Our Aliens are Just Like Us (and this could be a problem)

Michael Oman-Reagan is an anthropology student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and runs a column on sapiens.org called Wanderers, dedicated to exploring “anthropological insights from our encounters with outer space as we study the origins of life in the universe, search for extraterrestrial intelligence, prepare to send humans to Mars, and imagine travelling to distant stars.” In an article from February last year (2017), Oman-Reagan discusses many possible differences that alien species could have compared to the human race. He goes into detail about specific things that we find hospitable, and many things that we subconsciously do that might be perceived as amusing or hostile (or beautiful or ugly).

Oman-Reagan concludes his article by saying that any hosting of aliens would require interdisciplinary tools as well as “anthropological insights about intercultural contact and our human tendency to naturalize and then universalize culturally specific behavior and beliefs.”

Although anyone who thinks about it will come to the conclusion that alien species will probably be unlike human, many people don’t bother to consider *how* unlike us the species could be. I think this is an excellent point! Even books/shows/films known for their variety of species keep alien cultures to be fairly mild and still akin to our own. I’ll list some examples of species below that are, at first glance, quite unlike our own. These species end up having one or two things different from us, but it is possible there exists a species that is completely opposite from us; not only would they look different, communicate differently, sense things differently, but they might enjoy everything we despise and be offended by the things we enjoy. Oman-Reagan points out that certain habits of ours are (in our culture) subconscious, that we do not do them intentionally to be proper or rude or kind or curious, and that many would not even think these things *could* have an impact on anyone. A good example is that we blink. We need to blink, in fact it is so hard *not* to blink that we have contests to see who can go the longest without giving in. If blinking is not required for a species as it is for ours, then maybe such an action could be seen as “beautiful, hilarious, offensive, or threatening.”

I personally had never thought of this! I have read and watched sci-fi for nearly all of my life, and yet when I think of aliens, I think of creatures that are actually quite similar to us (now that Oman-Reagan has pointed out how completely different they could be). Were I to interact with or host an alien species, I would not think about possibly offending them, and certainly not through actions we consider hospitable or through our anatomy or through subconscious actions. In my mind, anything that we dismiss as “only human” would also be dismissed by other species, but that isn’t necessarily true at all!

It seems to me that we cannot think of cultures that are far from our own (all of the below species blink!). We can create species in science fiction that look and act differently from our own, but we never stray too far from humankind. Given the lack of diversity in science-fiction species, it makes complete sense that Oman-Reagan would publish this article! If we do ever interact with alien species, and are able to communicate with and understand them within reasonable time periods, it will be quite important to keep in mind how vastly different from us they could be. Although it is possible, it is not guaranteed that they will be similar to the species in our sci-fi.

As promised, here are some examples of humanoid*** alien species from popular literature (I feel this is alright since Oman-Reagon included an alien species image in his article.) Buckle up, because things are about to get nerdy in here!

The Borg are a species of cyborgs from Star Trek. Although they technically are many species since they steal infants from other planets, give them implants, and make them part of the Hive, I’m going to consider them their own species for now. The Borg operate as one, linked by a hive mind. They aim to achieve “perfection” by assimilating species, technology, and knowledge. Their only requirement is energy, which they receive on their ships in small, personal alcoves. As portrayed in the show, the Borg are considered dangerous and ruthless. They are technologically advanced and seek out knowledge and species to assimilate. Although they seem quite different from humans, they aren’t super different. I would argue they are similar, just lacking culture. There’s no way to amuse or offend one of the Borg drones, as they value only knowledge and perfection. Without culture, they are simply beings following a single ambition.

More Star Trek! A reoccurring race in New Generation and Voyager is the Q. The Q are immortal, intelligent, and have the ability to control space, time, matter, and energy. They evolved over centuries to what they consider to be the “state of ultimate purity.” They are apparently absurdly intelligent. This trait, matched with they abilities, makes them quite apathetic to basically everything. One specific Q, named Q, spends episodes messing with the crew as a form of entertainment since the species had already accomplished everything that could be accomplished. Although god-like, Q himself is quite similar to humans. He can be entertained and annoyed, in ways similar to humans. He can also be petty and annoying himself.

The Silurians are a reptile-humanoid species in Doctor Who. While they look quite different from humans, they still have the general humanoid shape, size, and mannerisms. Although they are telepathically linked to one another, they are capable of speech and use it when communicating with other species out of kindness. They are generally peaceful, and in fact are forbidden from warfare except in defense. They believe in keeping their species pure, and follow a religion similar in kind to many religions we have. They value art, sports, and games, but at what level is not really discussed. They even have poetry composed of optical illusions! The Silurians are, in fact, quite similar in culture and anatomy to humans.

