Should We Broadcast? And What If We Find Life in the Solar System?

AAS 2015 meeting

By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research

Experts will be discussing the merits and concerns of so-called Active SETI as well as the societal implications of searching for life in the solar system during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

With the increased tempo of exploration of nearby worlds such as Mars and moons of Jupiter and Saturn, as well as the entry of commercial firms into space exploration, there is a need to address the ethical and policy implications of these efforts.  Margaret Race of the SETI Institute, together with Brian Green and Margaret McLean (both of Santa Clara University) have organized an AAAS session on these societal questions.

Speakers include Chris Impey (astronomer), Sara Waller (philosopher) and Arsev Aydinoglu (virtual research and complexity theory).

A second AAAS session deals with Active SETI.  Unlike traditional SETI experiments, in which scientists attempt to eavesdrop on either radio signals or flashing laser pulses from other worlds, Active SETI consists of deliberate transmissions to nearby star systems in the hope of eliciting a response.

While some attempts to get in touch with putative extraterrestrials have been made in the past (for example, a three-minute message transmitted from the Arecibo radio observatory in 1974, or the records placed on the Voyager probes), very few deliberate attempts have been made.  The AAAS session will present arguments for and against a greater Active SETI effort.

The session is being organized by Jill Tarter and David Black, both of the SETI Institute, and will feature presentations by Doug Vakoch (the Institute’s Director of Interstellar Messaging), David Brin (writer), David Grinspoon (astrobiologist), David Tatel (U.S. Court of Appeals), and Seth Shostak (Institute Director of the Center for SETI Research).

The Active SETI session will take place at the AAAS on Friday, February 13, at 8:00 am.  The session dealing with societal impacts of solar system exploration is on Monday, February 16, at 9:45 am.  The AAAS meeting is being held at various venues in San Jose, California.

Active SETI: Is It Time To Start Transmitting to the Cosmos?

Friday, 13 February 2015: 8:00 AM-9:30 AM
Room 220C (San Jose Convention Center)

Since 1960, scientists have attempted to detect evidence of extraterrestrial technologies by using radio, and later, optical telescopes to “listen and look” in a passive, exploratory science called SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence). To date, no credible evidence has been detected. It has been argued that it is also necessary to transmit actively, and a few messages have been sent. Whether transmission represents a reasonable evolutionary step in our quest to understand our place in the cosmos, or a significant risk to all humanity, the topic deserves a thoughtful discussion involving as many participants as possible. During an episode of the TV series "Into the Universe," Stephen Hawking argued from analogy with Christopher Columbus and cautioned against transmission, saying that it “… didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.” Does this analogy even make sense? Who and how shall we decide about active SETI? This symposium will present a debate on the pros and cons of transmission, and a role for social media to enable a global conversation on the topic. This will be followed by a moderated panel discussion by experts on astrophysics, astrobiology, and policy, who will reflect on the points raised during debate and answer audience questions. The session will launch a global conversation to be continued by meetings in other scholarly and public venues and online in homes, classrooms, and offices.

Organizer: Jill C. Tarter, SETI Institute
Co-Organizer: David C. Black, SETI Institute
Moderator: David C. Black, SETI Institute

Speakers:

Douglas A. Vakoch , SETI Institute, Mountain View, CA
What if everybody is listening and nobody is transmitting? For half a century SETI has been searching for something that we ourselves do not produce: deliberate transmissions towards distant worlds. We hope ETI will take the initiative to make contact, but they may not. If instead humans take on the responsibility of launching an Active SETI program, we would move toward an intergenerational model of science, with a long-term vision for benefiting other civilizations and future humans.

David Brin , Futures Unlimited, Encinitas, CA
"When an endeavor aims to alter one of Earth's fundamental traits, it is only wise to test that activity with scrutiny and wide-open discussion. Despite their openly-stated goal of transforming human destiny, those who would vastly amplify our planet's non-equilibrium signature - in radio and other wavelengths - have avoided exposing their plans to collegial due-diligence. Excuses range from "Earth civilization is already detected" to "any extraterrestrial society will be altruistic," but none of these rationalizations have been subjected to scientific-adversarial appraisal by experts in anthropology, biology or human history. No single good or bad scenario for First Contact can be called likely, but any list of plausible or possible risks should be laid on the table and reviewed via methods like the Asilomar Process, by which genetic researchers established best practices, simultaneously minimizing peril while enhancing quality research. Indeed, it has been self-defeating to limit discussion, as public attention to the complex and fascinating issue would only augment support for SETI.   We propose a consensus call for international and public consultations before humanity takes a brash and irreversible step  -- shouting our presence into the cosmos."

