How to tell the world you've discovered an alien civilisation

How to tell the world you've discovered an alien civilisation
#FoundThem. Credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado (josefrancisco.org), CC BY-SA

After countless fictional scenarios of humans making contact with alien civilisations, you'd think we'd be prepared for actually discovering one. But finding intelligent life beyond the Earth is clearly likely to be one of the most shattering moments in the history of our species.

So if you've just discovered an alien civilisation, how should you go about breaking the news? This is a momentous task, and I have been involved in developing some guidelines for the scientists who are involved in searching for extraterrestrial life. The research is due to be published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

With the millions of dollars currently being invested in initiatives such the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), some would argue it is only a matter of time before we do come across intelligent life. I'm personally not convinced, but pessimism isn't enough to abandon a search. The scientific method requires us to test our hypotheses with observation and experiment – regardless of our initial prejudices.

If we ever do find signs of intelligent life, I don't expect it to be a message from an alien civilisation or a landing party. It will probably be something a little more prosaic, such as signs of artificial pollution in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. It may even take the form of enormous structures built in space to collect energy and provide habitats.

I showed in some work a few years ago that we would be able to see such megastructures in exoplanet transit data, such as that gathered by the Kepler Space Telescope. True enough, Kepler did see weird objects such as Tabby's Star, KIC 8426582, with features similar to those predicted would come from artificial structures. But like most astronomers, I'm still a sceptic – a swarm of comets around Tabby's Star producing incredible changes in brightness is still the more sensible interpretation. What's really encouraging about this, though, is that it shows SETI can be done "on the cheap", taking advantage of publicly available astronomical data to search for aliens. For a pessimist like me, this seems like a much more appropriate strategy.

The flurry of internet activity surrounding Tabby's star – blogs, tweets, news stories and the Kickstarter campaign to encourage the public to support further observations – demonstrate how different the world has become since SETI began around 60 years ago.

How to tell the world you've discovered an alien civilisation
Alien megastructure or just comets? Credit: NASA
Super-connected world

If evidence of ever came to us from the stars, what should the discoverers do next? This is something astrobiologists have pondered for decades. In 1989, a committee of SETI scientists even drew up a set of post-detection protocols to guide scientists through the steps after discovery. These steps include getting your colleagues to verify the discovery, and notifying "relevant national authorities" (precisely who this means is unclear to me), followed by the scientific community and then the public via a press release.

However, this set of guidelines was written before the age of the internet. Back then, we got our news via the paper or the TV screen. Even 24-hour news was in its infancy. Nowadays, the news world is a fragmented sphere of articles placed on our devices and in our feeds via a variety of social media tools, shared by our friends and family. Data flows extremely rapidly, and easily gets amplified and distorted.

That is why my colleague Alexander Scholz and I decided to take another look at the issue, asking how the SETI post-detection protocols should change to reflect our super-connected world. We quickly realised that scientists need guidance before starting the experiment, let alone after making a detection. It is now common practice for new scientific projects to set up a blog about their work, and this will be essential for SETI. The blog should include a clear description of what a certain project will do, and what the criteria are for a successful detection, a false positive and no detection. This would help journalists and the public alike to avoid misinterpreting the results.

The individuals involved need to be credible communicators of their work, so maintaining good digital presence in the early stages is very helpful. We also recommend they update their security settings to protect against nefarious individuals broadcasting their personal information – which is sadly a real risk these days.

If a team is lucky enough to make even an unconfirmed, tentative detection, they must be sure to have nothing to hide. Leaks are unavoidable, and alarmingly rapid. Nobody wants an "aliens found" story that turns out to be false. The best way to do this is to publish data immediately. If it's very clear that the detection is unconfirmed, and natural or man-made causes can't be ruled out, then there is no room for conspiracy theorists to wail about the scientists' collusion with the men in black (an accusation flung at me more than once). It also gives other scientists the chance to check the work, and verify the detection.

Of course, we've all seen some of the comments on YouTube or other media sites – there are numpties everywhere, and there is seemingly no stopping good scientific discussion being twisted into inexplicable diatribes and vile hate speech. Therefore, the most important piece of advice for scientists is to be involved in the conversation.

If a publicised detection turns out to be false, the team should immediately make a public statement making it clear that no aliens have been discovered and why. They should even publish a paper retracting it if they have to.

But whoever discovers should also prepare for it to swallow up the rest of their life – there isn't going to be time for much else. Their new job will instead be to help humanity come to terms with its new identity, as just one of multiple intelligent civilisations in the universe.


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Is there anybody out there? On the quest for extraterrestrial life

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May 26, 2016
According to Carl Sagan, the proof had better be good.

May 26, 2016
So if you've just discovered an alien civilisation, how should you go about breaking the news?

And here I thought everyone knew that the standard way to tell everyone was via the National Enquirer.

These steps include getting your colleagues to verify the discovery, and notifying "relevant national authorities" (precisely who this means is unclear to me), followed by the scientific community and then the public via a press release.

While nice in theory we have to realize that the ones who are going to make the discovery are likely scientists. And there's a few things to know about scientists.

They are
a) intensely anti-hierarchical
b) smart (and they know it)
c) (follwoing directly from a) and b)) they know that going to 'authorities' means handing off the issue to people guaranteed to be dumber than them.

So my prediction is: the guy/girl who actually find the smoking gun evidence will have it over the internet ASAP and damn the 'authorities'.