The Trees of Cheem are an intelligent race of humanoid trees. They do not understand technology and give clippings of their relatives as gifts. They all have retractable vines on their arms, but showing these vines is considered highly inappropriate. The species, although wealthy, is wise and compassionate. The Trees can feel any pain from vegetation on their planet, and usually keep it quite protected. Although they don’t have technology and say they do not understand it, they are able to use it. They are also quite clever and able to successfully judge the character of people. This species, an evolved form of tree from Earth, is also quite similar to humans! Their mannerisms are similar, and aside from giving away body parts and being flammable, they seem near identical in culture and personality to many humans.

The Ood are another species from Doctor Who. They are unable to speak vocally, communicating telepathically. They are humanoid with tentacles on their face (for eating) and the color of their eyes indicates the level of telepathy currently used. They have very long lifespans. They technically have three brains, one in their head, one they hold in their hands that is connected to their face, and a large communal brain that hosts the hive mind. They are a gentle and harmless species, and are generally considered less advanced than humans. They have a leader, and they sing to portray their emotions. When they are enslaved, they are in pain and quite sad. When they are freed, they are filled with joy.

Again, I would argue that these alien species, although seemingly different from each other and from humans themselves, are quite like us! They have communication, wealth, ambitions. Many of them can be pleased, offended, angered, and amused. In making alien species, it seems that levels of intelligence, technological dependence, and emotional range are simply plucked out of a hat and put into something (usually humanoid) and proclaimed alien. However, all of the technologies and intelligence and emotions are those imagined (or used) by humans, in ways that humans would or do use them, so even the species in science-fiction are quite similar to humans. Since most (maybe all?) of us are exposed to the idea of alien species through sci-fi, my guess is that we all have a similar idea to what aliens will be like, and although we will consider them to be different, we would not consider the possibility that they could be as vastly different as suggested in Oman-Reagan’s article.


***I only included humanoid species in this list because, in popular culture, non-humanoid species are 80% of the time just evil and trying to kill humans, 15% of the time pets or pests, 5% of the time alien-looking with exact human personalities and/or cultures.


Direct Dark Matter detection is NOT analogous to SETI

In this post I seek to address and contradict the Appendix of Wright and Oman-Reagan 2017. I shall not delve into the main contents of the paper, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Before delving into criticism of the analogy stated in the Appendix, I must say that I do agree with the basic premise of the argument. Just not the example used.

Dark Matter  was first evidenced by Fritz Zwicky (1898-1974) (yes the same one who shot through a rifle along the telescope line of sight to clear the atmosphere) in the 1930s. Initially believed by no one, he used this hitherto unknown form of matter to explain the velocity dispersion of the galaxies in the Coma Berenices cluster. Similar results were then found in the Virgo cluster.  A hypothesis that was not accepted till much later, when in the 70s  Vera Rubin (1928 – 2016) and Kent Ford (1931 – ) studied the rotation curve for Andromeda to find an anomaly in the velocity distribution as a function of distance from the center.

Fritz Zwicky explaining dunkle Materie ?


Evidence for Dark Matter has also been found in the power spectrum of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (CMB). Further, any discussion regarding the discovery of dark matter is incomplete without a reference (albeit passing) to the Bullet Cluster (below).


Dark Matter: From shooting bullets, to the bullet cluster. Credit: Clowe 2006

Even though direct detection of the dark matter particles (WIMP, MaCHOs, Axions)  still eludes us, there is substantial evidence which supports the existence of dark matter. Therefore I feel it is unfair to call direct dark matter detection – a speculative field. The exact nature of the dark matter particle remains uncertain, however its existence cannot be questioned.

Extraterrestrial intelligence, on the other hand is a concept until proven otherwise. Despite the doltish nature of anthropocentric arguments against SETI, and my personal distaste for them, till we do not find some evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence we cannot be sure of their existence. There is no observational evidence which supports its existence apart from philosophy, motivated arguments and calculations. As Sagan said “ the only significant test of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is an experimental one. No a priori arguments on this subject can be compelling or should be used as a substitute for an observational program.”

For dark matter the evidence already exists, incontrovertible at so. Considering that the search for dark matter particles (direct dark matter search) has a strong theoretical backing, the similitudes for dark matter detection are more with the Higgs Boson or Gravitational Waves than anything else.

As is mentioned in the last paragraph of the Appendix, the analogy is very much an imperfect one. That being said, it cannot be denied that the giggle factor, is very much an affliction for SETI.