David H. Grinspoon , Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, AZ
Exoplanets and extremophiles have been the game-changers characterizing the past few decades of scientific research into the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe; a discipline now called Astrobiology. What is the potential for life beyond Earth? Would we recognize it if we found it? How soon might we have some answers? Why does it matter?

David S. Tatel , U.S. Court of Appeals, Washington, DC
Are there any legal guidelines, national/international policy frameworks, or precedents that can be used to shape the decisions on active SETI? If so, are any of them enforceable?

Seth Shostak , SETI Institute, Mountain View, CA
What is the electromagnetic signature of 21st century Earth? What kind of signals might we transmit, or what other actions might we take for the purpose of alerting potential extraterrestrial technological civilizations? This subject enjoys significant public interest, much has been written, much of it wrong; what is the possible, what do we not yet understand?

Astrobiology: Expanding Views of Life and Encountering New Societal Questions

Monday, 16 February 2015: 9:45 AM-11:15 AM
Room LL20C (San Jose Convention Center)

The past decade has seen impressive advances in astrobiology research on Earth, Mars, and other bodies in the solar system, as well as increased planning for commercial missions and exploitation of resources beyond Earth’s orbit. Together, science findings, space exploration, and planned exploits have raised numerous questions that touch on ethical, policy, and societal concerns relating to life, environments, and human activities in the short and long term, both on Earth and beyond. Already, policymakers and mission planners are poised to make recommendations on future space exploration and activities. It is important that experts from many disciplines -- and not just those from scientific and technological fields -- are involved in deliberations about these endeavors. This symposium discusses the broad range of issues and questions that have arisen and provides a perspective on current input from researchers in ethics, religious studies, social sciences, and humanities. In many ways, the societal concerns are similar to those in other emerging technologies and require reexamination of humankind’s diverse views about the meaning and value of life -- past, present, and future -- and the implications of deliberate human actions upon it.  

Organizer: Margaret S. Race, SETI Institute
Co-Organizer: Brian Patrick Green, Santa Clara University
Discussant: Margaret R. McLean, Santa Clara University

Chris Impey , University of Arizona, Tuscon, AZ
The prospect of humans living and dying off-Earth raises a set of legal, ethical, and practical questions. After several decades where astronauts have been limited to low Earth orbits, competition between the new and traditional space-faring nations, and aspirations of new players in the commercial space industry, are likely to lead to colonies on the Moon and Mars, and further travel through the Solar System. The growth of private sector space travel may not be regulated significantly by national and international entities. If human colonies are established off-Earth, they will diverge socially, politically, and eventually biologically from the bulk of humanity on the home planet. The rights and obligations of off-Earth humans are unclear, but the transition will be as profound as when humans first left Africa 60,000 years ago.

Sara Waller , Montana State University, Bozeman, MT
Astrobiology raises many ethical questions(e.g., obligations to Earth- & ET life;obligations to ourselves as we explore;impacts on Earth & beyond,etc.) While protection of Earth life is important, so too is protection of our interests & resources. Like the Wild West, space offers profound wealth & opportunity to future government & commercial venturers, but with few policies or enforcers for governance. This presentation offers several scenarios & possible ethical solutions for consideration.

Arsev Umur Aydinoglu , Middle East Technical University, Çankaya Ankara, Turkey
Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. Given the scope of topics astrobiology is interested in a comprehensive and integrated understanding biological, geological, planetary, and cosmic is needed. For that purpose, the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) has been established as a virtual institute that comprises of competitively-selected teams to carry out, support and catalyze collaborative, interdisciplinary research and train next generation of researchers. This talk explores the interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology research through looking at different measures. First, the team compositions of fourteen teams NAI teams (and 167 research projects) based on their members’ PhD degrees and current affiliation are presented. Second, the scholarly output of teams is analyzed based on co-authorship networks, citation analysis, and journal categories. Third, barriers to and facilitators of interdisciplinary collaborative astrobiology research and education are provided. Finally, the best practices in the community in this regard are explored.