The Sciences

Be vewwwwy vewwwwy quiet....

Cosmic VarianceBy Julianne DalcantonJan 16, 2008 6:49 PM

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I have no independent knowledge of the veracity of this report, but a local TV station in the Bay Area is reporting rumors that the SETI program running at the upgraded Arecibo radio telescope has detected an anomalous signal (or in the very high tech language of their reporting, a "mystery signal"). The report includes some quotes from Dan Wertheimer, the director of the program, so presumably the reporter talked to someone with verifiable science cred before writing the piece. The quotes from the project's scientists are guarded enough that I'm guessing this is just a lousy job of science reporting in the local news. The part that got my blood pressure going was the follow-up about what we should answer back. The idea that our backward, technologically impaired civilization should jump up and down and wave its arms around saying "LOOKY HERE!!!! LOOKY HERE!!!! PICK ME!!!!", is,....what's the word....oh....batshit crazy. History is not exactly awash in cases where the technologically less advanced civilization wound up the winner when two cultures collide. Usually, it gets rolled. In spite of this, some crazy optimists in Russia are actually beaming signals out to nearby stars, right now. This "active SETI" program strikes me as completely foolish, and has already caused a rift within the SETI community (so apparently, I'm not alone in my abject fear of being spotted by a more advanced civilization). While this issue hopefully has less urgency than figuring out the political response to planetary climate change, we need to eventually get our collective goverments organized into a treaty about how to deal with this issue. Suppose someday we actually detect some alien space ship whizzing through our local neighborhood. Do we let the Raelians and Scientologists invite them down for a drink, even if the rest of us think it's better to lay low? In the meanwhile, Earth should just STFU. (UPDATE: Link to timesonline changed to the original reporting that they swiped from a much better article by David Grinspoon at Seed.) (AND ANOTHER UPDATE: Phil Plait did some actual reporting (you know, calling and actually asking), and yup, it's just bad journalism, as expected.)

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