High-tech telescopes on the ground and in space that perform daunting astronomical peep shows in a search for Earth-like worlds aim to answer one of humankind's most monumental questions: "Are we alone?"
Arguably, a more pointed question might be: "Just how crowded is it?" [video].
There is on-going deliberation relating to the societal, philosophical and religious fallout that stems from resolving such a stellar inquiry.
Michael Michaud is the author of a newly published exceptional book, "Contact with Alien Civilizations - Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials" (Copernicus Books). He suggests that the "prime question" is straightforward: Should we simply be watchers and listeners from our outpost in the universe, or should we actively seek contact by sending out messages, proclaiming our presence?
As the book suggests, our answers to those queries expose both our desires and qualms about encountering extraterrestrials (ET). Additionally, contact may not lead to a Woodstock of the skies...nor does it imply Armageddon either.
Belief and observation
In writing the book, Michaud told SPACE.com that his research led to several realizations. For example, he said that the debate has been dominated by supporters and opponents of one scenario: remote contact through radio signals.
"As my book points out, that is far from being the only possible model of contact. Secondly, I became increasingly convinced that non-science, non-technology factors such as motivations and ethics may be crucial for the outcome of contact," Michaud said.
Michaud said that he was struck by the centuries-old dialogue between belief and observation that got under way with Galileo Galilei, the 17th century Italian astronomer and physicist.
"Science has steadily improved our perceptions of the physical world, but still is unable to answer some basic philosophical questions. Some day, science may be able to answer questions now in the realm of belief, but we aren't there yet. Both science and belief have roles to play, though the dialogue will be fruitful only if both sides show tolerance and civility. There is no place for arrogant assertion when so little is known," Michaud said.
Is it time for the U.S. Congress to re-look at the ET encounter business - given the increasing rates of extra solar planetary detection?
"I doubt that an initiative to restore NASA funding for SETI would succeed in the present environment, particularly when NASA is cutting funding for space science projects," Michaud responded. "In my view, we need to broaden our approach to encourage related activities that might produce serendipitous results, such as expanding funding for extrasolar planet searches."
Moreover, Michaud suggested that there's need to address the possibility of an artifact somewhere in the solar system - one that could have ceased operating millions or billions of years ago.
Perhaps having served as Director of the U.S. State Department's Office of Advanced Technology and as Counselor for Science, Technology, and Environment at the American embassies in Paris and Tokyo, Michaud served up a proposal.
"Have some authority, such as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, send a reminder to agencies that do space-oriented research, reminding them that peculiar phenomena they detect might be evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. This should include security-oriented agencies that shall remain nameless here."
Impact of detection
In his new book, Michaud spotlights the fact that, for many people, ET contact in one form or another now seems likely, but at some unpredictable time in our future.
Still, is the often cited societal grasp and gasp that "we're not alone" an overblown axiom - perhaps akin to a puffed up cosmological rapture of the deep? Could it be that the general public, in learning such news, might not be able to appreciate the magnitude of such a confirmation?
"While much of the public takes the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence for granted, the impact of a detection could vary considerably, depending on the scenario of detection," Michaud said.
"In the case of a remote signal," Michaud added, "my view is that it is unlikely to be a message...it would be contact without communication. If we find an artifact in or near our solar system, the impact could be much greater."
As to the societal shockwave of detecting ET, there are those that suggest that the impact won't vary too much. That's because the scenario of detection is somewhat guaranteed to follow a pattern of unfolding actions.
In that camp is Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.
Firstly, someone, somewhere will hit upon a signal that -- at least at first -- appears to possibly be extraterrestrial, Shostak said. "Maybe that person is doing a SETI experiment, and maybe it's the unexpected result of a more conventional astronomical observation. Perhaps it is even a hoax. But in any case, the story begins to get traction when the claim is made."
What happens next is that the SETI community, and possibly others, would swing their telescopes in the direction of the suspected source, Shostak continued. They'd get busy trying to ascertain whether this is really ET on the line, or simply some unrecognized, at least by the finder, terrestrial interference - say a chatty communications satellite.
"It will be days and days before researchers would feel convinced from their observations that the signal is truly extraterrestrial," Shostak emphasized. "That's the amount of time it would take to reconfigure the instruments...to follow the source...and to establish its position, frequency drift and other parameters that are relevant to deciding 'this is someone on another world.'"
Shostak said that while all this was going on, the media would be covering the story. "We know this from experience. There is no secrecy...and no chance of secrecy," Shostak noted. Furthermore, the public will be interested.
"After all, this is a front-page story. But they won't be rioting in the streets, or even scared, I would venture. Picking up a signal is not a danger. The aliens don't know we've done it [detected their signal], and they're highly likely to be 500 light-years away or more."
Lastly, Shostak pointed out that, eventually, scientists will say that they are "99 percent certain" -- or whatever -- that they have found a signal coming from intelligence elsewhere in the cosmic neighborhood.
"If it's a radio signal, there probably won't be any easily detectable information. That requires a different instrument," Shostak said. "So it's unlikely that we'll have the 'bits'...we won't know what they're saying. Merely that they are on the air."
As a result, the ET revelation will be the leading science story of the year. Some would say of the century, Shostak predicted. "The public will be enthused or otherwise, depending on how they view the news of another world with thinking beings. But just as Europe was changed -- but did not panic -- when the New World was found, so will we be changed...but philosophically, and at a relatively slow pace," he concluded.
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