The views of Rabbi Meir are certainly consistent with the views of most of the world’s major religions. Years before the discovery, many religious authorities had begun seriously debating what ETI would mean for them. Not surprisingly, the Dalai Lama blessed SETI. Hindus also had very little problem with the idea. These were faiths that had no interest in a creation story set just around Man and Earth, but rather one that would happily envelope any form of intelligent life in the universe. Most religious leaders had become used to the debate of Life outside the solar system, and even encouraged their believers that if it did exist, it would have no negative impact upon their scriptures.
The main group that came under threat from the evidence were Young-Earth Creationists, who had always held that the Earth was 6000 years old, and humanity was unique. Some Creationists were quick to adopt the view of the more mainstream Protestant Churches, that God would be present in the lives of ETI. However, some groups held beliefs that could not be ratified with the evidence before them. Several churches around the world decried the revelation as a hoax, aimed at them. Some believed that the scientific community had misinterpreted their findings. A very small number even believed that the Aliens were either angels or demons, and that the end was near, and began shutting away their communities. In the more extreme cases, attacks were planned on various astronomical observatories. It seemed to many that Creationism was becoming unstuck, and that these groups were fighting with their last breath to destroy any evidence that would demolish their beliefs.
Perhaps most memorable, and most tragic, was the student protest at the University of Texas at El Paso.
A major Nationwide student protest was organised in the USA, flying the banner of Creationism. Over 60 Creationist universities and colleges staged a week long strike, joined by many more Christian student organisations in mainstream institutions. The protest was not quite as centralised as one would expect. Some students were adamant that the scientists should take back their claims and stop lying to the world (or misinterpreting the truth), whilst some were determined that scientists didn’t try and contact what they believed must be troops of Satan – and yet others urged everyone to repent.
Banners were flown across the country, crying “Bring Science back to God”, “Keep Satan from our Front Door”, and the age old classic “The End is Nigh”. Authorities were over stretched to control the situation. In several institutions protest turned to civil unrest, panic and riot. Students blockaded themselves in, some blockaded science departments. In many cases the National Guard was brought in to restore order.
Spurred on by their brothers and sisters, students at UTEP took up the battle cry.
I visit Henry Wight in Wichita, Kansas, to discuss the incident. He was the Sheriff on the scene. He is a broad man, with hair that has prematurely grayed. His arms tremble, almost spilling his coffee, as he recites the events.
“The news had spread around to all the sheriff departments in the country beforehand about the planned protests. Something on that scale has to be observed and, if necessary, controlled. We all know what students can be like. So, as you would expect, there was a national response set up, to make sure nothing got out of hand and that any unrest could be effectively dealt with.
“The whole affair began with a large sit-in in the Sun Bowl Stadium. The students had set up a PA system, and there were various speakers throughout the first few days, and they’d been joined by other students and Creationists. Most of the life on campus seemed docile. Not much was going on, a few people still working about the faculties – probably normal student life really. Most of the university was practically at a stand still. On the 5th day, a group of the students had got into the science department. The first we knew was from Adrian Pires, the University President. When we got there they’d already barricaded themselves in.
“We managed to get through some of the barricades, and arrested some of the students, but the rest were holed in quite tight. I mean nailed in. By the end of the day, we’d decided to treat it almost like a hostage situation and let them sit it out, and arrest them when they got hungry.”
Why didn’t that work?
“Some of the other students had begun supplying them, you know, food parcels and stuff.”
Couldn’t you stop them?
“We could and we did. But the students know that place like the back of their hands. We closed down one route, they opened up another. And they were getting pretty aggressive, a lot of them. They were picking up sticks, throwing missiles. We began to have a riot on our hands – one that was beginning to spread across the campus. We couldn’t hold them all. I mean, I’ve got a limited number of men. We have to arrest people, process them, keep the peace at the Sun Bowl and observe that situation. Then there’s the whole of El Paso to look after as well. I can’t just take my men off the streets. Resources were limited.”
But your men are trained for the eventuality of a riot?
“Sure, you’re trained for the eventuality of street riots, but inside? We were fighting in narrow corridors against people who’d got the advantage on us. They’d locked themselves down, devised a battle plan and found ways to resupply themselves. Besides, how many riots have you seen in El Paso over the past few years? We were under-resourced for this. On that day we knew the best policy was to let the fire burn itself out. Systematically close down their supply routes, shut off the water and wait for them to give up. We could have them in lock down, and a perimeter set up by late evening.
“Of course, it was at the end of the day that we realized what else had been smuggled in.”
Sheriff Wight drops his head and stares at his feet.
“They were just bloody students. Kids. Could have been our own.
“Adrian called me in the evening to tell me that the ROTC had been broken into, 5 minutes after one of my officers had been shot in the head! We were about to walk into a remake of fucking Taps! Now there’s a firearms situation.”
Weren’t there procedures in place to stop this from happening?
“Of course there was! But I told you, they knew this place inside out. Even the most stringent procedures would find it tough to stop a well informed, well motivated group from getting what they want. Hell, they used the training the bloody ROTC had given them! And now they were getting ready to use that training on us if necessary!”
So a group of undergraduates broke into the ROTC, stole military use hardware, and smuggled it into the department without your knowledge?
“Look, we’re police. We deal with petty arguments all the way up to riots and gang wars. We don’t deal with renegade armies, especially not ones being trained by our own fucking military!”
So you believe you dealt with every foreseeable eventuality?
“Are you kidding me? Have you not listened to what I said? The ROTC is the provision of military police. Not us. We weren’t told that it was seen to be a possible outcome.”
Even though you had a group of frightened kids, cornered away, believing they were fighting for their survival in very biblically apocalyptic times?
“Oh come on! Yes, these were kids. We knew they were frightened. But who could have predicted that some of them would be insane enough to begin to take up arms? There’s a world of difference between a protest and a war!
“That’s why the FBI and the Army National Guard were called in. That’s why it was taken out of my hands. I’m a cop, not a general. My men were ordered to fall back, to hold the perimeter, and to make sure nobody else entered. The last thing we needed to do was give them an excuse to use those guns.”
But those guns did get used.
“Yes, and that’s regrettable. The FBI and the ANG arrived, quickly taking control and setting up positions. This had gone beyond the university president’s hopes of keeping the department in tact. They needed to get in fast and get those kids disarmed and out of there. That wasn’t going to happen peacefully. They already had the blood of one of my officers on their hands. You think they’d come out nice and slowly with their hands in the air when they’d already brought themselves that far? Even they knew they were screwed. I don’t know if some of them even cared.
“We had their parents down to talk them out of it, but to no avail. One of the students parents actually said they supported their kid! Can you believe that? Yeah. They said that ‘a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ The one and only time I hear the 2nd amendment said correctly, used in a context against my men! We were being accused of perpetuating a tyrannical rule, and that these kids had a right to take up arms against us! That’s the mentality of the parents – think of the mentality of the kids!”
Within minutes of the FBI and the ANG turning up, and communications were set up, several students who didn’t want to be in there anymore were allowed out.
“At least we got them out. I think some of the guardsmen have a hard enough time sleeping as it is. I know I do.
“I just wish the others would have come out as well.”
