Friday, January 7, 2011

Paul Davies on avoiding a hullabaloo when the flying saucers land

In “Newsmaker Interview: Imponderables Complicate Hunt For Intelligent Life Beyond Earth”, Science (23 April 2010), Yudhijit Bhattacharjee asks cosmologist Paul Davies some questions about the SETI search, in aid of his Eerie Silence book. Two stand out:

Q: Why is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence any different from the search for goblins or unicorns?

P.D.: Good point. Well, when it started out 50 years ago, it was considered a very quixotic enterprise. The pendulum has swung during my career. I often ask around why it is now okay to talk about ET when it wasn't 40 years ago. And people will often cite irrelevant factors like—oh, we've discovered all these planets, and we've discovered that life can exist in a wide array of conditions. But the truth is that we still don't have an acceptable theory of life's origins, we really have no idea whether it was a stupendous fluke that happened only once or whether it pops up all over the place. It's now fashionable to say that the universe is teeming with life, but there is not a shred of evidence.

[ ... ]

Q: You devote a chapter in the book to how governments, the media, and societies need to handle news of the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence, if and when that happens. What are the outlines of the plan?

P.D.: If there's a signal, the scientists should be allowed to evaluate it before there's a hullabaloo. In practice, that will be very hard to achieve without a cloak of secrecy, which I am usually against. But there's one thing on which we are all agreed, which is that we should not disclose the coordinates in the sky of a transmitting source. Because otherwise, any self-appointed spokesperson of humanity could get hold of a radio telescope and start beaming crackpot messages, and present themselves as a spokesperson for mankind, when it is not at all clear whether we should respond. (Paywall)
Okay, but how would the crackpot messages differ from stuff we hear all the time? Presumably, ET has noticed that and is used to it.