The moment has been imagined a thousand times. As astronomers comb the cosmos with their powerful telescopes, they spot something that makes them gasp. Amid the feeble rays from distant galaxies lies a weak but persistent signal: a message from an advanced civilisation.
It would be a transformative event for humankind, one the world’s nations are surely prepared for. Or are they? “Look at the mess we made when Covid hit. We’d be like headless chickens,” says Dr John Elliott, a computational linguist at the University of St Andrews. “We cannot afford to be ill-prepared, scientifically, socially, and politically rudderless, for an event that could happen at any time and which we cannot afford to mismanage.”
This frank assessment of Earth’s unreadiness for contact with life elsewhere underpins the creation of the Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) post-detection hub at St Andrews.
Over the next month or two, Elliott aims to bring together a core team of international researchers and affiliates. They will take on the job of getting ready: to analyse mysterious signals, or even artefacts, and work out every aspect of how we should respond.
“Up to now, the focus has been on the search for signals, but all along there’s been a need to know, what are we going to do with it? What next?” says Elliott. “We need strategies and scenarios in place to understand what we need to do and how to do it. It’s like the Scouts’ motto: be prepared.”
Advances made in the past 30 years have ramped up enthusiasm in the search for ET. Since 1992, when astronomers first confirmed the existence of a planet beyond the solar system, more than 5,000 such worlds have been detected. Scientists now suspect most of the 300bn stars in the Milky Way host their own family of planets. “When people say they don’t think there’s life out there, they are really riding against the tide of scientific opinion,” says Elliott.
The abundance of planets, and the suspicion that at least some are habitable, is only part of the story, however. Substantially more powerful telescopes are now giving time to the search, or will do soon, opening great swathes of the sky for astronomers to eavesdrop on.
Seti researchers already have some guidelines on how to behave if they detect a “technosignature” – an interstellar message from an advanced civilisation. A 2010 declaration from the International Academy of Astronautics urges those who detect mysterious signals to rule out prosaic non-alien sources first – such as a microwave oven down the corridor. If there is consensus that the signal is legit, researchers should inform the public and the secretary general of the UN.
But there is little guidance on what to do next. How should the message be studied? Should it be released in full before it has been deciphered? Would governments allow that? Should humanity respond? If so, who decides what we send back?
“After the initial announcement, we’d be looking at societal impact, information dissemination, the media, the impact on religions and belief systems, the potential for disinformation, what analytical capabilities we’ll need, and much more: having strategies in place, being transparent with everything we’ve discovered – what we know and what we do not know,” says Elliott.
While individual scientists and a smattering of organisations have looked at how best to manage first contact, Elliott believes the expertise needed is fragmented. The Hub will bring together the necessary brains to draw up a plan “for whatever scenario we encounter … or at least all those we – humanity – can think of”, he says.
Another major objective is to encourage serious engagement from the UN, perhaps the only global body with the clout to coordinate Earth’s handling of a message, and in particular any response. The vast distances between stars mean conversations might need to take place over generations. And that is assuming the civilisation has not gone extinct in the time it has taken the message to reach us.
Are we really going to converse with aliens when we can barely communicate with creatures on our own planet? Elliott hopes that advanced civilisations will start any message with a language guide. But even if a signal is undecipherable, researchers could glean information about the intelligence of the sender from the complexity of its structure.
The prospect of sending any response has drawn criticism from some quarters. Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge cosmologist, warned in 2016 that humanity’s first contact with an advanced civilisation could mirror what happened when Native Americans encountered Christopher Columbus, which “didn’t turn out so well”.
Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, said reaching out to aliens “would be the biggest mistake in human history”.
Elliott is more optimistic, however. He thinks it would be a shame if advanced civilisations kept themselves to themselves and made no effort to communicate. “It’s such an opportunity to link up, if there’s another intelligence out there, which all the indications are that there must be,” he says. “If we have the opportunity, I don’t think we should miss it.”
Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist and professor of science communication at the University of Westminster, said the new hub at St Andrews is “an important step in raising awareness at how ill-prepared we currently are” for detecting a signal from an alien civilisation.
But he added that any intelligent aliens were likely to be hundreds if not thousands of light years away, meaning communication time would be on the scale of many centuries. “Even if we were to receive a signal tomorrow, we would have plenty of breathing space to assemble an international team of diverse experts to attempt to decipher the meaning of the message, and carefully consider how the Earth should respond, and even if we should.
“The bigger concern is to establish some form of international agreement to prevent capable individuals or private corporations from responding independently — before a consensus has formed on whether it is safe to respond at all, and what we would want to say as one planet,” he said.