However,  we are not the Tralfamadorians from Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, who can see in 4 dimensions; hence being privy to the future as well as of the past. Being as we are without their foresight (hindsight?), we must keep looking till we either find extraterrestrial intelligence or indubitable evidence of the otherwise (however you prove a negative); and so it goes.

Addendum 31st January 2018:

There are certain points which I should have explained better:

  1. The existence of Dark Matter has been proved beyond doubt. The fact that it consists of dark matter particles (or those which can interact with particles from the standard model) has not. It is not 100 % certain. I do not think this is a good analogy with SETI because our existence does not necessarily imply that there DO exist other space faring civilizations. We can only say with 100 % certainty that life CAN exist elsewhere, not that it DOES. Therefore we are searching elsewhere trying to prove the anthropocentric principle wrong.  The fact that dark matter exists, already changes the playing field and erases the similarity to SETI.
  2. Search for the dark matter particle is based on more than just guesses. I believe here an apt comparison to differentiate between the two concepts is to Schelling points in SETI. In SETI, the phase space of possibilities is essentially infinite, however using cultural, biological and physical arguments we make certain assumptions to make the search doable. These arguments are strongly motivated by an anthropocentric bias, but it gives a place to start from.  For Dark Matter particles, these searches are not based on assumptions. There are different branches of theoretical frameworks which match observational evidences and predict different kinds of particle (WIMP, Axions, Supersymmetry etc. ) to fulfill the role of this elusive piece in the puzzle.
  3. The fact that the Standard Model does not include the Dark Matter particle is not a shortcoming of the particle itself, but one of the possible flaws with the Standard Model. Be as it may the most comprehensive theory we have, it has many inconsistencies and things that it cannot explain. Therefore given further research and work on the theoretical aspect, it is possible (albeit not certain) that the Model grows to encompass and address these flaws (supersymmetry , hierarchy problem, neutrino mass, etc.). No theory can ever claim with certainty that ETI exists.

Reaction to Oman-Reagan (2016)

In this popular science article on meta-SETI, Oman-Reagan voices his concern regarding how our physical presentation to an alien intelligence may come across as offensive in ways that we cannot yet imagine. This is referring to an actual physical encounter between humans and ET who come to visit us (though technically it also applies to cases of us visiting them, but our technology precludes this option presently.) Fanciful as it may sound, he does raise concerns that we perhaps have not up until now considered if such an occurrence were to take place. The problem is that, although we may attempt to take every precaution to present a benevolent outward persona, we are limited by our fundamental biology and hence may inadvertently trigger a negative response from the visitors. To illustrate this point, Oman-Reagan brings up scenarios where they view just our gaze or gaseous respirations as acts of aggression, even though they are critical aspects of our biology. There is even a possibility where the perception of time is different between them and us. The metabolism or rate of life of their species may be such that many of their generations will pass for a single human’s or vice versa. This complicates matters of communication between the “slow” and “fast” race. Alternatively, their social awareness may prohibit or require certain modes of behavior which we do not understand, as pointed out by Oman-Reagan. These differences in cultural mores compounded with biological evolution histories dramatically complicate the possibility for a positive first interaction.

This article reminded me of the situation presented in the recent first contact film “Arrival,” where the minds of the aliens operate significantly differently from ours. Warning: film spoilers ahead! Their perception of time is distinct from ours because their language allows them to convey complex ideas simultaneously. This idea is an extrapolation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of anthropology, the idea that one’s perception of reality stems from the grammatical structure and vocabulary of their language, to the aliens. For example, if a people had no word for the color green, then the hypothesis suggests that would have no ability to conceptulize or discuss the idea of green, and thus perhaps may not even perceive it in nature. This is probably untrue in the case of humans however, since we all share the same wavelength coverage and responsiveness to pigments in the ocular cones and rods. Therefore each human has the opportunity to at least perceive green (excluding color-blindedness) regardless of whether or not there exists a word for green in their particular language. In the case of the heptapods of Arrival, their understanding of time is non-linear and enabled by their circular and atemporal representation of information. While this is a different kind of temporal distinction than what is talked about in this article, it does show how biological differences in cognition may adversely affect the first encounter.

Hosting Aliens: Xenomorph or ET?

