If Extraterrestrials Call, Does Humanity Have a Plan?


The science fiction movie “Arrival,” which opened in theaters this month, poses tantalizing questions about how humans might make contact — and eventually communicate — with intelligent aliens. The much-hyped film has renewed people’s interest in the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But what would happen if humans really did make contact with an intelligent alien civilization? If E.T. calls, is there a plan?

The answer is yes, and no, said astronomer Seth Shostak, who leads efforts to detect radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations at the seti Institute in Mountain View, California.

“There are some protocols, but I think that’s an unfortunate name, and it makes them sound more important than they are,” Shostak told Live Science.

In the 1990s, Shostak chaired a committee of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) that prepared a revised version of the “post-detection protocols” for researchers who watch for possible alien transmissions using radio telescopes, a field known as seti (short for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

The protocols were first drawn up in the 1980s to help scientists in the United States and the Soviet Union share information about any potential seti signals. But, Shostak explained, the seti post-detection protocols are guidelines for governments and scientists, rather than a global action plan for dealing with alien contact.

“They say, ‘If you pick up a signal, check it out … tell everybody … and don’t broadcast any replies without international consultation,’ whatever that means,” he said. “But that’s all that the protocols say, and they have no force of law. The United Nations took a copy of the early protocols and put them in a file drawer somewhere, and that’s as official as they ever got.””

Men in Black

“In the movie “Arrival,” spaceships land in several cities around the world, and a linguist (portrayed by actress Amy Adams) and a physicist (played by actor Jeremy Renner) are recruited as part of an international effort to try to communicate with the aliens and find out why they are here.

In real life, apart from the protocol dictating that researchers should share news about seti signals with other astronomers around the world, Shostak said he is not aware of any government-level plans or established procedures in case of an alien contact, whatever form it might take.

And it seems there really are no “Men in Black,” shadowy government investigators of UFO-lore, depicted in the comedy sci-fi movie series starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

“If [the government] could afford the ‘Men in Black,’ then they could afford to support SETI,” Shostak joked.

But the U.S. government has shown no interest in seti research so far, he said. “It’s not a government program, so they have nothing to do with it. I would love to see some interest from them, but I never have,” he added.

After one early seti “false alarm,” which eventually turned out to be a signal from a European research satellite, the only response was from journalists.

Tom Metcalfe, Live Science Contributor

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