At about 9pm the ANG attempted to enter the department. The reception was less than hospitable. 2 Guardsmen fell, with another 7 injured, as they walked into the student’s trap.
“It was horrible. The situation was deteriorating. The students had them boxed into a room and were just bombarding them. They even managed to capture 2 guardsmen. Now it was a fucking hostage situation. It’s like Beslan, only it’s the kids taking the hostages.
“But this wasn’t a normal negotiable hostage situation. Their demands could not be met. That meant we’d have a body count rising up soon. There are 2 guardsmen in there that may not be coming back out, and there’s a lot of guardsmen out here who want to make damn sure they see their buddies again. They had to be located and isolated.
“Now, locating someone behind walls is easy with thermal imaging, but isolating them inside a building of small rooms and corridors ain’t a piece of cake. The FBI couldn’t play with the ANG’s time on this. Those kids had already taken lives. To be honest, it had got well out of the FBI’s ability and jurisdiction as far as anyone was concerned. Things got so heated at our end that one of the guardsmen nearly pulled his gun at an agent. That’s not good when you’ve got a situation like this on your hands. You need total collaboration.
“The FBI had to concede control to the ANG. As far as I’m concerned there was no other way. They were the only outfit that could neutralize these kids. Remember, this wasn’t some home spun WACO-style militia we were dealing with – these kids were trained by the fucking military!”
At 2am the ANG began it’s liberation of the department. As troops moved forward with armoured personnel vehicles, others began to take the rooftops. Once the rooftops were secured, they began their descent to the room containing the hostages. The operation took about an hour and a half. 7 students lay dead, having claimed the lives of another 2 guardsmen. Both hostages were liberated. Mr. Wight claims it was ‘a miracle’.
“Some of the parents were screaming and hitting my officers. It was pandemonium. We had to hold them back from trying to get in. They were screaming their kid’s names. Crying and kicking. One of the fathers punched me square in the jaw – and may have got past if it wasn’t for another officer tackling him to the ground. You must have seen the photos. The looks on their faces as they’re held back, unable to help their children. Some of the parents being arrested, because they were going to go back and get their guns. Get that? Parents threatening to go and get their guns to use them against us! Every burst of gunfire brought a new wave of panic.
“We were the bad guys that day. No doubt about it. Everyone was screaming at us to stop, but it wasn’t in our power to stop it. I’ve never felt so impotent.
“The worst part was the clean up. Finding those kids and having to bring their bodies out to their parents. I can still see their faces, still hear their folks asking me ‘why?’
“I couldn’t answer them – and I still can’t.
“Adrian was almost in tears. He was being spat on throughout it all. ‘How could you let this happen to our child?’ ‘We trusted you with our kid’s safety!’
“When it was over, he was a shadow of a man. Everyone was. Even the guardsmen came out almost crying.
“My boy was 20 at the time, over in UCLA. They’d had one of the protests over there. A civil affair, really. I’m glad he never found himself in this situation.
“I still can’t answer that question ‘why?’ – but I know I haven’t been to church since and I won’t be going again.”
The US was not the only country to suffer from anti-message protests. In the UK a group of 20 anti-message activists broke over the fence around the Lovell telescope at Jodrell bank. 10 of them chained themselves to the legs of the telescope, while the other 10 climbed up into the dish and chained themselves to the antenna. For several hours, the telescope – which had not been used for SETI purposes since 2004 and was unable, due to its latitude, to be used in communicating with the newly found ETI – was nonoperational. The largest obstacle facing the police was the safe removal of those on the dish.
Fortunately, the British activists were less militant than their American counterparts, so there were no real casualties on either side.
The demonstrators new about the latitude problem, and sent out a press statement that their protest was merely symbolic. Jodrell bank is the home of radio-astronomy, and thus the direct ancestor of the SETI programme. However, the fact that they disrupted an entire days worth of research gave them little sympathy from the wider population.
Of course, the revelation of intelligent life outside the solar system had profound implications, not only for our place in the universe, but also for our self perceptions and philosophies. Father Bruno Guyez is a Jesuit Priest appointed to the Vatican Observatory. He has been kind enough to invite me to visit him and see some of the work that goes on there.
“The Catholic Church has been deeply interested in Science and in Scientific progress. The observatory has been in its present form since 1891, but the Church itself has been monitoring the skies for centuries.”
I am intrigued by how the Catholic Church accepted this news.
“The Catholic Church has debated the proposed existence of Extraterrestrial life – and it’s implications – for many years. Even debating this possibility meant that we didn’t find it inherently heretical. Father Gabriel Funes once said that, if they exist, “Aliens are my brother” – a far cry from what many critics thought was the actual Catholic doctrine “Aliens are my bother”.
“Of course, we wanted to make sure that the signal was verified before we made any official comments. But once it was verified, we were quite happy that this did not affect the Church’s position. Again, as Father Funes said, Extraterrestrial life does not contradict the belief in God. We were quite excited about the discovery, to tell you the truth.”
So, the church is happy to dismiss the claims of some of its critics that evidence of ETI directly contradicts the Scriptures and the Church’s beliefs – as many thought evolution did?
“Well, certainly. Just because the Bible doesn’t directly mention Aliens, doesn’t mean that God didn’t create them. Their lack of reference may be attributed to the fact that God didn’t need to mention them – they weren’t around in the creation of earth and their existence did not affect the significance of the scriptures.”
Did the Vatican (or rather does the Vatican) believe that there exists Alien forms of the Christian faith?
“That is all speculatory. For one thing, it has been proposed that Alien life forms may be free from sin, and thus not need salvation, like man. Though, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t believe in God. We are sure though, that God would be manifest in the lives of all intelligent beings around the Universe.”
Was there ever (or is there ever) a proposal for an evangelisitic mission to Alien worlds.
“Where it is perceived that our Alien brothers have fallen from Grace, it would be our duty to show them back to the light.”
What would your view be of the position of certain Christian movements, that Christ may have appeared on other world’s to die for their Sins?
“There is no mention in the Bible of any such events.”
But does it correspond to the Church’s position?
“No. The official position was summed up by Father Funes – ‘Jesus became man once and for all. The incarnation is a singular and unique event.’ This doesn’t discount that our Alien brother’s can share in God’s mercy and grace.”
It certainly seems no leap of faith to go from believing in Angels to believing in Aliens. But how does the Catholic Church feel about the views of groups (Christian and non-Christian) who advance ideas that the Bible refers to Aliens visiting the Earth in the Past – for instance, the famous claim that Elijah’s ascent to heaven is synonymous with an Alien abduction/collection.
“I think you’ll find that neither ourselves, nor the secular scientific community take these claims with any degree of seriousness.”
I have also been invited to speak to Archbishop Christopher Davies, head of the Anglican Church, in England, to talk about a protestant view of ETI.
I ask him the same questions about the different theories surrounding the Christian faith regarding ETI – those theories about Christ having appeared to Aliens as their saviour.
“Alright, let’s say that he did, but it isn’t in the Bible because it bears no significance to humanity – or he is still to do so, and we may ourselves be a part of that story. Maybe he doesn’t have to because they are without fault. There are many possible scenarios.