The word host has many connotations. In the general context, it refers to an individual who invites guests to a welcoming event, typically as a sign of goodwill and camaraderie. In the biological world, a host is an organism that harbors another organism. Oman-Reagan, in a recent article, speculates what extraterrestrial hospitality would entail. The forms of extraterrestrial intelligence he conjures are fairly benign. He starts with a human example of horrible hospitality: a small enclosure with the bare necessities of oxygen and intravenous nutrients. While perhaps extreme, it brings focus to what properties make a good host. He makes the point that if communicating across cultures for humans is difficult, communicating across species would be worse. Is a good host someone who provides your necessities, however minimal those may be, or is it someone who does this while adapting to a guest’s preferences?

Figure 1: Behold, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial! Seen here wearing human attire so as to fit in. E.T. is largely benign and may be one of the lifeforms amenable to the treatment presented by Oman-Reagan. Source: “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial“, Universal Pictures

Oman-Reagan goes on to provide examples of the quirks aliens may show, albeit these largely drawn on human experiences. He states “[m]aybe [a guest] only feel comfortable when accompanied by a companion of another species, but instead of a dog or cat it’s something vastly different, like a mollusk that emits clouds of fragrant, multicolored gas on specific cycles” to show extraterrestrial intelligence with human traits in an otherwise alien situation. Other speculations include the impropriety of eating with others and the use of psychedelic drugs. Oman-Reagan argues that the immense differences in lifespan, metabolism, composition, and other factors, might suggest “a simple sentence takes a human lifetime to communicate”. He emphasizes it will require the use of human inventions, including physics, art, and biology, along with patience, generosity, and imagination to converse with extraterrestrials.

Figure 2: Another example of an alien embracing a facet of humanity. Here a good guest, as per Oman-Reagan, would provide more alcohol.  Source: “American Dad”

This blogger agrees with the need for plenty of imagination and notes the apparent lack of imagination in Oman-Reagan’s article. If we assume extraterrestrial intelligence, then why does it have to share so many human qualities. There are various movies and games (i.e. Halo, Metroid, anything in Kirby) where aliens are not the most welcoming. While Oman-Reagan crafts an extraterrestrial like ET (Figure 1) or Roger (Figure 2), one amenable and accepting of humanity, he appears to have never watch any horror film concerning aliens. One in particular, the Xenomorph (Figure 3), would love for humans to generously host them and would show their appreciation when emerging through said host’s chest. To consider extraterrestrial hospitality also requires one to think of extraterrestrial rudeness and potential danger to humanity. While it certainly is comforting to apply anthropology and our understanding of human communication to extraterrestrials, if this view is as myopic as the one presented by Oman-Reagan, we may be in for a surprise.

Figure 3: It wants a host and I am sure no human would offer to be said host. Oman-Reagan appears to have no knowledge of the horrors parasitic aliens, such as the Xenomorph above, can bring. Source: “Alien: Covenant” 20th Century Fox

The Beastly Biases from the Planet Earth!

I was originally conflicted about Wright and Oman-Reagan (2017).

Initial Feeling 1: I think interdisciplinary work benefits all fields involved, and it isn’t performed enough. We are all too familiar with our own literatures (and thinking that we’re pretty up-to-date because of that); meanwhile another literature is examining the same problem from a different angle or (worse) just solving the same problem in parallel. And I’m not just talking about related fields (astronomy/geosciences, astronomy/engineering, etc.). I attended the Global Hands-On Universe Conference in 2016, which works at the intersection of science, art, and education, and found the experience and the motivation behind the conference to be extremely useful. My takeaway was that astronomers don’t pay nearly enough attention to education research and the benefits of art as a means of public communication and outreach.

Initial Feeling 2: I am an astronomer. I need to be hired by and funded by astronomers, and I need work to be done in my field to advance my understanding of it and to guide my own research interests and strategies. I need my peers to take my research as seriously as any other sub-field. And I think that papers that are too speculative will water down the field and make all of those goals harder to accomplish. Some of these claim to be astronomy papers (and have some good points) but are still filled with wild imaginings, others (this work included) are clearly outside the scope of a typical scientific paper as an astronomer would think of it and thus might be prone to the ‘giggle factor’.

Initial Resolution: I think the resolution of these two points of view is to place value on interdisciplinary work that tackles and tries to provide answers to problems in SETI – the literature needs work that strives to improve the search, regardless of discipline (such as this paper by Nathalie Cabrol). The other reading for this week was, to be fair, a popular science article, but I don’t believe that it’s a particularly useful piece as far as the search itself goes. If our SETI efforts are ever successful, then we’ll need scores of papers that consider how we might meet and receive extraterrestrial intelligences. Until then, the scientific discipline should focus on the search.

