AAS: How do you guys analyse incoming data at SETI?
SS: The data analysis is all pretty automatic. Unless there’s a signal that’s looking very promising, and that only happens every couple of years, then you don’t actually deal with the data processing. The algorithms in the software analyse them and do rather simple tests to try to prove if it’s really ET, or if it’s AT&T – interference from a telecommunications satellite or whatever.
AAS: Are there protocols in place for announcing the discovery of an alien signal?
SS: We’ve been worrying about the protocols about what to do if we find a signal. We’ve rewritten them and they’re all very nice in a nice little document, but the reality is that nobody’s going to pay a whole lot of attention to protocols if we pick up a signal. And we know that because we’ve had false alarms, like in 1997 when for almost a day it looked like we had a signal that was the real deal. And did people stick to protocols and say, ‘well, we’ve got to notify these people and those people?’ No! None of that happened. It was completely chaotic, which it would be.
AAS: What’s the next step after the discovery of a signal?
SS: If you get a signal that looks like it might be ET on the line, the first thing you do is to spend an awful lot of effort trying to verify that, maybe several days. But in all that time while you’re doing this there’s no policy of secrecy, so lots of people know you’ve got an interesting signal. In 1997, when we had this promising signal there were no men in black, the government hadn’t the slightest interest in any of it, but the media did and they started calling me up.
AAS: What happens next?
SS: After that, every telescope in the world would be aimed in the direction of the signal to try to find out how far away it is and whether there are planets there. Keep in mind that the instruments [being] used by SETI are not capable of [deciphering] messages. You’re getting the bottle [signal] without the message in it, but at least you’ve got the bottle so you know that somebody’s trying to say something.
AAS: What would become of SETI?
SS: There would suddenly no longer be a fight to try to get enough money to keep doing the SETI experiment. There would be enough money to build much bigger instruments and go back and possibly find any message. I’m sure there would be a message there. I think that immediately SETI would be vaulted from sort of a backburner niche science experiment to something that many, many people were doing. That’s exactly what happened with the discovery of planets around other stars. There were a couple of guys doing it in the world, and suddenly it became an industry. That’s what would happen with SETI.
AAS: Would we understand the message?
SS: My guess is they’re likely to be hundreds of thousands of years, maybe more, beyond us. And for us to understand the information content of their transmissions is probably asking too much. But at least you’d know they were there, and that’s really the idea, isn’t it? You would know that what we have here on Earth is pretty nifty, but it’s not a miracle.
AAS: Are you confident we’ll find a signal?
SS: I bet everyone here a cup of coffee that we’ll find aliens within two dozen years.
Image Credit: SETI