“The first, as I say, bares no significance to humanity, just as our salvation bares no significance to them. The Second possibility just means that we have to continue doing God’s work and living in his Love, so that we can be used by him to illuminate his love. The Third possibility means that they will help illuminate Gods Love for us and help us know how to live in Him.”
Eager to know more about other religious responses to the discovery of the signal, I meet up with the Secretary General and Chair of the Muslim Council of Britain’s European and International Affairs Committee, Sir Nadim Said.
“The Islamic faith is certainly not one of those you would feel to be undermined by the evidence of Extraterrestrial life. In the Quran it is written, ‘…among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and whatever corporeal creatures that He has dispersed throughout them. He is able to gather them together, whenever He wills.’ So, in fact, the Islamic faith predicted that we would find other beings, on other worlds.
“We have no problems like the Christian faith did, with whether they have been saved. We believe that all intelligent beings would have their own prophets, their own Guides, and would be party to the spiritual journey of the universe as we all are.”
The Islamic faith’s ability to cope with the revelation without any major upheaval or debate is quite possibly down to some of its key principles. It was – and remains, despite the portrayal of some of its more radical followers – a religion born out of understanding and reasoning. Some of the early Islamic empires were among the most advanced of their era. Faith and Scientific reasoning have definitely gone hand in hand.
Was there ever any question of outreaching to ETI?
“Certainly, we would want to meet them, and to be able to exchange views. But we would not be surprised as to what we found there in terms of religion.”
I was also invited to speak with the Sephardi Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem, Isaac Meir, to help shed light on the reaction of Judaism to the discovery.
“Judaism didn’t have a big problem with the discovery. For many of us the position was, ‘well lets just see it when it’s proved.’ The Jewish faith is far more interested in the soul than questions of outer space. We feel that there is so much to explore within our own humanity. That said, we had no problem with the thought that God created life outside Earth and that he loved it. We can’t exactly tell God what to create or what to Love.
“I think you will find that this is the reaction of most religions around the world. Though we may have differing faiths and pray in different ways, it is humanity’s spiritual journey that concerns us. That journey is not altered by the surprises in God’s creation, but enhanced by them. When Columbus found the Americas, God was not shaken from the heavens and man’s faith was not weakened.”
So you would say that, though your faith is more ‘humanity centered’, it is not disturbed by the presence of ETI?
“Why should it be? We believe we are God’s people, loved by him. When a new species of life is found on Earth, are we disturbed? It is a poor religion that crumbles, or trembles in fear, because of such things. They are just fearful of God’s creation and not enjoying the beautiful experience he has given them.”
I know that before the discovery, Israel was still reeling from the Wailing Wall bombing. Do you think that the revelation changed the political climate in the middle east?
“Extremists will always be extremists. What happened there was a great tragedy – one of many that has long plighted this land. The bombing itself was condemned by all religious leaders in Israel. Although we live in a turbulent region, the mainstream religious groups have begun to learn to get along. The revelation didn’t bridge any rifts, but I think some bridges were strengthened by the profoundness of the revelation. There was a realisation among some of the populous that man cannot go on squabbling against man.”
Another advisory body set up in the wake of the discovery (though later, after the visuals were presented) was the International Commission for the Analysis of Extraterrestrial Military Hardware. Obviously, this was not the most popular of any advisory body in the public eye (which is one reason why it seldom was), though for good argument it was deemed a necessity. It had one important distinction from any other advisory committee. It gave its evidence straight to the UN Security Council’s Permanent Members. This was because, although it was agreed that all knowledge of ETI should be made public and easily accessible, there were still concerns that the wrong kind of military hardware research in the wrong hands could lead to disastrous consequences.
Some have pointed out that the Permanent Members are coincidentally the largest arms manufacturers and dealers in the world, and that this is the real reason for the decision.
General Tod Mullins chairs the body.
He is a very difficult man to get to meet, as one would assume. However, he is gracious enough to allow me to interview him at his office in New York, mostly because the UN has deemed my documentation of this time to be of utmost historical importance.
He is a very tall, slender gentleman, now on the edge of his fifties. His face is constantly stern, but not aggressive, yet one cannot help but feel a slight intimidation in his presence. He strikes me very much as a man who doesn’t mince his words, and who expects the same courtesy.
Before his posting here, he was involved in the UN peace keeping force in Afghanistan. He is a man of distinction earning many of the highest citations of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
“Before we begin, I have to remind you that there are matters of grave international security involved in this subject. I am obliged, therefore, not to tell you everything you may wish to know – you understand?”
I’m shrinking inside already. But I manage an “of course”.
“I hope that’s ok, then,” he replies with a slight grin, and slightly friendlier face. I take it that means I won’t be fed to then Lions then, and get on with the interview.
I ask him if he could shed any light on how much of a threat we could have been in, if ETI proved hostile.
“Well, that question really doesn’t apply. Although we were separated by 4 and a half years of information, we were separated by millenia of physical travel time by either party leaving for the other at that time, unless one of us found new ways to cross the cosmos. That’s really the point of our commission. We had hoped that by careful study of ETI we would be sufficiently equal to, or even in advance of them by the time we actually crossed paths. Neither of us constituted much of a physical threat for probably the next few centuries, give or take the sudden jump in technological maturity.
“We’re not certain if they knew we were here, but all evidence points against it. Certainly they didn’t seem to be listening for us when we found them. So we may have had the advantage of them. We, in fact, may have proved the advanced civilisation if we met up.
“We certainly didn’t see the need to rush into making contingency defence plans anywhere in the too near future.”
There is a question burning on my lips since the start of the interview, but I suppress it for now, and instead inquire as to what we learnt about their military structure.
“We did perceive an order of hierarchical society, which came as no surprise. It’s pretty much a given for any civilisation to even appear. Their military size was unobtainable, but the population was deemed around 8 billion. How many of these were in the military, and whether they formed a single planetary military structure beyond the tentative peace keeping force of the UN is unknown. Not enough information was gained. We know they had armed forces capabilities on Land, Air and Sea, and were involved in Space exploration, like ourselves.
“We got some information on the soldiers of the ETI group we researched – their ground force troops. The were using projectiles, very much similar to our own, and had begun to commission the use of laser rifles – denoting that their laser technology was superior to our own.
“The Air force, too, seemed a step ahead, using different fuel reserves, and modelling of aircraft. However, it was the size of the ships in the Navy that impressed us. They dwarfed our largest carriers by a factor of 5.”
I have no idea how much of this is the whole truth. The General strikes me as the ultimate poker player. I can imagine heads of state and high echelon civil servants quaking in his presence.
I tell him I’m curious if we knew anything about ETI’s nuclear, chemical or biological capabilities.
“The biological would have taken time to figure out. Chemical weapons I cannot fully disclose without more analysis of the information. ETI was definitely adept with nuclear power though.”
Again, I’m sure there’s something missing here. Everything in this interview seems to be too concise. But that is to be expected with the nature of the intelligence.
I can’t hold it in, I have to ask. Can you give us any examples of technologies we have obtained and manufactured from the analysis of ETI?
“I’m afraid that is classified at this time.”
Frustrating, but understandable. No advance on weapons, aircraft modelling, ship design, or even armour to report back.
Fortunately the General is not offended by my inquisitiveness, and I’m invited to ask another question, before his busy schedule returns.
