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E.T. calling? Here's what to do

Experts have hammered out a simplified game plan to follow in the event that signals from an extraterrestrial civilization are ever detected.

The new guidelines for dealing with theoretical radio transmissions from E.T. were adopted unanimously by the International Academy of Astronautics' SETI Permanent Study group last week during a meeting in Prague, the Czech capital.

The timing is weirdly coincidental, in that the long-scheduled meeting came amid an international buzz over the United Nations' role in responding to a hypothetical E.T. call. Malaysian astronomer Mazlan Othman, head of the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs, said the world body was "a ready-made mechanism for such coordination," and quite a few news outlets suggested that Othman herself might be named the point person for dealing with extraterrestrial communications.

Othman eventually said she wasn't aiming to become an ambassador to the aliens. But the newly approved protocol does say the U.N. secretary-general would be among the first people officially notified if alien contact is confirmed. I'm stressing the word "officially" because the protocol also says scientists shouldn't try to hush up any detection of signals they think might be coming from E.T. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon may well find out about alien detection from a Twitter tweet rather than an official phone call.

The earlier version of the protocols was a lot wordier, and called for notifying 10 separate organizations about "credible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence." The revised protocols also make a point of saying that scientists should deal honestly with the news media in the event of a signal detection ... which of course I'm glad to hear.

Conspiracy theorists might say the one-world government "don't need no stinking protocols," to paraphrase a classic movie scene. And it's true that the protocols are not legally binding. But the SETI League found it comforting that the experts declared their commitment to openness in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

"The advent of the Internet has changed the way the world does collaborative science," H. Paul Shuch, the grassroots group's executive director emeritus, said in a statement released over the weekend. "The revised IAA SETI Protocols better reflect this reality and provide a workable means for honoring both scientific integrity and the public's right to know."

Here's the text of the revised protocols, which are posted on the SETI League website:


The parties to this declaration are individuals and institutions participating in the scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

The purpose of this document is to declare our commitment to conduct this search in a scientifically valid and transparent manner and to establish uniform procedures for the announcement of a confirmed SETI detection.

This commitment is made in recognition of the profound scientific, social, ethical, legal, philosophical and other implications of a SETI detection. As this enterprise enjoys wide public interest, but engenders uncertainty about how information collected during the search will be handled, the signatories have voluntarily constructed this declaration. It, together with a current list of signatory parties, will be placed on file with the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA).


1. Searching: SETI experiments will be conducted transparently, and its practitioners will be free to present reports on activities and results in public and professional fora. They will also be responsive to news organizations and other public communications media about their work.

2. Handling candidate evidence: In the event of a suspected detection of extraterrestrial intelligence, the discoverer will make all efforts to verify the detection, using the resources available to the discoverer and with the collaboration of other investigators, whether or not signatories to this Declaration. Such efforts will include, but not be limited to, observations at more than one facility and/or by more than one organization. There is no obligation to disclose verification efforts while they are underway, and there should be no premature disclosures pending verification. Inquiries from the media and news
organizations should be responded to promptly and honestly.

Information about candidate signals or other detections should be treated in the same way that any scientist would treat provisional laboratory results. The Rio Scale, or its equivalent, should be used as a guide to the import and significance of candidate discoveries for the benefit of non-specialist audiences.

3. Confirmed detections: If the verification process confirms – by the consensus of the other investigators involved and to a degree of certainty judged by the discoverers to be credible – that a signal or other evidence is due to extraterrestrial intelligence, the discoverer shall report this conclusion in a full and complete open manner to the public,
the scientific community, and the Secretary General of the United Nations. The confirmation report will include the basic data, the process and results of the verification efforts, any conclusions and intepretations, and any detected information content of the signal itself. A formal report will also be made to the International Astronomical Union

4. All data necessary for the confirmation of the detection should be made available to the international scientific community through publications, meetings, conferences, and other appropriate means.

5. The discovery should be monitored. Any data bearing on the evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be recorded and stored permanently to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, in a form that will make it available to observers and to the scientific community for further analysis and interpretation.

6. If the evidence of detection is in the form of electromagnetic signals, observers should seek international agreement to protect the appropriate frequencies by exercising the extraordinary procedures established within the World Administrative Radio Council of the International Telecommunication Union.

7. Post Detection: A Post-Detection Task Group under the auspices of the IAA SETI Permanent Study Group has been established to assist in matters that may arise in the event of a confirmed signal, and to support the scientific and public analysis by offering guidance, interpretation, and discussion of the wider implications of the detection.

8. Response to signals: In the case of the confirmed detection of a signal, signatories to this declaration will not respond without first seeking guidance and consent of a broadly representative international body, such as the United Nations.

Unanimously adopted by the SETI Permanent Study Group of the International Academy of Astronautics, at its annual meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, on 30 September 2010.

These revised and streamlined Protocols are intended to replace the previous document adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 1989.

Will these protocols ever be put into practice? Most of the scientists involved in SETI say 50 years of searching isn't long enough to judge whether our efforts to detect alien signals are on the right track or not. It may be that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations don't care enough about us monkeys to make contact, just as we don't spend a lot of time letting ants know what we're up to. It may be that intelligence is a volatile thing, and that civilizations self-destruct before they're around long enough to send signals to other star systems. Or it may be that aliens are just boring themselves to death.

Over at Discovery News, Ray Villard explores the issue of cosmic boredom. This is one of the issues raised a couple of months ago in a paper posted to the arXiv physics website by Igor Bezsudnov and Andrey Snarskii. They built computer models that gave "bonus life" to civilizations that contacted each other — and not surprisingly, civilizations too distant or dissimilar to achieve contact were more prone to die away.

It's just a simulation, but Villard takes away a couple of lessons from this. One implication would be that the cross-cultural effects of contact could be good for both sides. That argues against "the idea that extraterrestrials would devote an enormous amount of resources to physically travel here only to snoop around, be mischievous, yet avoid direct contact," he says.

The other implication is that there may be a "use it or lose it" quality to the quest for contact. "Extraterrestrials may wither away due to a loss of interest in the universe around them, or the atrophy of technological capability," he says. "Their brains might turn to mush as they become totally preoccupied with their versions of Facebook, World of Warcraft and reality TV shows."

Wait ... are we still just talking about extraterrestrials? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

More about the search for aliens:

Visit the brand-spanking-new Cosmic Log page on Facebook and hit the "Like" button. You can also follow @boyle on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."