Beacon Of Centauri 4
Part 2: Dealing With The International Community
Dr Martin Rice is chair of the SETI committee of the IAA. When the signal had been confirmed and made public, he became the chair of the International Advisory Committee on the Analysis of Observational Evidence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence. This body was set up to coordinate efforts into studying the signal, with a reference to decoding any messages, and to give advice on information distribution and lead the way for debate as to what action should be taken as a result of the signal. We meet for coffee in the romantic city of Paris, along the Seine.
“Well, we certainly had our work cut out. Years before hand, we’d predicted the kind of questions that would arise, the infrastructure that would be needed both to make certain decisions and act upon those decisions and the resources and information gathering systems that would be needed to analyse the situations and data that arose. We made declarations for scientists and states to sign up to. However, the world had a lot of more pressing matters at the time, so our proposals had to wait.
“Then the signal appeared, and suddenly we were thrown into the driving seat of policy making. Well, at least it seemed the UN wanted us to be in the driving seat. In actual fact, we had no real power, other than to explain what we knew and what we thought logically should be done. The real policy deciding was inside the Committee on the Peaceful Uses for Outer Space of the UN (COPUOS), where the nations had their own advisers, pushing their own agendas.
“I felt sorry for some of our expert witnesses, getting cross referenced by national agents. These poor guys weren’t politicians. They were scientists. They could logically look at how any message could be sent, the ramifications of sending a message, what the signal was and what that meant. They shouldn’t have been put through the wrack because they were of a certain nationality and unfortunately speaking to a bunch of politicians to whom place of birth was everything to be suspect about.
“I exaggerate a bit, I’m sorry. But there were times when people let their nation come before the planet, and they just ripped into these guys who were only trying to tell them the best possible approaches.”
Dr Rice himself was almost dismissed as a ‘western operative’ by both China and Iran. Both countries’ representatives to COPUOS took back their outbursts when leant on from above. He tells me he was glad that there did at least seem to be some intelligence down here on Earth.
“It’s a good thing that the people at the top knew how to keep a cool head. At the beginning, though, there were a couple of walkouts. Again, Iran being a big culprit – no surprise there, I was continuously told. I knew a lot of the problems we faced were due to misunderstandings.”
Dr Rice’s struggle to do his job well, and motivate his team of experts, paid off – even in the face of adversities.
“The first part of our job had been done already. All the parties involved in SETI had signed up to the Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which outlines who to pass information onto and how to release the information to the public. But we still had to get all the states to sign up to the Declaration of Principles Concerning the Sending of Communications to Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
“This was a big obstacle, most of all because many people interpreted it as an intention to begin communications, which it wasn’t. It was to set up the decision making process. A treaty, if you like, regarding how we will tackle the issues. It wasn’t meant to be the decision in itself. If COPUOS had decided against communication, and that was carried by the General Assembly, then fine. This Declaration of Principles was never meant to be a Declaration of Intent – it was just a framework for the decision making process, that’s all. But people didn’t see it that way at first. Some even thought it was a means to push the agenda for communication through the back door, but that’s ludicrous.”
His frustration over some of the difficulties faced becomes quite evident.
“How can you make an informed decision on whether to communicate if you don’t allow the discussion and debate of ideas?
“Some, like China, also had a problem with Article 5, which states that if we choose to communicate it should be as one, instead of sending individual messages – which the Chinese favoured. They were afraid of any message being overtly ‘westernised’ and thus disproportionate of the populous.
“That was a hard one to tackle, but we knew we had the experts to produce a message that would cater for everyone, if everyone wanted to send it.
“Before we could get anywhere, we needed those signatures. I remember Andrej Tadic coming up to me after the amendments had been written, and the signatures had been placed, and saying ‘I think you’ve just saved the UN’. I don’t know how serious that statement was. Could the UN really split up just from this? But then, if you think about the long term, there were problems of security and confidence if it was seen that one nation was trying to cavort with ETI against another. We needed everyone on board, just to make sure they didn’t do anything stupid.”
Dr Rice’s next problems lay with getting the infrastructure to work and come up with some suggestions for action. All of this, while still trying to coordinate efforts with the analysis of data. Some of his colleagues express their amazement that he managed this without a serious amphetamine addiction.
“There were some long, long days. Some of which felt like banging your head against a brick wall. We made progress, be it slowly – and even some unexpected friendships. Goh Chin, the Chinese representative, and I became good friends shortly after the signing, even if we didn’t always see eye to eye. I found nothing stimulates you more through the long hours than stimulated, intelligent debate. When he came round to the idea of suggesting the one message approach as an alternative to the many messages approach, he was constantly in touch with the team. And not just for the Chinese, but also to make sure that the Far Eastern interests as a whole were looked after. I think it also helped that we didn’t talk too frankly about each other’s political beliefs. But we had many a pleasant meeting over dinner to discuss the committee.
