A new research hub at the University of St Andrews in Scotland is dedicated to preparing humanity for potential proof of extraterrestrial life.
“Will we ever get a message from E.T.? We don’t know,” John Elliott, the hub’s co-ordinator and a University of St Andrews computer scientist, said in a news release. “But we do know that we cannot afford to be ill prepared—scientifically, socially, and politically rudderless—for an event that could turn into reality as early as tomorrow and which we cannot afford to mismanage.”
The goal of the SETI Post-Detection Hub is to be a permanent co-ordinating centre for an international and multi-disciplinary effort to develop protocols, procedures and treaties aimed at ensuring humanity will “respond responsibly” if we find evidence of, or are contacted by, other life in the cosmos.
SETI, which stands for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” is a collective term that refers to scientific endeavours like analyzing radio telescope data for otherworldly signals. The new hub in Scotland aspires to bring SETI researchers and the broader academic community together with policy experts to work on everything from deciphering messages to analyzing data to creating regulatory protocols, impact assessments and space laws.
“Science fiction is awash with explorations of the impact on human society following discovery of, and even encounters with, life or intelligence elsewhere,” said Elliott, who is an honorary research fellow in the University of St Andrews’ computer science department. “But we need to go beyond thinking about the impact on humanity. We need to co-ordinate our expert knowledge not only for assessing the evidence but also for considering the human social response, as our understanding progresses and what we know and what we don’t know is communicated. And the time to do this is now.”
While there is no clear evidence that life exists beyond Earth, many scientists are dedicated to searching. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is thought to be home to more than 100 billion stars and at least that many planets, including a known handful that could have Earth-like temperatures. There are also an estimated 200 billion galaxies in the universe, each potentially containing billions of stars and planets of their own. Although scientists are hunting for biological and technological markers with more advanced tools than ever before, the researchers behind the SETI Post-Detection Hub say humanity as a whole is unprepared for the wide-ranging implications if we actually detect something or are contacted.
The only existing “contact” protocols were created by the SETI community in 1989. Last updated in 2010, they focus on scientific conduct, not practical matters like analyzing and responding to detections.
“Scanning signals of assumed extra-terrestrial origin for structures of language and attaching meaning is an elaborate and time-consuming process during which our knowledge will be advanced in many steps as we learn ‘Extra-Terrestrial’,” Elliott said.
The hub is being hosted by the Centre for Exoplanet Science and the Centre for Global Law and Governance at the 600-year-old University of St Andrews, located in its namesake town, northeast of Edinburgh.