Obviously the Security Council is, sensibly, made up of powerful nations who don’t always have each other’s interests at heart. What was it like working with the friction of that environment?
“Many thought that the sharing of this information between us would help the balance of power. To act as a detente.
“Things aren’t always so simple. There was a lot of suspicion of the potential applications. A lot of security clearance protected treaties were drawn up and beaten out. That would come as no surprise to anyone who thought sensibly. The permanent members do not bicker as much as you might see the General Assembly do. Hands are laid on the table, people’s positions carefully viewed and reviewed. We’ve long realised that heated words have little place in the Security Council. Even China has realised that – perhaps them most of all. Of everyone, it was the French who were the most difficult. As an Englishman, I’ve come to expect and even admire that low simmering suspicion between us all. It keeps us on our feet, and stops us making mistakes – which gives us valuable lessons that we can teach the other nations in conflict resolution.
“This tension will not die away just because we found Intelligence outside our solar system.”
There’s a lot of work to be done before the military institutions of our planet, and their governments, agree to form a collaborative effort beyond the current scope of the UN.
“We’ve agreed on temporary treaties, with clauses for their review and amendment over certain time periods. I’d say we’re 99.9% certain that none of us has any intention of using anything we may have discovered from our recent research into ETI’s technology on each other in the foreseeable future.”
He’s spotted the hidden question on my lips, and answered it like a professional soldier, and a professional UN peace keeping officer. ‘Don’t panic, we have it all under control’. Though whether this will comfort those who fear the exploitational and somewhat sinister nature of the arms industry is very much in doubt.
Part 2 (Continued)
It wasn’t long after this presentation that another committee was set up, by recommendation of the International Advisory Committee on the Analysis of Observational Evidence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, to begin to look into the trade and resource possibilities with ETI. Dr Kellen Farber was called in to chair the Committee for the Analysis of Economic and Resource Potential concerning Extraterrestrial Intelligence, his time as chair of the IMF making him an ideal candidate.
He agrees to see me in the Chateauvieux restaurant in Geneva. I can see he’s full of anxiety and frustration.
“As soon as the first questions were asked about communications with ETI, there were mumblings of the possibility of trade and commerce. It was our objective set up a framework for the discussion in how such trade should be approached.
“Let me tell you, if Dr Rice thinks he had his work cut out for him with his IAC, this committee was a nightmare. Trade on Earth has always been between tribes and nations. It’s always been with the view of becoming more successful within that framework – which implies growing in power with respect to everyone else. To put it bluntly, our planetary economics was based on a competitive nature, which meant getting one up on the other guy, and even with ETI’s discovery still would.
“The discovery of ETI brought a lot of questions to the foreground – some of them quite daunting. We had nations who wanted trade to be done independently of each other. The US and the EU were big supporters of this idea. But this approach could drastically broaden the wealth gap by seriously undermining developing economies – pushing them further back
into Third World status, possibly even creating a Fourth World status.
“They tried to pass off the idea with the promise of added Aid and the so-called ‘trickle-down effect’ (which you don’t have to be a marxist to see was bollocks in this situation), but everyone knew that all this economic ideology sought to do was keep the top at the top and the bottom at the bottom. For years in the IMF I helped propagate the idea of the trickle-down effect, because it works in a closed system to some degree. The problem with it is that there really isn’t any real effect.
“Think about it, all those with big money line each others pockets and pay little back to those who do the hard work that line their pockets in the first place, either through paying the correct value for goods and services, or through taxation – because they dodge both responsibilities. The serfs in First World countries are kept from feeling like serfs by the credit dream.
“Basically, First World countries take over the resources of Second and Third World countries and subject the populace of those countries to horrific working conditions and poverty, but that pays for the serfs of First World countries to live in comparative luxury – even though they still have to work horrendous hours with no security of work or accommodation.
“This under class remain serfs and will be let go of without a moment’s notice, or oppressed for trying to fight against this system (one of the beauties of the system being that you can make a significant section of this underclass do your dirty work and fight anyone who might be trying to secure a better future for the whole – Murdock was great at this manipulation). The top class will find every tax dodge to stop them from actually paying what they owe to a society that has helped them produce what they have, using the trickle-down effect as a way of justifying it. The underclass can work ridiculous hours, often with 2 jobs to keep their head above water, and get taxed more for having a second job (thus earning less than they produce), but your top financial class will be taxed proportionally less and work less, often using tax dodges and ‘havens’ to pay a pittance of their earnings in comparison to everyone else .
“They weren’t kidding anyone anymore. Even ‘at home’, in the first world countries, civil unrest was rife from the liberal groups which had grown up with this realisation. And don’t forget that the discovery came at a time of heightened tension with regards to resource management and climate change – both of which were very closely linked.
“We had proposals that this discovery should unite the global market, leading to a completely new and revolutionary idea of economics, possibly introducing a single global currency unit – which would enable us to better trade with ETI as a whole. This idea really was most favourable, but the least practical in the short term, due to the ammount of work it would take and the ammount of economic upheaval it would implicity create.
“The spectrum of ideology was quite broad, with both extremes feeling passionately about it all and the middle ground favoured by few. Some argued that the beginnings of a deprivatisation campaign should be set up. This was attacked as neo-communism. Some suggested that the markets would be determined by business as they always were, which got criticised as global capitalism, with the potential to widen the poverty gap to levels inconceivable if unchecked by responsible governments.
“When the visuals came through, I tried using them to point out the resource and trade potential we could see, as a way of highlighting the potential benefits to all humanity – and thus explain how a responsibly unified approach to trade would be best for everyone. The new mining equipment, new healthcare techniques, new energy sources, new information technologies. Even things we didn’t expect that we were better in (though there was the time lag, which made all this hard to predict), that they would want to trade from us. But people couldn’t take their eyes off the short term issues.
“Making any headway would have taken years just to prepare for.”
(Picture by Matt Becker)
I inquire as to what went wrong in the committee. Surely he had the best team of experts in the field to offer advice and mediate. Surely he could have put forward some firm grounding for future economic models.
“It didn’t work like that. You have to understand, we were there to promote debate and proffer suggestions to COPUOS, most of which got thrown out by all sides. We were not there to make policy.”
But again, surely his experience and expertise should have come into the arena? Maybe force a few hands?
“We tried, dammit. But we’re talking about 2 polar extremes here. On one side you’ve got groups who demand a share of the growth of the species’ resources – literally fighting for their right to survive. On the other you have groups with all the world’s treasure going through their banks daily, completely unwilling to yield to any handout strategy, just because Joe Blogg in his paddy field is having a hard time.
“It was worse than the fears of the German reunification and of the fears of the European single currency – and any good history student can tell you how heated things got with those 2 chapters of the late 20th Century. Shit, we had resource wars being threatened… We had resource wars going on!
“There were African rebels taking hold of mineral and oil deposits around the continent intent on seizing back what the First World was reluctant to share. Nigerian rebels held up the petrol production of the country for months – that caused chaos. Even rebel groups in Columbia were making headway against the government, both for the resources and the drugs. They even thought that ETI might have a market for getting high! They were probably right.
