METI: should we be shouting at the cosmos?

June 19, 2013

Carl Sagan’s gold plaque placed upon Pioneer 10, the first human artifact to be launched on a trajectory out of the solar system

Science fiction writer and astrophysicist Dr. David Brin is not happy with the Lone Signal announcement of METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) “beams” to the Gliese 526 solar system.

In his Brinstorming Science 2.0 blog, Brin updated his 2006 article on METI (aka active SETI), quoting Carl Sagan, who called it “deeply unwise and immature.”

He also cited Frank Drake, who famously sent the “Arecibo Message,” but nonetheless considered “Active SETI to be, at best, a stunt and generally a waste of time.”

“Sagan — along with early SETI pioneer Philip Morrison — recommended that the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand. …

“We hope soon to convince all parties to join together in calling for a more extensive discussion that would extend beyond astronomers and diplomats, to include experts in history, astrobiology, ethics, ethology and many other pertinent fields, in an open and extended conversation that should be fascinating and entertaining as well, for millions of citizens of Planet Earth.. To reiterate, that is all we have ever asked… for an issue that might weigh heavily upon our descendants to be examined from many angles and perspectives, and for zealots to expose their assumptions to collegial critique, which is — after all — the very soul of science.”

In his CONTRARY BRIN blog, he went further, suggesting (“half in jest”) a flash mob to picket the Lone Signal Monday night event. “Let’s be plain,” he said. “This is not science and these are not scientists. They are pulling a stunt. They are willing to fundamentally alter one of our planet’s observable properties by orders of magnitude — a kind of deliberate pollution — while shrugging off and pooh-poohing any effort to get them to TALK about it first with scientific peers, before screaming ‘yoohoo’ on our behalf.”

Follow @DavidBrin for more.

Response from Lone Signal

We asked Lone Signal Chief Science Officer Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra to comment on Brin’s concerns. He said he has had a somewhat different experience with the SETI community than Brin describes, noting that he organized and hosted a session at the 2012 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) in Atlanta titled “Transmission Into Space: Scientific, Ethical, and Legal Considerations” that solicited input on the METI issue from scholars around the world.

“Talks and posters included frank discussions of the risks of METI (including a talk by a lawyer on the precautionary principle). However, our general agreement after presenting the talks and discussing was that METI experiments do not pose any significant risk as long as we are using radio, radar, and city lights.

Arecibo radio telescope message sent November 16, 1974, aimed at the globular star cluster M13, 25,100 light-years away from Earth

“I will also note that I used this opportunity to discuss the Lone Signal project—then in it’s infancy—with this international group of scholars, who would have had a chance to at least council me to change my mind (which they did not).

“Although this may fall short of the ‘broad international consultation’ that Brin has in mind, we at least made our best efforts to engage the active scientific community on the topic of METI risks–which, as the first such session ever held at an astrobiology conference, was deemed a successful event by all attendees.

“I also find it interesting that Brin espouses the First SETI Protocol [“Declaration Of Principles Concerning Activities Following The Detection Of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”] but admonishes the Second [which addresses the profound questions  of who should speak for Earth, and what should be said on behalf of our species]. If consensus by an IAA sub-committee is the best example of international consultation/consensus that we have, then why not accept the revisions made by Seth Shostak and the other committee members?

“While I am again naive of the internal politics of this matter, it seems to me that the IAA committee did indeed hold a discussion on whether or not to include a METI moratorium or METI consultation requirement in the Second Protocol. The very fact that the committee chose not to include such a provision implies that an international group of scholars have given at least some consent in their Second Protocol to allow for at least some METI experiments.

“Again, if this Second Protocol is the best example we have of international consensus, then why not abide by it? The fact that Brin, Michaud, and Billingham resigned is a testament to their personal ethics — but the IAA committee and Second Protocol remain in place regardless.

“I welcome further international discussion about METI, and I have every intention of presenting the Lone Signal project at upcoming scientific conferences. I also hope that our efforts at METI will help to generate more interest in scholarly discussion in METI and lead to the real sorts of international cooperation that will be necessary if we ever indeed do discover extraterrestrial life.”

Follow @haqqmisra for more.