Who Speaks for Earth?


The title heading today’s section is the same as the last episode of the legendary series Cosmos, in which Carl Sagan asked the following question: «We know who speaks for the nations; but who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?» At the end of the chapter he concludes that we, humans, should be the ones to speak for Earth. But let’s ask the question here: in the event of contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence, who would represent Earth? Who is or who should be Sagan’s we? Who should be humanity’s spokesman in such an event? Has something already been decided?

When I asked my acquaintances this question, I got various answers: «Does there have to be a representative? I don’t think anyone should represent humankind as a whole» or «A worldwide referendum should be held to decide» (though it might be hard to see how something like that could be organised), or even «Scientists should be, in fact they were before in the cases of Voyager, Pioneer, the Arecibo message… ». However, the most frequent response was: «The UN must take care of it, of course».

The last answer seems to coincide with the conclusion reached by the Royal Society of London in 2010, at a meeting held to assess the consequences of the possible detection of extra-terrestrial life (and whose proceedings were published in its journal Philosophical Transactions in February 2011). The conclusion they reached was that we need a global plan for possible contact with extra-terrestrials, warning that world governments have to prepare for an encounter with an alien civilisation. The meeting ended with an appeal to the United Nations to develop a working group dedicated to «extra-terrestrial affairs».

In fact, in September 2010 remarkable news hit the headlines, suggesting that the UN had paid attention to this request. The news reported the appointment of Mazlan Othman, the Malaysian astrophysicist, as UN space ambassador! Her job would be to coordinate humanity’s response if and when aliens made contact. However, the news was immediately denied by the UN and even Othman herself. The origin of the misunderstanding seems to have been in the office Dr. Othman actually holds, which is none other than the director of UNOOSA, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, which, despite its grandiose name, is responsible for implementing policies on the use and development of space technology in developing countries, keeping track of objects launched into space to ensure their peaceful use, and mediate in conflicts between space agencies. As one UN delegate said sarcastically «nobody has proposed extending the powers of UNOOSA yet».

However, given the success the UN is having in mediating earthly affairs of late, the fact there is not a UN ambassador for space may not be such a bad thing. But in that case, will nobody speak for Earth?

«We know who speaks for the nations; but who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?»
Carl Sagan

© Mètode
Who would represent mankind in the possible event of alien contact? Several hypotheses have already been posed in science fiction TV series and cinema movies. This was the case of the TV series V (on the left), of which a remake has recently been released. Above, several space telescopes that would be able to capture the hypothetical extraterrestrial signal.

There might be. Regarding contact with alien civilisations, the best known agency is, undoubtedly, the SETI Institute. The institute already has a protocol to follow if they pick up an alien signal. First, verification: make sure the signal does not come from our civilisation. Second, warning: it is to be reported to the President of the United States, then the secretary general of the UN, and they would be asked to restrict the use of the signal frequency captured. Third, announcement: after a reasonable period, the finding should be communicated by calling a press conference. Fourth, disclosure: all information should be distributed to major international scientific bodies. Fifth, constraint: replying to the message would be forbidden at this early stage. And sixth, the committee: the SETI Institute would propose a management committee for the «day after», which would be independent of the UN (apparently, they do not hold a very high opinion on the UN’s effectiveness either).

That’s all very well but the SETI Institute happens to be a private institution, and to make matters worse, from the United States. Why should they be the ones to propose this committee? One might expect an international scientific body to be proposed, representing all countries, perhaps the International Astronomical Union (IAU). But despite the many committees the IAU already has, there are none relating even remotely with extra-terrestrial life (let alone with extra-terrestrial intelligence). The issue falls outside the scope of their interests.

But all is not lost. Fortunately we have another international organisation, the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), which is interested in making contact with extra-terrestrials. In fact it already has an international committee of scientists (the only one that I know of) working on «the day after» topic: the SETI Post-Detection Science and Technology Task Group, chaired by the British physicist Paul Davies, a well-known science writer.

So, today Paul Davies is the Sagan’s we that we wanted to identify. He would speak for Earth, though it seems that the «importance» of this responsibility does not have an economic consideration. The minutes of the last meeting held by the SETI Post-Detection Task Group show the group’s main concern is their lack of budget, which even prevents them from financing their own website that is currently paid for by the SETI League, an amateur radio association that collaborates with the SETI.

So, in the end, it will just have to be Obama who speaks for us all…

© Mètode 2011 - 69. Online only. Elective Affinities - Spring 2011
Researcher at the Astronomic Observatory of the University of Valencia.