This paper is both necessary and useful as far as the search goes, even though it might seem on the surface to not be directly related (by way of Schelling points or search suggestions etc.). Improving public perception of the search is important: SETI needs to prove its place as a worthy discipline so that people know why it should receive funding. Improving the flux of a diverse crew of scientists into the field is important: this is always true, but especially in a field such as SETI, where we need the broadest perspectives and most open minds to try to get past a thousand insidious layers of anthropocentrism. Keeping an eye on how biases brought about through language and culture can affect the way SETI is performed is important: science does not exist in a vacuum, and scientists are sometimes loathe to admit that fact.

After attending the first Decoding Alien Intelligence workshop at the SETI Institute this year, my perspective on this issue has developed further. A conversation I had with Michael Oman-Reagan opened my eyes to some strong biases that the astrobiology community has come to accept as fact. Why did we start SETI with radio astronomy? Some solid engineering reasons, but also maybe because radio astronomy was in vogue in the 1960s. Why is Europa considered an extremely strong candidate for astrobiology? Maybe because it’s really cool and has promising features, but maybe (as David Grinspoon suggests) just because we’ve heard it repeated so much. Why are we suddenly sure that any life we find will be post-biological? Maybe more because the idea of AI is rooted in our culture right now and less because “it’s inevitable”. Why is machine learning the best technique for SETI research today? Maybe because it’s all the rage in Silicon Valley, where most SETI efforts are geographically located. Why do the aliens always watch I Love Lucy, for goodness’ sakes! The biases are everywhere, ahhhhh!

Hmmm, maybe there’s a paper in here somewhere…

As a final (somewhat unrelated) point on the topic of biases, I find it interesting to characterize METI as prideful/dominion-focused/arrogant and SETI as submissive/cautious. The language in the paper made me think of the two methods, for the first time, as somewhat tied to cultural ideas of masculinity and femininity. This made me realize that in SETI more than anything else, having a base of practitioners that are neither diverse nor aware of their own implicit biases is crazily dangerous. It would be a little ironic if the systematic biases that humanity has always fostered led to our planetary downfall, but I’d prefer not to laugh at that particular irony.

Reaction to Gertz (2016)

Gertz composes a compelling document in which he expounds upon the shortcomings and nearsightedness of the METI initiative. In summary, Gertz is condemning the proponents of METI and justifies his position very effectively. I have a strong positive reaction to this document for reasons that I will explain.

Because the extent of our oldest radio leakage dates to only some 80 years ago, our radio bubble extends to a sphere with a radius of 80 lightyears. However, as Gertz points out, there are difficulties in detecting such low energy, isotropically radiated emissions that to overcome would require a truly colossal receiver, or some more exotic technology such as a stellar gravity lens telescope. Therefore, granting the existence of an advanced technology within our radio sphere with the desire to communicate with emerging civilizations, the furthest away they can be if we are to be receiving their return message presently is 40 light years. This is a 40 years light travel time each way, so that if they received our leakage from 1938 in our year 1978 and immediately replied, we would now be receiving them in the year 2018. However, since no evidence of such a return salutation has until now been detected, we are presented with only two possibilities: 1), there are no radio-communicative civilizations within 40 lightyears (they do not exist), or 2), they are listening and they have heard us, but for some reason they are perpetuating silence. (I exclude the case where they exist but are not listening by definining “intelligence” as radio-capability.)

In the section entitled “Someone has to be the first to transmit,” Gertz raises the point that METI-ists contend that civilizations would probably be much older than us, and therefore would have been transmitting early on. That they are not suggests that either they do not exist or again have some reason to not transmit. This reasoning is consistent with the second conclusion from above, and reading this called to my mind a novel that I read last year. Although suggesting a pattern of behavior is a sociological argument that fails on a universal level due to the requirement that every such civilization will have to remain radio-quiet for all time, there is some merit to consider it as a near term solution to the Fermi paradox. In the science fiction novel “The Dark Forest,” author Cixin Liu offers a hypothetical solution to the Fermi paradox on the sociological argument that all sufficiently realized intelligences will observe radio-silence. The argument is predicated on two basic “axioms” and observations. The two “axioms” are that 1) life will naturally seek to preserve itself, and 2) outward growth is a natural consequence of life. Then, the two observations are that 1) resources in the universe are finite, and 2) instantaneous communication is impossible. As far as physics is now understood, these assertions are sound. Therefore, applying these axioms and observations to the case of two nearby civilizations which have recently come into contact with one another, they can never know the other’s true intentions whether hostile or benevolent due to the constraint of time-delayed communication, what Liu calls the “chains of suspicion”. Therefore, they must prepare for the worst outcome and pre-emptively strike in order to ensure they preserve themselves and their future access to the other’s resources. While the suspicious behavior is somewhat anthropomorphic, many prominent scientists also hold similar beliefs.