“Still, even with people now on our side to actually get a report done, it was still a lot of work. I had to sift through so much information from the IAA and all the other bodies involved in the analysis. Constantly going from meeting to meeting. If I got 5 hours sleep a night, I was lucky.”
Part of the International Advisory Committee’s job was to inform COPUOS of what they had decoded from the signal, and what this had led them to learn about ETI and their system, and to advise them on how and when to publicise the information. It was this part of the job that thrust Dr Rice into the media spotlight.
“Well, of course, after a lot of work decoding – and I mean a lot of work, like almost a year – we were finally getting down to what the nature of the signal actually was, which came as quite a shock to some people. And once that nature was ascertained, we held a meeting about distributing that information. The first step was decided to be a presentation to the General Assembly itself (with the media in attendance), which COPUOS was adamant would be given by Dr Joseph Lesley, Prof Charles Bridges and I. Next we would start circulating publications to various universities, colleges and institutions.”
That presentation would turn out to be more like the one everyone had hoped for when Dr Lesley first announced his findings.
“The atmosphere was electric. People were expecting some great message from across the cosmos, speaking to the people of earth – ‘we come in peace’ or even ‘ we will destroy you in 5 days’. Of course, we knew that wasn’t what we were looking at from the start. It was obvious to us that this was no deliberately sent signal. It wasn’t on the right frequency. It didn’t have the characteristics – no repetition in the signal, it was more like a constant stream of information. Plus it used a spread spectrum – this isn’t a technique you’d think of using to send a signal across the cosmos, because basically the chance of detection is low.
“We knew we’d stumbled on an information highway, if you like.”
And they had. What they decoded was a vast amount of information. Telecommunications information. They were listening in to ETI’s phone calls, and watching their TV.
“The images came much later, but the voices were what we got first. Just getting any audio took months of work, and necessarily kick started a major revolution in our technology in order to decode and interpret it. We’d leapt forward quite significantly in science, due in large part to a lot of dedicated specialists.”
Dr Lesley even got to have his sound bite, proclaiming ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the voice of Centauri…’ Needless to say the language was complete garbage to everyone. But the context didn’t matter just then, it was the first time human kind had heard language outside the solar system. For a whole minute the General Assembly was silent. As was every TV room in every corner of the world.
“We thought we could hear 4 distinct voices in conversation with pauses between each speaker, which lead us to believe that this was some sort of conference line. Of course we couldn’t confirm any suspicions we had about the signal, because we had no reference point for the language. So our next job would be to find a reference point. That meant more hard work, and more searching for appropriate signals, hopefully visual ones.
“Not only might we be able to see what they look like, but we could also try to infer some clues as to how the language worked through ETI’s textual interaction with each other and their world.
“Of course a huge amount of assumption was made here. We thought that because of the advanced state of the technology being used, even if their species had several languages (as we could assume, looking at our own species), we were most likely listening to a kind of Lingua Franca. This may have been their language of economics or politics, of cross cultural sharing of information. Thus, deciphering this language would open up channels of communication between us, should we decide to go down that path.
“I have to admit, many of us around the world almost had an uneasy feeling about just ‘listening in’ and ‘spying’ on ETI. We almost felt like peeping toms or stalkers. But we knew this was the only way to find out what we needed. I mean, for one thing, just remember we were listening to a conversation from about 4 and a half years ago. If we sent a message to them to try and get a reply and open up communications (and thus get an understanding of their language and species) it would take 4 and a half years to get there. Then they would take their time to decipher that – even if they heard it – and probably go through the same processes and questions that we did for their signal. Say another year or 2. Then send a reply to us, which would be another 4 and a half years. It would take 11 years to get through that alone! And that’s assuming we both decipher each other’s messages correctly first time, which would be very unlikely. If we need to send messages to confirm receipt and ask for clarification, then it’s another 9 – 10 years added on. The process could take generations. Bear in mind how long it took us to decipher the first signal.
“If we had picked up a message sent to us in the first place, this is probably how it would have gone. But because we were just eavesdropping, we had an opportunity to try and understand them first, and so get an idea about how to communicate on their level. We were essentially saving generations of work. In a nutshell, we saw an opportunity and we took it.”
I have to ask one last question that has vexed many people. Why didn’t they seem to know we were here?
“Who knows? We know they had astronomical institutions, and stories concerning life outside their atmosphere. Maybe they were looking in the wrong places. Maybe they just couldn’t tell we were here, because of some random background event that happened when they looked in our direction. Remember, it was a fluke that we found them. Maybe they just weren’t lucky. Their signals were stronger than ours – even in our solar system it’s hard to discern life on earth from any other radiation. Maybe funding for their SETI program was given less attention, and funds diverted to more seemingly worthy causes. We certainly nearly lost this discovery to that. Even if they did find us, they may not have sent a deliberate signal to us, for the very same reasons that some people felt we shouldn’t send one to them.
“There are a lot of reasons they might not have noticed us. All we know is that they didn’t, and we did.”