“Most of Southeast Asia threatened to shut down their exports of Cereal. The Industrial nations were getting ready to squeeze them, troops were getting mobilised. It was beginning to echo the First World War. All we needed was a good assassination – and we nearly got that on the Prime minister of the UK. God knows, if ETI was watching, they probably wouldn’t have wanted to have anything to do with us!
“It was all my team could do to try and keep the peaceful negotiations going around the table. We had walkouts every bloody day! Dealing with the philosophical ramifications of this discovery in terms of contact was fine, but when it came to hardcore economics people were going for blood. I’m just glad nobody was stupid enough to think they had the representative power to bring nukes to the fucking table!
“Do you remember all those scandal allegations?”
Dr Farber’s team was forever immersed in allegations of corruption from all sides. He even threatened to resign, until the Secretary General himself stepped in.
“They were all lies! Designed to undermine our team and put each side’s agents in their place. Every month new inquiries were being opened. The loss of time and manpower was unbearable. Some of our greatest thinkers and mediators, suspended for weeks, even months! Just trying to keep the advisory team impartial was becoming a battleground. Even my successor at the IMF was fighting to keep the hounds off his back.
“It’s no wonder we never even got near an agreement for a draft report to the General Assembly. My team spent more time giving evidence in courtrooms than they did round the fucking table!
“You want to know who really saved the UN from fragmenting? WE DID! But where’s our Nobel peace prize? Where’s our pat on the fucking back? Nowhere. And do you know why? Because we never presented anything to the General Assembly, we never got any consensus – because we were too busy trying to stop World War bloody 3!”
Dr Farber is visibly shaking with rage. Suffice to say that, although I sympathize with the position he was in, I am feeling very uncomfortable. But this is a man known for his calm and reasonable approach before his appointment on the committee. I can only conclude that his behaviour is a key signifier of just how tough his job was and how close to fragmentation – and possibly war – we got.
He looks shocked at his actions though, and calms himself down, apologising to me. He doesn’t need to, the stress has become self-evident. It has almost cost the sanity of one of our leading economic thinkers.
“I don’t really mean to belittle Dr Rice. I actually like him, and he did a lot of work to get things to where they were, the contact protocols and constant data analysis were hard enough, that’s why we needed a separate committee for this. It’s just that we were in hell. Literally. We had little support, no power, and no leeway given.
“I’m still not sure if we could ever come to an agreement. God knows, a single currency approach wouldn’t have worked on any such small time scale, no matter how favourable the idea to some. Even the most liberal approaches would have taken years to put into practice – by which time trade may already have started.
“That’s no exaggeration either. Just look at the EU. It took several treaties under several forms and 45 years to even begin trade in a single currency unit. Even now many nations aren’t part of it, either by choice or because they still have a way to go to get their economy stable enough to fit the criteria – and that’s with some of the not so poor ex-eastern bloc being ‘supported’ by some of the strongest economies on earth!
“Think about trying the same thing with the poorest countries (many of whom have long bread queues) and the richest countries (who don’t even have mobile phone queues). Let alone the fact that you have dictatorships and oppressive regimes involved, who many ‘enlightened nations’ won’t even consider sharing a single currency unit with – and those with differing ideologies, who will barely talk to each other, let alone trade (North and South Korea, for instance).
“It would take centuries, and maybe more to get close to a favourable outcome. By that time we probably would be in physical contact with ETI.
“And I knew that the most favourable outcome was to have some sort of common currency unit in place, because if ETI had one, they’d have an economic advantage over us. And if ETI didn’t have one, then it would certainly help our position in negotiating with a civilisation that may well have been very much advanced of our own, or even (as proved to be the case) just very much different to our own.”
“It’s a good thing I never mentioned the truly most favourable outcome though, because no one in their right mind would have been ready for it yet. A movement towards a common interplanetary currency unit – only after the first stage had been reached (our own common currency units), and we could be reasonably happy with the integration of our economies on such a large scale. That would be a project over centuries if ETI was in the same boat as us economically, maybe millennia – but it could be less if they already had a common currency unit.”
He pauses for thought, looking out of the window at the vineyards, with a weary smile on his face. I ask him if they were to reopen the committee, would he consider going back?
“It would be a good thing if they reopened the committee with at least a modicum of sense and ability to negotiate for the far future. Far sightedness and long term plans are crucial in this sort of strategy and in surviving any movement off this planet. But it’ll take a lot to get me back on that table.
“All that time, I think I had that Monty Python song going round in my head. The one that ends ‘And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space, cos there’s bugger all down here on Earth’.”
I fear Dr Farber is being overly pessimistic of his fellow man. After all, the new Secretary General has virtually guaranteed himself only a one term office, by instigating Aid and education funds to businesses in the world’s poorest countries, from the world’s richest, which are obligatory in all but name, as well as sanction directives for both nations and businesses found to be wanting – part of Dr Farber’s first phase that he proposed for discussion. Some have called it Marxism through the back door, others say it’s a beautiful idea, but enforcing it will be difficult and costly. Though many hope that making countries responsible for responsible business and holding those with experience and knowledge more accountable for the sharing of it (both by teaching and by going out to help practice it) with those in need, will be the first tentative steps towards a global economy ready to face the future of humanity.
The final shock to Dr Farber’s pessimism should be that the greatest supporter of these resolutions and reforms was China. Throughout the events of that time, China certainly shocked a lot of people. It had grown tired of being seen as the nay-sayer of UN policy. New thinkers had come to the fore – not too radical, but new. They had long ago began to set the foundations for China as an economic superpower, through determination and attempting to regain investor confidence. It is uncertain how far China would go to support further global economic reforms, or what motivations they may have, but just that they supported this first step is seen by many as a vote for hope.
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.”
Part 1 (Continued)
I have been given a great privilege in being able to hold an audience with the Ex-Secretary General of the United Nations, Andrej Tadic, at his office in Zagreb.
“The first time the signal came to my attention was only a few days after it’s detection. This was before it was confirmed, of course, but at such time that it was becoming more and more clear that this was truly an Alien signal. At that time it had already been passed on to the relevant authorities, so I kept only a tentative check on its progress.
“My office had still so much to deal with in the world that giving this more than just a preliminary glance wasn’t an option. We still had the war in Afghanistan, the civil war in Cuba after Castro’s death, Problems ratifying the new carbon emissions program, the cleanup operation after the Wailing Wall bombing – along with the subsequent peace-keeping role. Then, of course, our biggest concern was the nuclear program in North Korea, who’d just tested their latest missile system. That’s just some of the tasks we had to get through. The UN is a huge institution, and looking after all off it takes a lot of time and concentration.
“The message was a shock. No one in my position has ever received a memo like that before. So I kept my ear to the ground, but all I could do was let the teams get on with their job, so I could get on with mine. The most I did for the effort at first was to make sure the International Telecommunications Union could protect the relevant frequencies.
“It was mid July when it became a priority. Partly because it really was becoming empirical evidence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and partly because it was fast becoming public knowledge. My office was getting leant on by all sides then. Governments wanting to know what to tell their people, Scientists wanting to know what our protocols should be. It was one of those times when you wish the office carried the same powers as a head of state, but for very good reasons that’s not what the UN is about. We only had a few ideas of protocols for dealing with this. Questions that we should have had answers to in preparation for this, but didn’t – simply because we were too busy keeping the planet together.
