Are we alone in the Universe?
After fifty years of SETI, scientists are still discussing the Drake Equation, and asking "Where are they?"
Do we really want to know if we're alone in the Universe? Or are we only interested in 'safe' aliens--primitive life in our solar system, or intelligent life too far away to have a useful conversation, or for them to do us harm?
If ETs, with knowledge and technology beyond our understanding, were already visiting our world, would we want to know? Certainly, for their own reasons, governments and scientists might want to know; but would they want the public to know?
Would we want to talk to the ETs?
SETI researchers and other scientists will argue that there's no evidence of an ETI visiting our world. And even if they were here, and had something to say to us, why haven't they simply said it? Why don't they 'land on the White House lawn'?
If even a small percentage of the UFO reports represent an ETI visiting our world, then perhaps the simplest of many possible explanations is that, from their perspective, they've knocked on our door, thousands of times, and they're waiting for us to answer.
They might know from long experience that a dramatic and unexpected appearance or message could cause a major disruption to our civilization; and that contact is always enormously difficult for a civilization, and can be a disaster if unwelcome. And so they continue to make their presence known, in carefully limited appearances around the world, and wait for us to say we're ready: for those who speak for the people of our world--one or more governments, or the UN--to ask them to make their presence known so that we can begin discussions of the possibility of contact.
While this explanation might seem ridiculously improbable, it's certainly easy to test. If ETs were monitoring our communications, a simple statement from the US or another government, or the UN, reported by the media, might be sufficient to elicit a message or undeniable appearance.
Last year, in a joint US-Australian effort, NASA transmitted the messages collected in the "Hello From Earth" project to Gliese 581d, some 20 light-years away. A quote from the project website: "Will we get an answer? No-one really knows. So why not send a message and find out?"
So why not send a message and find out whether the folks from Gliese 581d, or anywhere else, are already here and willing to talk to us?
Would NASA and CSIRO (Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), or any nation's space agency, welcome a simple appearance--an undeniable demonstration of presence--or perhaps a message from any ETs who might already be visiting our world?
Would UNESCO and IAU (the International Astronomical Union), cosponsors of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, and representing governments and scientists around the world, welcome such an appearance or message?
The answers to this simple question, from the governments and scientists of our world, would not only be a message to any ETs who might be listening, but would also be profound statements of the character of our civilization at this point in our history.
To minimize any uncertainty about how ETs might respond, the date, time, location, and nature of the requested appearance or message might be specified, and the event, or non-event, could be recorded, or even broadcast live.
Of course, the UN and the national governments might prefer, at least initially, to announce the presence of, and deliver any message from an ETI in their own way, rather than invite the ETs to communicate directly with the public.
So, perhaps scientists (e.g., the IAA SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup) and government officials of one or more nations would consider another approach.
If ETs understood our civilization, and intend the possibility of an eventual constructive relationship, they might refuse a request for secret communications with any one nation, to avoid the inevitable anger and resentment of other nations. On the other hand, perhaps they would respond to an open request (announced in the media), or even a secret request from the leader(s) of one or more nations, for secret or 'diplomatic' communications, if the nation(s) promised to share the message and any ET response with the UN, or perhaps the UN Security Council. If the ETs regarded the promise as credible, perhaps they would provide useful information regarding their purpose, the possibility of 'diplomatic' and/or open contact, and the nature of the information they might be willing to share.
Such an effort could be undertaken by the US or another government, using an existing communications capability, or something as simple as an optical (Morse Code) messaging system (a bright signaling light) to transmit a message, cameras to record any response, surrounded by a circle of strobes or spotlights, bright enough to be easily seen from space, to 'advertise' the system. If successful, it would allow scientists and government officials from several nations to secretly discuss the issue, and then to assemble a larger group of scientists, politicians, religious leaders, and others for further discussions--still in secret--and finally, to inform the public.
However unlikely it might seem that such efforts would succeed, both are simple, cheap, and could be done now. Of course the consequences for humankind, if successful, would be enormous.
Even if we somehow could choose to initiate contact now with an advanced ETI, why would we? Why would we choose--other than curiosity--to begin a process which might be the most difficult, disruptive, and even destructive experience in human history?
For the scientists and others discussing Global Warming, the continued destruction of our living planet, the dangers of nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence--for those who wonder if our civilization will survive the coming years and decades--the answer should be obvious: Would any rational civilization ignore the possibility, however slight, of learning about life in the Universe, and the experiences of other rapidly evolving technological civilizations?
From the perspective of those who may know the stories of countless civilizations like ours, do we have a bright and prosperous future, or are we marching mindlessly toward an apocalyptic cliffside? Do most civilizations like ours survive, or almost none? What happened to all the others?
If we aren't curious enough to even ask "Who are you, and what do you want?", then perhaps the scientists and governments will consider a different sort of request for communication. For example: If you have something to say to us that you believe, years from now, we're likely to desperately wish we had heard now, then please say it now.
What if the ETs told us that, as some people already believe, our attitudes and beliefs, and the institutions of our civilization are simply incompatible with the technologies we already have and will soon create, and the harm we have already done and continue to do to the Earth? What if they told us that life, as those alive today in the US and many other nations have known it, at least in some critical respects, is coming to an end, one way or another, and soon; and that our only choice is how to manage almost unimaginably difficult changes?
Do we even have the ability as a civilization to voluntarily make major changes in our way of life? Would it be worth the effort to survive? Would we regret ever having asked about the experiences of other civilizations, and what they portend for the future of humankind?
So far, for better or worse, the answer from the governments, most of the scientists, and perhaps most of humankind, seems to be that ignorance is bliss, and we'd rather not know if ETs are visiting our world, much less ask them about the lessons we might learn from past civilizations.
And yet, if intelligent spacefaring life is abundant in the Universe, and contact is a common but not inevitable experience, isn't it worth wondering about the others--faraway and perhaps long ago--who might have made the same choice we're making? What became of them, and their hopes and their dreams and their fears for the future of their worlds and their people?