evolve to fit our hyper-connected world.
We immediately recognized that scientists require instruction even before they begin an experiment, let alone after they have made a discovery. It is now standard practice for new scientific initiatives to create a blog to document their progress, and SETI will be no exception.
A precise description of what a particular project will accomplish, as well as the criteria for a successful detection, a false positive, and no detection, should be included in the blog. This would make it easier for journalists and the general public to understand the findings correctly.
Individuals engaged must be trustworthy communicators of their work, thus establishing a strong digital presence early on is critical. We also advise them to update their security settings to protect themselves from malicious persons broadcasting their personal information, which is, unfortunately, a genuine threat these days.
If a team is fortunate enough to make even a speculative, unconfirmed discovery, they must be certain that they have nothing to conceal. Leaks are unavoidable and occur at an alarming rate. Nobody wants a narrative about “aliens discovered” that turns out to be bogus. The easiest approach to accomplish this is to disseminate data as soon as possible.
If it’s evident that the discovery is unverified, and natural or man-made causes can’t be ruled out, conspiracy theorists have no place to complain about the scientists’ complicity with the men in black (an accusation flung at me more than once). It also allows other scientists to review the study and confirm the discovery.
Of course, we’ve all seen some of the comments on YouTube or other media sites — numpties abound, and there appears to be no stopping decent scientific debate from devolving into incomprehensible diatribes and disgusting hate speech. As a result, the most crucial piece of advice for scientists is to participate in the dialogue.
If a widely reported discovery proves to be erroneous, the team should issue an urgent public statement stating that no aliens have been located and explaining why. If they have to, they should write a paper retracting it.
However, whoever discovers intelligent life should expect it to consume the rest of their lives — there won’t be much time for anything else. Instead, their new mission will be to assist mankind in accepting its new status as one of many sentient civilizations in the cosmos.