For every two seconds that pass without a return message, the “null sphere“ within which there probably do not exist any radio-capable intelligences increases in radius by one lightsecond. Therefore, METI to very nearby stars is probably a waste of effort for now because if conclusion 1) from above is true, then there aren’t any civilizations in the null sphere. And if conclusion 2) from above is true, then it would be in our best interest to remain quiet, at least until we understand why.

Though it seems METI is not the most productive activity for us for now, I feel more forgiving towards Frank Drake’s original Arecibo message in 1974 because of multiple reasons. Firstly, the protocols and understandings that we have arrived at with regards to such activities had not yet been developed. Secondly, the message was short in duration and not repeated, so that the probability that anyone actually receives it in the remote future is very low. And thirdly, and probably most importantly, M13 is some 22,000ly distant, so the very soonest that we can realize this as being a mistake is some 44,000 years from now, and probably much longer than that. Though I won’t claim to know the future, I suspect that the human condition will be dramatically changed by the year 46,000CE in ways that we cannot yet conceptualize or understand but which may prepare us for encounters with extraterrestrials.

However, in the case of Shostak’s METI initiative, the goal seems to be to send messages to the nearest star systems. Gertz and others have shown why this is at best pointless or at worst very dangerous, but to compound the problems, as Gertz’s points out, there is no observing plan for follow-up at some time in the future equal to twice the light travel time when we could soonest expect a reply. This combined with all the other problems associated with being the first to transmit compels me to condemn the METI initiative, at least as it is currently formulated and for the near term future.

METI: What Percentage “Bark”, What Percentage “Bite”?


Short for “messaging to extraterrestrial intelligences”, it’s nothing if not extremely enticing.

“Enough of this waiting around! What if everyone is just listening? We’re too afraid of taking risks. If we were trying to find someone here on Earth, we would obviously send signals to them while we look. If we’re really serious about learning the frequency of intelligent life in the galaxy, we’d do the same thing!”

In class last week, we did an Earth-centric exercise about finding a group you know nothing about. Both of our in-class groups immediately jumped to METI as our main strategy. After that exercise, I definitely wished that we could just do METI and see what happens. And, under one condition, I would.

The character Coil from the legendarily long* superhero web-fiction Worm has the power to split the world into two timelines, see how they play out, and collapse the one he doesn’t like as much (he uses this power for evil, of course).

If I were Coil, I would 100% try METI, just to see what happens.

If I were this guy, METI wouldn’t scare me

Because I am not Coil, I can’t just collapse a timeline in which humanity accidentally attracts the attention of something far up the feeding chain (as we expect almost all concurrent intelligences would be). I would prefer not being personally responsible for the extinction of our species, or even (less dramatically) the complete alteration of our future. As a global collective of governments (an idea which seems almost as silly as contacting ETI), perhaps authority could be taken if a decision was reached together. But even so, it’s a decision that has the potential to impact all of humanity, even echoing through generations. So can we ethically make that step, even with a global consensus?

Let me take a step back here: I am talking about a “perfect” METI. An isotropic METI signal that is guaranteed to be detected by any intelligent species that it encounters. It’s a philosophical question about an action that will be able to change humanity. As Gertz (2016) argues very sharply, the METI that has been done so far is decidedly not that. Modern METI is more of a publicity stunt with minimal methodology. The focus is often more on the taboo of messaging and the content of the message than on any reasonable way of tackling the problem (not sending a repeat of the signal some time later, for the purpose of scientific reproducibility, and having no plans to listen for a return message are smoking guns for me). One of the more recent communications was a series of songs sent by METI International. The songs weren’t even that good.

I am afraid of “perfect” METI. I am not afraid of current METI. But I think that over time, as technology advances and older technology gets cheaper, “perfect” METI will get closer and closer to being a reality. Some preemptive thought toward the issue is probably justified.

I wanted to get the opinion of one of my friends, who decided to stay anonymous. My friend is a research analyst at the Open Philanthropy Project and spends a lot of time thinking about how to quantify ethical quandaries and how to maximize the amount of “good” that can be created by given amounts of resources and actions. They shared their ideas about METI with me over text, so their responses have been edited for clarity.


“My instincts lean towards [METI] sounding risky if we don’t see any evidence of other civilizations intentionally doing the same. […] I would want to make SETI much better first and wait until we’ve explored a decent chunk of the sky. If, after we do that, it seems like we’re hearing nothing that seems like intentional loud messaging from other places I would think that’s strong evidence that either a) no one’s around, so METI wouldn’t be useful or b) somehow everyone [simultaneously] decided not to, so maybe it’s dangerous.”

