They Mostly Come At Night, Mostly
"I think that if you had real physical contact—I can't imagine that
would be good."
Mark: There was another question Zach had.
Siduri: Zach has great questions.
Mark: Essentially the gist of his question was: by sending out radio signals
into space, we may be able to alert other civilizations, other intelligences,
that we are here.
Mark: Is that a good idea?
Seth: Well, depends on how you regard the aliens.
Siduri: [quoting Zach] "Do you believe that the aliens would be friendly, and if
Do you believe that the aliens would be friendly, and if
Seth: Yeah. Well, who knows, I mean I'm not a specialist on alien psychology,
but then again who is? Nobody is. Nobody knows what the aliens would be like.
About all you can say is that on Earth, aggression pays, a certain amount of
aggression. And if you sort of look at the history of, you know, being found
by more advanced civilizations, it usually doesn't work out in your favor. I
mean, the Indians kind of welcomed the Europeans at first, but then they all
got smallpox and things like that, I mean it wasn't a good deal. They got
wiped out. And it wasn't just the disease, they got wiped out, you know,
The South Sea Islanders was always of interest to me. James, Captain James
Cook's explorations. And he was under orders from the admiralty not to hurt
anybody, and he by and large didn't. He almost never hurt anybody, and only
when they did something pretty atrocious. He was only there to collect
information. Nonetheless, when he lands in Tahiti or Fiji or whatever, these
guys are sitting around, they're happy worshiping red feathers and rocks and
things like that. And these guys sail into their bay, and they've got these
big ships, and they've got cannons, they've got metal, they've got the wheel
for goodness sakes—they've got all this stuff. And somehow after you've
seen that, worshiping these red feathers just doesn't seem, well, that
interesting anymore. These guys are clearly way ahead of you technologically,
and they must be ahead of you spiritually as well, so whatever religion
they've got is clearly better than what we've got.
You know, that kind of thing so rapidly destroys your culture. Now that's a
situation where these guys weren't there to hurt anybody. So I think that if
you had real physical contact—I can't imagine that would be good. And even
in some sense, getting information might have some negative effects, if you
understood it. Because if suddenly they're saying, "hey, here's all this
science, here's all this physics, so guys who are doing all these research
projects at Stanford Linear Accelerator, you can keep doing that if you want,
but maybe you want to read this. Oh, the cure for death, yeah, that's over
here too in this section, you might want to read that." That would be
somewhat discouraging for a lot of people. But I don't think it will come to
that. I don't worry about any of that.
Siduri: Why not?
Seth: Well to begin with, we are broadcasting out into space. You could say,
hey, that's a dangerous thing to do. But SETI isn't doing that, I mean,
that's not us. That's ABC and NBC, and if you're really worried about it, you
should petition the networks to shut off their transmitters, because they may
be only ensuring the destruction of civilization as they know it. I mean, you
could do that; maybe you should. But I wouldn't worry even about that. To
begin with, most of those signals are very diffuse. TV is on all the time, of
course, and they are high-powered transmitters, but it turns out they don't
deliberately broadcast in the direction of space very much. Advertisers don't
see a whole lot of benefit.
So they don't do it. The military radar does broadcast out into space, that's
much more detectable. But even so, we've been on the air for 50 years. The
galaxy's been here for 10 billion years. Fifty years is a very small fraction
of that. And in another 10 or 20 years we won't be broadcasting into space
very much, because everything will be—you'll have a fiberoptic line coming
into your house, you'll get your TV that way. So this is a very temporary
Mark: But if we assume that an alien civilization is more advanced than us, and
has done away with the need for this wasteful broadcasting using radio waves...
Seth: Then what are we listening for?
Mark: ...and has more efficient means of communications, might they also think
that it's a bad idea to broadcast out, because there might be someone bigger
and tougher than them? Might there be thousands of civilizations that are
remaining silent for that reason?
Seth: Yeah, right, exactly, everybody's intimidated. Yeah, could be. That's
been proposed as an explanation for why we haven't heard anything. They said,
"Yeah, well the reason you haven't heard any aliens is because it's not a good
idea to shout in the jungle." Right? Cause there's things out there that are
bigger and have longer teeth than you do. It's not a good idea. There may be
some truth in that, but again, this is sociology, so what do you know. But I
do find it difficult to believe that all civilizations are that way.
You might say, "Okay, look. Broadcasting from our planet is not a good idea.
We don't know what's out there. But putting a radio beacon over there, right,
so that we can navigate over these short distances that we want to cover in
our galaxy, that's not so horrible. I mean, they may find a beacon, but the
beacon isn't where we are, the beacon's over there." Or you just send robotic
vehicles out into space, and they don't transmit until they get very far away,
or something like that. There are lots of ways to beat this rap.
And it may be that you feel you are the meanest dog on the block, you know,
you just don't worry about this. You're the Galactic Federation, so you've
got a license to do what you want. It's like the British navy. They're not
afraid to take to the high seas. I don't know. It's all very interesting,
and obviously very speculative. And you could say, you could talk yourself
out of this, and say, "Nobody's ever gonna broadcast, it's entirely too
dangerous." So then what do you do. Just don't listen? You don't get
anywhere that way. At least if you listen, you have the chance of proving
this thesis wrong in some way, and you have very interesting information if
you find something.
So it's sort of like sitting around with Chris Columbus in 1492 and saying,
"Forget the wooden boats, Chris. They probably won't work, and you won't find
anything interesting anyhow." You could probably talk him out of it. But,
you know, it probably was worth trying the experiment. But obviously, I work
for the SETI Institute. We think it's worth trying the experiment.