How should we respond to alien contact? Scientists ask the public

Scientists wrestling with the delicate issue of how to respond should humanity ever be contacted by an alien civilization have hit on a radical idea: a survey that asks what the public would do.

Members of the UK Seti Research Network (UKSRN) are to launch what they believe will be the largest ever survey of public attitudes towards alien contact on Monday at the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition.

The views they gather will help them shape plans for an international protocol that sets the ground rules on how organizations should share news of any signals that are detected; what sense can be made of them; and how, if at all, humans might reply.

“There is absolutely no procedure enshrined in international law on how to respond to a signal from an alien civilization,” said Martin Dominik, an astronomer at the University of St Andrews. “We want to hear people’s views. The consequences affect more people than just scientists.”

Beyond sending probes to other planets in the solar system, the search for alien life has largely focused on listening for complex radio signals from outer space with the world’s most powerful telescopes. Last month, astronomers on the Breakthrough Listen project announced they had heard nothing after eavesdropping on more than 1,000 star systems within 160 light years of Earth.

But Dominik points out that with 300bn stars in the Milky Way alone, Breakthrough Listen has barely begun the mammoth task of scanning the cosmos for life elsewhere. “If there were tens of quintillions of other civilizations like ours evenly distributed in the Milky Way, the Breakthrough Listen project would not have heard a thing,” he said.

Dr John Elliott, a reader in intelligence engineering at Leeds Beckett University, said the global Seti community would announce any bona fide alien signal immediately. But in an era of social media that would spark a flood of fake news and conspiracy theories that leave people utterly confused about the truth, he said.

Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone on display at the British museum.
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