May 26, 2016
... there are numpties everywhere, and there is seemingly no stopping good scientific discussion being twisted into inexplicable diatribes and vile hate speech.
They've organized – in the states we actually now have a unified political party of trumptie numpties. I'm not jesting and don't call me shirley.

May 27, 2016
I don't like Trump but after listening to what he has to say, I find no undue violence or prejudice in him. But his rivals have called him Hitler and worse, Most the protester's hearts are in the right place, but they don't listen to what is being said by him. They are for the most part sheep, who in their ignorance think they are proving to everyone what free thinkers they are.

May 27, 2016
I think once alien life is confirmed everyone will just go back to watching Game of Thrones....after all, we humans only concern is relevancy to our own lives.

May 27, 2016
Got proof?

Better be good.

This whole SETI hype is ridiculous. There is no need for us discovering other lifeforms, as they have already ten thousands of years ago discovered ours. See https://www.youtu...IGUVIDEO

May 27, 2016
So if you've just discovered an alien civilisation, how should you go about breaking the news?

And here I thought everyone knew that the standard way to tell everyone was via the National Enquirer.

You're a fan of "Men in Black", aren't ya...:-)

So my prediction is: the guy/girl who actually find the smoking gun evidence will have it over the internet ASAP and damn the 'authorities'.

Take a look at YouTube...

May 27, 2016
How do you tell the world?
Well, you stand in front of the mirror and tell yourself the story. If you sound sane, then you are doing it wrong.

May 27, 2016
So if you've just discovered an alien civilisation, how should you go about breaking the news?

You might start by putting vague questions on a variety of Science leaning blog sites...

May 27, 2016
If you find out about aliens, keep quiet and look around. Find ways to tell our military enemies about it first... AND the enemies of those enemies. Such would take pride in spilling embarrasing secrets and cover ups about the others. That done, while the US gov and our enemies' gov's and their enemies' gov's are secretly plotting and blackmailing each other, use the internet to tell as many press organizations as possible in as many nations you can reach.
Then if you have physical proof, take it to the middle of the south Bronx and show it off to as many disconnected and homeless as possible and tell them to spread it everywhere. Keep some in a safe in a third nation in a storage locker. THEN when coverup is everywhere compromised, mail to every scientist in every nation with good science and religious reasons not to like us....like some moslem countries...moslems have aliens as part of their faith, and do not accept lightspeed limits..in their faith too.. legend of the Barack

May 27, 2016
People always said that bigfoot would not be believed until some shot one, strapped his body of the hood of his pickup, and drove it downtown to the capitol building in Sacramento and parked in the middle of the Capitol Mall, blaring the discovery over loudspeakers mounted on the truck all the way from Elk Grove to 'K' Street to the Mall. Do it during lunch hour when thousands of people will be all over the mall, and it would help if there was a political demonstration going as well. Folks on the outs with government would delite in embarrasing those on the 'in crowd' that covered up the old boy's existance so long and so well.

May 27, 2016
Oh, no! He found us "in" folk out!

We been hidin' that-there Sasquatch for decades.

May 27, 2016
IMO, anyone on this Earth that thinks we are alone in the universe is rather egotistical and ignorant. As I see it, is is not a matter of if, but a matter of when we discover life elsewhere in the universe. As such, it should be shocking to no-one. To some, though, I expect it will bring instant thoughts of doom and gloom and scary thoughts of invasion. Perhaps they can go study with Hawking. Still, everyone should expect this announcement at some time in the future...

May 28, 2016
Quote : "But whoever discovers intelligent life should also prepare for it to swallow up the rest of their life – there isn't going to be time for much else. Their new job will instead be to help humanity come to terms with its new identity, as just one of multiple intelligent civilizations in the universe."

The Brookings Report is on your coffee table. ISN'T IT.
- Frosted Flake

I have a copy of the Report, as well as the Summary on a Flash Drive where it's safe.
ETs are here in this world already. They have been here for quite awhile, and it's only now that this kind of story comes out when it's old news? I have seen their spacecraft on two separate occasions when I was in my 20s. I remember thinking, "good...that proves humanity isn't the only sentient beings in the Universe". I would be happy to meet any of them up close and personal. In fact, they have probably taken human form so that they will not be set upon and killed by ignorant fools who don't know any better

May 29, 2016
The reaction to a modern "Columbus" sailing the cosmic waves (probably remotely, aboard sophisticated astronomical tools), and bumping into "Red Indians" (or "Little Green Men," more like it) will be slightly more traumatic than discovering the New World...but humanity will get used to it.

The good news is - as was the case back then - the fact that we'll be the ones making the discovery means that we're more advanced...unless the aliens have been too wise to mingle with our messy world!

May 29, 2016
Either ours is the only inhabited planet in the universe (!)...or there are a gazillion like it (!), upon any of which humanity is ahead to throw a gaze, there's another whose inhabitants have already had a similar scoop...on us!

Life could have simply been expanding, and contracting, into different spatial and temporal directions, where Earth is situated in nothing but a small intersection in a sprawling network...a drop in a sea. Perhaps we should curtail the diametrical thinking of "humanity–aliens", "terrestials–ETs", "us–them"...

As to skeptics of having any direct interaction even if "cosmic citizens" are to wave "hi!" to each other...to reprise the Columbus parallelism, it's like assuming that a person would have to cross the ocean by a canoe (or even swimming!) without reckoning with the Spanish naval capability...and transportation has only broke new grounds—and, literally, soared—ever since, steadily making a short thrift of spacetime itself.

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