“I met with Dr Lesley and his team a couple of times in early July. I guess I had a schoolboy curiosity and excitement about it. We spoke increasingly about how the signal looked, about how to deal with the media interest, and on what we should do if it is Life. I kept in touch regularly with the various institutions involved, and when we were pretty certain of what was going on, I made sure that they got all the resources they needed.
“On July 10th, when Dr Lesley and all the teams were able to come to a consensus, we decided to fly Dr Lesley and Prof Bridges to my office for a press conference. It was a rushed affair in itself, but people were beginning to feel they’d waited long enough, and I could feel that too.
“To be honest, all they wanted was to know, to be told – and a few remarks of how we know, and what this means, along with what we’re proposing to do about it. Having Dr. Lesley there was a bit of a formality in hindsight (mostly because we thought the discoverer should have the honour of recognition), but we just wanted people to know everything we did.
“We did think, though, that this would calm people somewhat into letting us do our job. We knew there’d be a lot of excitement, but with everyone knowing about it, we thought it would take the tension away – especially some of the ‘conspiracy theory’ tension that was quickly becoming rife. We certainly didn’t expect what came next, and that’s why we didn’t have any protocols set in place for it.
“It’s one thing finding out that there’s life out there, but then you have to deal with everybody’s ideas of what that means and predictions of the ramifications – ‘are they hostile?’, ‘should we send a message?’, ‘should we be prepared?’, ‘can they bring Elvis back please?’. There were religious groups determined that they should be allowed to evangelise and preach to them. Whole groups of people who wanted to send a signal back, and claimed it as their legal right – countered with whole groups sworn to destroy any machinery used to signal back for fear of the risk we’d be putting ourselves in.
“We just hadn’t agreed on any suitable protocols in time to deal with this eventuality – partly because it was in no way certain that it was ever going to be an eventuality.
“It is very strange, though, that the one thing we all thought would unify the planet – more than any of the work done by anyone on earth – actually fragmented humanity to an immense degree at the beginning.”
The Pandemonium quickly followed. The Secretary General was rushed off onto a tour of the globe, meeting heads of state, prominent scientists, leaders of major religious groups and the world’s press. Not only were there now being drafted protocols to agree on what to do about this revelation, but also on how to deal with popular reactions to it.
“We had to work quick to set up the International Advisory Committee on the Analysis of Observational Evidence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the International advisory Committee for Extra solar Contact and Interaction, both of which were already being created by the SETI scientists, but which still needed international approval – certain states demanded that they have representatives on both to ensure the freedom of information and to represent their interests. China was a huge obstacle on this one, determined to send their own signal – whilst many of the Middle Eastern communities were adamant that under no circumstances should we send any signal. Debates got very heated in the UN – at some points it almost seemed close to collapse. Yet it was of utmost importance that even if we were going to send a signal, it should be as one – and we weren’t even sure about sending anything yet. That needed further debate. This debate almost became insignificant in the long run though.”
The ex-Secretary General looks quite solemn for the moment. It is clear that whilst he feels extremely honoured to have held the position he did during these years, he is still very saddened that things turned out the way they did on his watch.
He turns back to me, obviously with something else on his mind.
“Again, it’s incredible just how fractional humanity can be even in the face of such a significant discovery. I am reminded by Dr Lesley’s words ‘I wonder if God came down to speak to man, would they all be fighting over who gets to have his phone number?’.
“I sympathised with Dr Lesley on this, but I had to keep reminding myself that this is how the UN works, and precisely why it exists. We are a fragmented species, and though we are willing to cooperate and try to find common ground, many millennia of experience has made us keep checking our backs.
“We also had to set up the infrastructure to disseminate information and counter disinformation. Although the website was a good starting point, this was difficult – mostly because the website wasn’t actually as well established in the media eye as it should have been.
“We weren’t just simply fighting against isolated groups of conspiracy theorists and UFO fanatics. We had to fight against people who held public sway, prominent speakers, even people who held viable beliefs and good arguments. The problem wasn’t always that they were wrong, but that they assumed they were right. No one had answers to the big questions yet, we had to wait for that.
“Along with this infrastructure we had to give resources and aid to various nations who had to cope with unrest due to the revelation. We hadn’t anticipated all of this. Largely because many of the world’s religious leaders had said long before that ETI did not threaten their beliefs.”
This lack of preparation (and the disinformation that was being circulated) was highlighted by the attack on the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in California. Over 100 anti-message activists, many wearing T-shirts depicting the face of Theodore John Kaczynski, overran the 350-antenna compound, destroying several of the telescopes, shortly after 10pm on August 4th. After several hours of firefighting with authorities, who were both late on the scene and ill-equipped for the confrontation, the activists retreated into the visitors centre with 5 staff as hostages. The activists’ extreme ideological views soon made it apparent that this would not end peacefully. At dawn the next day, sufficiently reinforced, the authorities were left with no option but to storm the building. 57 activists were arrested and charged with terrorism, the rest lay dead around the site. 12 officers gave their lives, and another 20 were wounded in the liberation. Only 3 of the hostages survived.
Andrej Tadic visited the compound 2 days later with the President of the United States.
“I just couldn’t believe my eyes. So much bloodshed and damage, all over fear and misunderstandings. What struck me most at that moment was how organised this movement had been – and thus how great the task ahead of us.”
The event shook many people around the world – most significantly the scientific community. The activists had made a big point, though also a big mistake. Hat Creek is above the 29th Northern Latitude, and so couldn’t see the Centauri system (which is in the Southern sky), let alone be involved in any attempt to signal back.
Such incidents were rare and isolated, thankfully, but they did highlight a growing concern for human security – from outside our atmosphere and within.
“I am grateful to the international community in at least seeing that this was a situation that had to be dealt with effectively and with cooperation, even if not everyone saw eye to eye on the bigger picture. The last thing we needed was any official or unofficial state support for this terrorism.”
Many political analysts have come to agree that Mr Tadic’s handling of the whole affair, along with the other very serious issues around the world, is what guaranteed him his second term in office. He was awarded the Noble peace prize, and has been acclaimed as the most significant Secretary General since Cuellar and even the birth of the UN.
Part 1 (Continued)
Prof Charles Bridges welcomes me into the control room of Parkes observatory in Australia. His team was instrumental in verifying the signal from the Centauri system in the weeks following its discovery, and in helping with the ongoing data gathering and analysis of the signal.
Parkes radio telescope is the largest in the southern hemisphere, and was able to keep an almost constant vigil over the Centauri system.
He is also probably one of the most charismatic figures involved in this event that I have had the fortune to interview.
“Well, I’ve got to admit, the first thing that went through my head was ‘well here we go again’. It was another run through of checks to make sure that it wasn’t some natural phenomena in the sky, signals bouncing back into the atmosphere, and checks on the hardware and software to see if this was a hoax or a bug. Although most times we are looking at something quite amazing in the universe, sometimes it’s tiresome to have to keep getting your hopes up just to deflate afterwards.
“It was a couple of days in though, that we started getting excited about it. Not too much, just a bit. We knew we were getting something.