I also asked them if they thought that it was possible to construct a cost-benefit calculation to decide if METI was a good idea or not.

“I think there probably would be a way to do that but I’m not sure I have enough context to do the analysis. [Naively], the main benefit is how much it speeds up our search for intelligence and the main cost is risk to Earth.”

This was interesting to me, because it seems like it might be possible to try this analysis without falling back on infinite goods and bads. That’s an idea, at least! Any treatment of it could probably produce results on a huge sliding scale a la the Drake equation because of the uncertainties involved, but it would be interesting to at least try to isolate the factors involved.

*it’s the length of A Song of Ice and Fire

Response to Gertz 2016

The author provides a very convincing discussion to discredit the arguments most commonly cited in support of METI (i.e., this author is generally opposed to METI efforts.) This paper is somewhat of a “meta” paper, because it discusses SETI/METI at the broadest, most fundamental level.

The main METI arguments, and the counterarguments invoked by Gertz, are summarized here:

  1. We have failed to detect ET thus far, so it is time for a new approach – the rebuttal can be summarized with the following quote from Gertz: “Jill Tarter, SETI Institute’s lead SETI scientist for most of its history, often likens [our SETI efforts to date] to having dipped a drinking glass into the ocean. The fact that no fish appear in that first dip of the glass hardly means that the ocean is lifeless.”
  2. ET may be waiting for us to call – this argument generally falls under the “Zoo Hypothesis.” For a thought-provoking and compelling rebuttal to this hypothesis, see this discussion by Hart.
  3. They have most likely already detected our leakage, so we have nothing to hide – if this were true, what would be the point of METI efforts?
  4. ET must be altruistic – given the utter lack of any data one way or another, it is premature (and naive) to presume the intentions of an extraterrestrial civilization.
  5. ET could not harm us across vast interstellar distances – note the statement that can be taken as all but law: “the only thing we can say about ET with near certainty is that it is more advanced than us” (Gertz). Similar to point 4 above, it is terribly naive to presume the capabilities of a civilization which is almost certainly incomprehensibly more advanced than ours.
  6. There is no law against it – Gertz first notes that “legislation often takes time to catch up with morality.” And, while there may be no present laws against it, METI fly in the face of the democratic spirit.
  7. Someone has to be the first to transmit – given the “Law of SETI” (Gertz) mentioned above, that any ET is almost certainly more advanced than ours, it seems presumptuous to argue that we, the youngest and least advanced, should be the ones to initiate a dialogue.

Gertz additionally raises the point that “once METI signals are sent they can never be recalled” to advise for approaching the decision with healthy caution and hesitance.

This article had a strong effect on my personal views – in particular, it shifted my (admittedly naive) stance on METI from generally “what could go wrong, so why does it matter – go for it” to “show me a compelling reason that METI is a good, and responsible, idea.” I agree with all of the counterarguments raised by the author, and agree that they discredit the arguments put forth by METI proponents. This paper leaves me utterly lacking for any compelling reason to pursue METI endeavors.

In my opinion, this paper is particularly important, because it highlights the necessity for an united and well-articulated front against METI. One of the enabling factors for METI is the relative lack of organized, influential opposition. (Though Gertz is careful to highlight that such opposition has garnered wide support, especially from some of the relevant leading minds; see, for example, this letter.)  The discussion presented in this paper highlights a glaring absence of a compelling argument for a pro-METI approach, if such an approach is to be pursued. Lacking such an argument, it seems that the only conclusion regarding METI can be best summarized by the general sentiment put forth by Gertz: that METI is, at best, a waste of time and resources, and, at worst, outright dangerous.

1420 MHz: The interstellar water[ing] hole?

In this 1979 article, Bernard M. Oliver (1916 – 1995) builds up on the suggestion of Cocconi and Morrison (1959), and the work of the Cyclops study (Oliver and Billingham, 1973) to suggest that the region bound by the Hydrogen and Hydroxl lines (1420 – 1660 MHz) should be the prime frequency band for our search for extra – terrestrial intelligence. This region bounded by the ‘water’ band, has since been called the water hole, an allusion to a watering hole.

