Happy New Year and best wishes in 2009!
Among the files I have for a writing project of mine is one about 1/2" thick and labeled SETI Permanent Study Group. Many people have heard of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), but fewer are aware that the preeminent scientific organization focused on the quest for verifiable evidence of technological civilizations beyond Earth -- the SETI Institute -- is based in the U.S., and that SETI involves so much more than scanning the microwave spectrum for messages. Like anything else, funding dictates what, when, and how much can be done. Fotunately for those who value this kind of investigation, the SETI Institute is positioned to do a lot.
In addition to its radio astronomy-based signal searching, the Institute supports an optical SETI program; funds R&D projects and original studies through The Center for SETI Research; sponsors a wide range of activities via its Center for Education and Public Outreach; operates the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe; publishes books, including college-level texts on astrobiology and astronomy; produces a weekly podcast radio show; is engaged in interstellar message composition; and fields the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) research team. Established in 1984 and headquartered in Mountain View, California, the Institue today employs over 150 scientists, educators, and support staff.
SETI research also takes place at other locations around the world. There are established programs at UC Berkeley, Harvard, the University of Western Sydney in Australia, and the Institute of Radio Astronomy in Italy. Nor is participating in the search restricted to members of the academic community. SETI@home, an initiative sponsored by UC Berkeley's SERENDIP Program, utilizes thousands of personal computers like yours and mine to help analyze radio telescope data from the Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Anyone interested in assisting the project and who agrees to its policies can download a free program (available in either CPU or NVIDIA graphics board versions) and then, well, who knows? . . .
Now, about that file. The SETI Permanent Study Group is part of something called the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), an organization comprised primarily of academicians committed to expanding the frontiers of space. The study group was established in 2000 to replace the long-standing IAA SETI Committee. For nearly 40 years now, the group has held annual meetings, and much to the interest of people like me, the meeting agendas since 1999 plus abstracts of most papers are available online. Each year presents a fascinating snapshot of topics occupying the attention of leading SETI researchers. I especially enjoy seeing what's being presented from year to year in the group's second paper session, titled "SETI II: Interdisciplnary Aspects," probably because looking for interdisciplinary perspectives has long been part of my ongoing education.
Another aspect of SETI, and the one I specifically wanted to mention today, concerns the protocol which has been developed in the event that researchers one day find a verifiable signal or message from a technological civilization far away. The "Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence" was endorsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the IAA, the International Institute of Space Law, the International Astronomical Union, and several other organizations.
One of the architects of the Declaration was Michael A. G. Michaud, a former Director of the U.S. State Department's Office of Advanced Technology and an authority on international science and technology agreements. Michaud also happens to be one of a handful of individuals on the planet who has published extensively on the implications of contact with civilizations beyond Earth, including one of the first articles, which appeared in 1974. His most recent contribution, Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials (Copernicus Books, 466 pp., 2007), is the most insightful and detailed presentation of the subject yet written. Here's what Michaud has to say about the prospect of contact, and about the Declaration itself:
"Many people dismiss -- even ridicule -- the idea of preparing for contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. Despite the giggle factor, a small but active invisible college has been making modest efforts to prepare.
As these issues are unlikely to engage the sustained attention of governments in advance of contact, the task has been left to nongovernmental organizations and individuals. . . .This Declaration, more commonly known as the First SETI Protocol, is an informal agreement among searchers, not among governments. Adherence is entirely voluntary; there are no enforcement provisions. The document enunciates three basic principles: verify the nature of any detection in coopertaion with other searchers; after verification, publically announce the discovery; do not send communications to the detected alien intellignce until international consultations have taken place. Other provisions spell out scientific procedures such as recording the evidence and protecting the appropriate wavelengths. Most SETI researchers have adhered to these principles."
Most, but apparently not all.
There are at least two other shortcomings associated with the Declaration that SETI researchers themselves acknowledge: first, the protocol currently does not take into account other contact scenarios, such as finding a verifiable extraterrestrial artifact in our solar system or confirming a visitation by extraterrestrials somewhere on Earth; and second, the protocol presumes an orderly routing and flow of information surrounding what would arguably be the most important scientific discovery in human history.
Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute's senior astronomer (and advisor to The Day the Earth Stood Still remake, mentioned a couple of posts ago), addresses that "orderly flow" assumption this way:
"Because verifying a signal is slow and the media are fast, there will be days of uncertainty for any newly detected candidate signal. . . .In the end, of course, and like all good science, a real detection will be confirmed by a wide range of observations, involving observers from many countries during the course of days or weeks. Facts are, the first discovery of a signal from an alien world will break into the world’s consciousness in a haphazard, messy fashion. The news won’t be crisp and well-defined. But it will be very, very exciting."
I'd say that's a pretty safe bet if and when it happens.
The reality of that new consciousness will be challenging to process, too. I'm looking forward to exploring here some of the cultural and spiritual implications of discovering life beyond Earth, no matter how the discovery is made. Today there are essentially three complementary but distinct methods of searching for evidence of life elsewhere: SETI, searches for extrasolar habitable planets, and investigations attached to government-sponsored space missions. Another SETI Institute scientist, Margaret Race, suggests the meaning and implications of a discovery made through each of these methods are different. She may be right about that, but it's likely the spiritual imapcts will be profound regardless of the relative simplicity or complexity of the life discovered.
Meanwhile, it's worth mentioning that Michaud, other pioneering SETI researchers, and virtually the entire current cadre of senior-level SETI scientists, including Shostak and Race, are IAA members. Many are also part of the SETI Permanent Study Group and attend the annual symposium.
I just had to smile the other day when I noticed Michaud's name listed under the "Lost Contact" section of IAA's member database.
Assuming a search is underway, I hope it succeeds very soon.
Next stop: Cosmotheology
Part of the extensive Allen Telescope Array, SETI Institute.
Sample SETI@home screen print. Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (University of California, Space Sciences Labratory).
Banner bus photo created by Dorothy Delina Porter