What’s the procedure if we find alien life?
In the case of SETI, there is a set of protocols. I was the chair of an international committee that revised these protocols over the last five to ten years, and basically you have ample time to check out the signal, tell everybody, and don’t respond without international agreement. That’s basically all there is to it.
But the truth is, it doesn’t really work that way. And we know that because, in the case of false alarms, you see what really happens. There’s no policy of secrecy within SETI. If you get a signal, and it looks interesting and you begin to think it might be the real thing, you start to call people at other observatories and say ‘hey, would you check this out too?’ And you find the people are writing about it on their blogs and sending emails to boyfriends and girlfriends, or tweeting or whatever. As a result, what actually happens if you get a signal is, long before it’s confirmed and you know it’s newsworthy, which could take days, it’s already news. In 1997 we had a signal that looked good for almost a day, and by the end of that day the NY Times was calling me up.
What would happen next?
Well, if you really find it and confirm it’s ET, the first thing is that every telescope in the world, no matter what kind of telescope, would be pointed in the direction in which you got the signal. You would try and learn as much as you could; is this a star where we have detected planets, for example. Radio telescopes could look at the signal as it changes frequency, which would tell you something about the motion of the planet, the length of their year, stuff like that.
All these instances are what would happen immediately. In terms of finding additional signals, you would probably – with the money – build much bigger antennae and go back and see if you could find any modulation on the signal, any message, because that would be very interesting. That’s a very big project, however, and it would take a very large antenna. But in any case, you would know now how to look for other signals, because once you find one there’s a better clue as to how to find others, and I’m sure that would happen.
Should we send a message back?
If you picked up a signal, it would be a tremendous incentive to send something back. I’m sure you couldn’t stop people from doing that, a lot of people would. It doesn’t trouble me, we’ve been sending messages into space since World War Two, and many are pretty strong, so it would just be additional information. But you could argue about what we should say, should we tell them about the bad as well as the good, and all that kind of stuff. For me it’s very similar to the Indians of the Caribbean, arguing about what they should say to Columbus, should he land.
Would it be the biggest discovery of all time, in your opinion?
I once polled science journalists about this, asking them how big a story they thought it would be, and every single one of them said it would be the biggest story ever. I don’t argue with them, I’m sure it would be a huge story.
If the planet is close, would a mission there be on the agenda?
Oh, I’m sure it would be seriously discussed. It would still be very hard; even with our best rockets, to go to something 50 light years away would take almost 10 million years. I think a far better scheme would be to send signals, frankly.
How confident are you we’ll find something?
I bet everyone that I’ve spoken to about this a cup of coffee that we’ll do it within two dozen years.