The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
The year is 1989, and Star Trek: The Next Generation is in its second season, maintaining the mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” The voyages of Captain Picard and his crew are dismissed by the scientific community as works of far-out fantasy, as they certainly are. It’s a TV show, not a documentary. Yet Allan Goodman, a dean at Georgetown University, is spearheading an initiative to essentially carry out Picard’s orders; by 1992, he hopes the United Nations will sign off on an agreement between world leaders to search the skies for intelligent life.
That’s all well and good, but should the search bear fruit, what then? The Reader‘s hefty 1989 profile of Goodman, authored by Greg Kitsock, outlines his proposed protocol for when—not if—our planet makes contact with aliens. It contains multiple mandates, leading with one as prescient today as it was then:
The nine articles of the “Declaration of Principles Concerning the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence” are as straightforward as the Ten Commandments.
Article one stipulates, not in so many words, that Thou Shalt Wait Before Calling the Media. Inserted at the insistence of astronomers such as Peter Boyce of the American Astronomical Society, article one directs research organizations discovering a possible alien signal to hold off making a public announcement until they “verify that the most plausible explanation for the evidence is the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence rather than some other natural phenomenon.”
Originally, the space lawyers were “woefully ignorant” of this need, says Boyce. “Everybody assumes [the communicator] will be like ET and start talking right away. It won’t be like that at all!” He added that the more information that is packed into a signal, the more difficult it will be to pick out from random background noise.
The remaining eight call for clarity and transparency. All information collected must be shared with the international science community, and man-made radio signals must be silenced should a strange message broadcast on a specific airwave. Then, any responses must fit one of a dozen criteria:
Originally, the SETI agreement did contain a section on drafting a reply. No actual reply was written; instead the drafters scripted 12 general principles to consider before radioing a message from Earth. These principles run the gamut from “respect for the territory and property of others,” “recognition of the will to live,” and “fair play, justice and mercy” to “truthfulness and non-deception,” “peaceful and friendly welcome,” and “respect for knowledge, curiosity and learning.”
Making and maintaining contact is an arduous process, involving multiple third variables. For example: the possibility of facing immediate intergalactic war, or roadblocks set up by those who don’t believe, for religious reasons or due to full-on skepticism, that extraterrestrial life exists.
Goodman was an advocate for searching regardless:
Goodman, 44, is a staid, down-to-earth man whom you’d never find at a Star Trek convention. “I don’t like science fiction, and I don’t read it,” he says. But he thinks SETI MOP is worthwhile no matter what your disposition is toward extraterrestrials. “You can be agnostic, you can be a passionate believer that there’s nothing out there, or a passionate believer that there’s got to be something,” he says. “The fact is our technology between now; as we speak, and 1990 is growing at such a rate that it is conceivable we might be able to hear the whole electromagnetic spectrum and detect things we’ve never heard before. We might be able to answer the question, ‘Is there anybody out there?'”