“Everything went onto the SETI website. We spent as much time uploading data and commenting online as we did collecting and analyzing data.
“The emphasis on every post, though, was that we were confirming someone else’s discovery. There was never any interest in claiming it for ourselves.”
Prof Bridges is echoing what I’ve heard from pretty much all of the scientific community involved. It seems that this community values its integrity very highly. Quite possibly because the nature and usefulness of their chosen field has so often been brought into question. In a world seemingly full of adversaries it doesn’t bode well to make enemies.
“I was in constant contact with Joseph, comparing data, sharing hopes and fears. God bless the Internet. Without that technological revolution, it would have been years before we got anywhere. Not only did it help with exchanging information, but also the SETI@HOME program made it possible to analyze huge amounts of data in a fraction of the time.
“We were constantly sending streams of information through it. The people who signed up should be given medals. They helped advance our knowledge and understanding by amazing factors. To show our appreciation, Joseph and myself decided to send a print of the original signal to them to put up at home, along with a letter of gratitude. We couldn’t have got this far this quickly without them.”
Although Dr Lesley’s team at UC Berkeley retained their position at the hub of data analysis, the Parkes telescope became the natural centre for observation of the signal.
“It made sense really. Although Arecibo could see the system at this time of year, come the winter months it would be lost to them as it dipped behind the horizon – it’s almost a miracle they heard the signal at all. We were able to keep a year round track of the signal for them.
“Knowing we were such a major part of the operation gave us an enormous sense of head swelling ego.”
Prof Bridges is right to feel such pride. His team led the gathering of data making the decoding of the signal possible – leading to the presentation in the General Assembly, and subsequent discoveries and deciphering of signals with major importance in determining the nature of ETI and creating policies about the issues that became apparent.
But those first weeks verifying the signal were some of his most exciting.
“When you’re so use to getting nowhere, and yet you find that signal that just keeps defying all other explanation, and you finally begin to let yourself go with the anticipation of its logical conclusion, the feeling is ecstasy.
“Every day I could swear Joseph’s voice went up an octave in excitement, until he was nearly screaming like a schoolgirl!
“That’s not to say there wasn’t any confusion. The signal looked nothing like how we’d expect a signal sent to us would. That’s part of why it took us so long to believe it, and so to admit it and publicize it. Sure the press was there straight away, but we’re scientists. We take a lot of convincing.”
And convincing they got.
“I remember being on the phone to Joseph, I think he was actually living at Berkley at that time. He was screaming ‘this is it! This is fucking it!’. We had Berkeley on the conference line, so everyone could hear the champagne bottles popping, and the shouts. I know he says we weren’t fully convinced until later, but we were definitely convinced enough to party. It was the day after that I flew over to Puerto Rico, where we relived the celebration over again.
“I think we lost a good 2 hours of brain power the next day due to hangovers.”
Prof Bridges was called upon for a brief presentation at the conference in New York, and to help with the questions.
“Some of the questions we had, from members of the more sensationalist press, were just ludicrous: ‘What is the message?’, ‘What do they look like?’, ‘Are they peaceable?’, ‘what shall be our reply?’. No matter how many times we tried to tell them that our deciphering of the signal was substantially incomplete (not even started, to be honest) they still kept firing them at us.
“I remember thinking, ‘Doesn’t anybody speak English anymore?’. How can we answer these questions when we’ve only just confirmed the signal? These answers would take ages to formulate, assuming we even could.”
The Parkes observatory team didn’t let the mountain of work ahead of them daunt them though. They were riding on the crest of a wave, charting unexplored territory in astronomy.
I ask him, then, about the effect the Hat Creek incident had on him and his team.
“Bloody idiots! What’s the sense in trying to put back Man’s advancement in knowledge and reasoning? Where’s the sense in the bloody slaughter? I’m glad we don’t have such a high case of that type of whack job in Australia.
“The whole of the SETI community held a minute’s silence for the 2 researchers the next day. Bloody sad business, if you ask me. But for every person who stood against progress, many millions stood for it. That kept the community strong. The sense that we had a morale mandate. We were always receiving emails praising the work we were doing. It actually got a bit out of hand, and we were glad of Dr Shostak’s website idea, because the emails would just back up the system otherwise.
“But seriously, the people and their support were just fantastic. I felt like a movie star.”
What follows are excerpts from a first draft of a novel I was writing, on the idea of an extraterrestrial signal being discovered.
I have begun to re-imagine the book, but I’ve decided to place up these excerpts, because they were fun to write. I hope they are just as fun to read.
Author’s note regarding abbreviations:
SETI – (the) Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
ETI – Extraterrestrial Intelligence
PART 1: DISCOVERY
I meet Dr Joseph Lesley at the Arecibo Radio Observatory, in Puerto Rico. After a brief look around the visitor’s centre (which has a very large display of the original signal signature in the foyer, which looks like a strange 3D multicoloured graph) he takes me on a short tour of the complex, explaining quite technically what goes on here. He explains some of the semantics of the graph, which comprises of three axes: Time, Power and Frequency. It mostly looks a mess, apart from just to the left of the centre, in which rises a strong uniform column. A clear indication of an intelligent signal, I am told. I’m very much lost in the physics and technological jargon, but I try my best to smile and nod in the right places. Truth be known, I’m a bit awe struck. I feel like a child who’s met Columbus after his return from the Americas.
We’re stood on the walkway overlooking the giant 1000 ft dish.
I think he realizes he’s going a bit over my head, and decides to settle down to the story I’m truly here for.
“I know the first question on every one’s lips,” he says, looking as if he can read my mind. “If it was from that close to us all along, why didn’t we notice it sooner? Well, there are a lot of reasons.
“Firstly, one of the major myths of SETI is that it is an organization. NASA did set up the SETI project many years ago, but that project was disbanded. Since then the SETI institute has been a privately funded affair, with donors such as microsoft’s Paul Allen. However, SETI is just an umbrella term for a project being undertaken by many different organizations. There is no real centralization. Certainly, the SETI Institute is seen as a galvanizing force, and central point, because of the funding we have, but we are by no means a true headquarters of an organization calling itself SETI. This means that there is a lot of talk going on between the various factors, which can make any signal’s confirmation quite lengthy.
“Secondly, we just didn’t have the means. The SETI projects have long been looking for a signal in the microwave frequency band, one that would not be confused with any other natural ‘background noise’. We didn’t have the means to accurately discern any normal communications transmissions – things like TV broadcasts – from anything else out there. We assumed though, and still assume to some degree that someone out there would use this narrow band signal. Part of this is because we believed – and again still believe – that there may be some form of life sending signals out to the universe about their existence, and this method makes most sense. But they weren’t sending that signal out. It was only recent technological breakthroughs that allowed us to truly ‘eavesdrop’ on ETI. Their ‘near closed’ communication paths – an increasing trend that we see in our own communications network – would have been impossible to listen to just 30 years ago.