  •  Oliver starts off by my making the case for electromagnetic (EM) waves are the most practical (fastest and most energy efficient) way to interact with extra-terrestrial civilizations under the current technological limitations. This is mainly due to their  zero mass, and travel speed (celeritas).
  • Then, estimating the noise contribution from the non thermal background, and the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, and collating that with the absorption features (mainly the water molecules in the atmosphere), he concludes that the ~ 1 GHz to ~ 10 GHz window is the preferred spectrum for us to search for ET signals.
  • Citing the Cyclops study, he concludes that the region between Hydrogen and Hydroxl ions would be the best band to look at it, due to the significance of water for harbouring life.


Is this really the best place to look in? 

Unlike Calvin,  Barney Oliver does not think that the optical band is the best place to communicate with extra – terrestrial intelligence.  [Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson]
He does go on to question whether such an argument is being too ‘chauvinistic’ and anthropomorphic. Considering that life on Earth is the only example we have for life, I feel that this is a reasonable place to start looking in. Due to the above, he strongly recommends that this waterhole must be protected from any terrestrial interference and noise.

I think this paper was assigned to us to understand the details associated with choosing this particular radio band, as the preferred means of communication and search, and its significance. It is important to understand the historical and scientific background for today’s SETI searches looking for extraterrestrial intelligence around this interstellar watering hole.

A Review Paper and a Beach of Multicolored Rocks

This forty-page paper is a doozy, but so, so important. I only wish that we had an equivalent paper written in 2018 (Caleb and Will were brave enough to tackle this project – check out their work!)

[Warning: this post is also a doozy]

Tarter (2001) is a comprehensive review of the state of SETI as a field: where it came from, where it is, and where it’s going. This is important in a field with so many proposed projects and so few performed projects. I think it’s safe to say that most people assume that we’ve searched far more than we actually have, such that the Fermi Paradox seems very sharp. But unless you’re a proponent of very, very obvious, ubiquitous von Neumann machines in the Solar System, this paper makes it pretty obvious that we’ve barely scratched the surface of searching.

At that point in time, only 99 projects had ever been documented. I tried to see the comprehensive list, but unfortunately, the link to the supplementary material (it seems to be via seti.org) is broken. Hence, I can’t actually back up this statement, but I would guess that many of these were single/few target observations like Project Ozma.

It’s absolutely amazing to me that a paper written within my conscious memory can look so different from the scientific lessons and landscape that I’ve experienced less than two decades later (not that I was aware of the publication of this paper at six years old, but my point stands). Kepler was competing for selection, Huygens hadn’t happened yet, and Tarter’s plot of known exoplanets looks frighteningly sparse compared to the plots I generated effortlessly on exoplanets.org for Dr. Bekki Dawson’s graduate class on the subject. Tarter’s discussion of exoplanet finding techniques, however, and her thoughts on how the revolution would progress were incredibly prescient.

Things I Learned: I liked her explanation of the uncertainty principle argument to justify the search for signals that were unnaturally short in time or frequency. I had always thought of narrowband searches as the most obvious SETI search method (with much bias), but this is the best argument I’ve read for pulsed optical SETI having equal footing. Interesting sidenote: Charles Townes himself talked about how his invention could be used for interstellar communication.

I also did not know that there were distance-dependent effects that happen in both the optical (dust extinction) and the radio (minimum frequency resolution you care about because of broadening through the ionized ISM). I did not appreciate how interstellar scintillation could, frequency-dependently, affect the signal amplitude. This is a good reason to search for combs – I’d be curious to see if anyone has ever run a comb search, because if so, I’ve never heard about it.

There’s so much to say about this content-dense paper, but I’ll leave it off on a final point starting with the following mediocre metaphor I just came up with.

Mediocre metaphor: the search space is a beach of multi-colored rocks. We know we’re looking for something that looks out of place, but that’s all the information we have. If we only look for, say, paths in the black rocks, we might walk right by a conspicuous grouping of green ones, or an artificial stack of large ones. But add two more pieces of information: 1) there’s a particular kind of basalt on this beach which isn’t found elsewhere 2) geologists love to study it. Now there’s a very obvious reason for our unknown signalers to add something weird into the basalt – maybe they shape a column of basalt into a triskaidecagon (it usually forms hexagonal columns). Even if we (as the searchers) don’t know where to look and don’t see anything, the granite experts will notice that something is up.

This is the rationale behind looking for “impossible objects” (an intentional variant of the idea of “nature plus”): making a signal that almost looks like an astronomical object that would be studied in the normal course of a civilization’s scientific advancement… but with something weird about it. Pulsars that don’t follow physical rules, stars with weird emission lines, supernovae going off in the Fibonacci sequence. This eliminates a lot of the Schelling Point philosophizing (frequency/target/bandwidth/time/etc./etc./etc.) involved in guessing what a transmitting civilization would do, which I am very much in favour of, personally.