“Thirdly, and tied in with this is an exposure of the myth of SETI – that myth being that we’re just a bunch of UFOlogists spending all our time looking for little green men. In fact, most of our time is spent listening to noises that aren’t from ETI, but are just natural phenomena, and cataloguing them. We also look at people’s submissions of possible signals, and ritually debunk them – not maliciously, just because it’s not ETI (sometimes it still turns out to be something amazing though, or at least something that enables us to recalibrate our ideas for future searches – such as what happened at Greenbank). SETI does as much to point out that there isn’t Alien life out there as it does to find it, much to our dismay. We are scientists, and as such we don’t jump on the first ‘Wow’ signal and start proclaiming we’ve found ETI. Each one has to be investigated and either verified or, in 99.9% of cases falsified. In this process we do a lot of other astronomy, finding new objects in the cosmos. We even do a lot of work finding extra solar planets.
“That’s what took us so long to find a signal. We didn’t have the means to discern it, and so any noise we got from that part of the cosmos we couldn’t feasibly say was ETI. Even when we detected the first evidence of an extra solar planet out there, we weren’t able to tell if we were hearing anything from ETI. Finding a planet is much easier than finding any signs of intelligent life, though we’re getting better.”
“Our main problems were with the Software and Hardware. Technology certainly has come a long way since we started this project. Once we had the means we were away. Not over night, you understand. It was a while before we looked back over the Centauri system. Even then, we weren’t as advanced as we are now – the signal was still faint, but we could discern it.
“When SETI first started we couldn’t tell ETI from much else around us. Now, given time to decode the signal, we could watch their TV.”
We certainly have come a long way. It is a very sobering thought, given past events. Our technological evolution has been bitter sweet in our very recent history. Many of us wonder if fate played us a cruel hand. Dr Lesley, though, is optimistic of the future – even if a little somber at the immediate loss. “Lessons have been learnt, and we have to move on with them,” he tells me. He espouses the notion that all here is not lost. He may be right, but only time will tell.
As we stand there, we begin reminiscing about the start. I’m forced to ask why it took so long to become public knowledge.
“Well, I wouldn’t say we took very long. We first got the signal on June 5th. There were strict procedures to go through before going anywhere near the public domain with it. Like I say, we spend most of our time ascertaining that possible signals aren’t actually from ETI. Take the 1997 Greenbank signal. We tracked that for about 24 hours before we realized it was just the SOHO satellite. The signal doesn’t come through and switch on a big light in the room labeled “ETI Calling”. If anything, there’s a lot of little lights that gradually get turned on, from “it’s probably just a quasar”, through “it looks slightly less natural”, up to “we’re about as certain as we can be that this is it” – and then we start trying to decode it. Even then, we still have to be ready for an elaborate hoax, or something else outside our present reference.
“Remember the first planet hunters? The Swiss team took forever to disclose their findings. For one thing, there had been so many false starts, they didn’t want to jump the gun. Also, they didn’t want anybody else to get there first if they gave away too much. Mind you, the latter wasn’t something we could afford to worry about, but the former was very much on our mind through almost the whole discovery process.
“In fact, this thing hit the public domain long before we were even confident.”
He’s right, within 48 hours of the discovery, tentative reports were leaking into the media about evidence of Alien life. Even the world’s broadsheets were publishing small articles in their science supplements about the discovery and its possible causes. In fact, it was the journalistic realm of gutter press – the kind that headlines “My Hubby’s an Alien” every week – that actually had its heyday in being right for once. Though only because they’d always jump the gun on these issues.
“Seth Shostak wrote a paper on this back in 2000. It was about the fact that within 24 hours of the Greenbank signal, the New York Times called him up about it. The problem has always been that the press will find out. He proposed a system, using an Immediate Reaction Plan (IRP) to control the flow of information surrounding any discovery. You’ll recall the SETI website everyone was watching when the discovery was made? That was his brain child. A simple way to try and manage what information we had and put it in the public arena. That was just for the public and press, and for sharing info between projects, not censorship.
“The problem with keeping it secret is that we need to verify the signal. Unlike the planet hunters, in order to do that as fast as we can (which we need to do), we pass anything that gets through our first checks around to other observatories that can scan the same patch of sky. They do their tests, which help make sure it isn’t something natural, or a hoax, and the project becomes global.
“Of course, involved in this process are a number of amateur star gazers and groups around the world – whose input is invaluable in confirming the results.
“Then there’s all the other bodies of people we had to contact when we could verify it- The UN, The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), The international academy of astronautics (IAA), the international institute of space law (IISL), the international council of scientific unions (ICSU)- the list is seemingly endless. Even with the best will in the world, it was always going to leak out that we thought we’d got something before we were ready to go public with any announcement.”
It wasn’t until mid July that the SETI community first reported to the world, as one, that they had found what they’d been searching for nearly a century. A real signal from Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
“To be honest, there were people in the program still unsure about going public then,” Dr Lesley tells me with a faint smile. “In some way we were pushed into confronting the issue. Public speculation was growing every day. People wanted to know what was going on. We left it as long as possible before we thought we were ready – many of us afraid that somebody might stand up and say ‘actually it was just me and my friends’. I was mostly certain, though.
“When you look at the work that went into making sure this was bone fide, we didn’t actually take very long to make it known to everyone.”
On July 11th, Dr Joseph Lesley stood in front of the world’s assorted press agencies at the UN in New York (joined by Prof Charles Bridges of the Parkes Telescope Observatory in Australia, who had flown in to San Francisco just 2 days before), and prepared to become the first man to tell humanity that it was not alone in the universe, and have hard proof to back him up.
“Well, it was a little nerve racking. I mean, I doubt there’s anyone in the program who never practiced their speech for the day they finally say to the world ‘I’ve found ET!’ like everyone in the film industry practices their Oscar speech – ‘I’d like to thank my family, my friends, my director, and Zargon from the planet Krung’ – but you can’t actually ready yourself for it. It also didn’t help that my plane had literally just landed a few hours ago, and I barely had time to get freshened up. I looked hideous – probably stank, too.
“In the end, all I could do was walk out after the Secretary General and show the befuddled media a load of slides of the signal, and all of the technical crap that went into getting to this point. I think they all expected something showier. They probably wanted some speech on the significance of this finding, it’s ramifications to human existence, a rundown of Alien lifestyles – maybe some TV shows. I couldn’t give them any of that. I wasn’t geared up for it (well not just yet for the TV shows). All I could do was present our simple findings, explain the technical jargon, and then stumble through the questions – thankfully with Charles’ help. Not the most evocative speech for one of the most poignant discoveries ever made.”
Again, Dr Lesley is right. He was no Churchill or Lincoln. He had none of the sound bite of Armstrong’s “Small step for man…” or even an Archimedes “Eureka”. His was a science lesson, given to a worldwide classroom, whose understanding of science paled in comparison. It was like having Einstein explain Relativity to a group of 9 year olds. The specialised journalists were mostly left to themselves to try and explain the process to those willing to try and get their head around it. But the message itself was clear. Intelligence was no longer unique to humanity.
I should point out that Joseph’s nerves got the better of him here, as well as having so much work still to do. Speaking to him now, he seems very removed from the man we all saw that day – More comfortable with this interview, and able to speak in a language I can understand.
“If I could go back and do it again, I’d probably have written a speech about how historic an occasion it is, how mankind will never be the same, and of the vast opportunities open to us – even about our privileged place in time. If anyone really remembers more than the first few sentences I actually said, I’d be amazed.”