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Lessons Learned

In The Search For Alien Life, An All-Too-Human Communication Failure

Procedures for sifting through data to verify findings are necessary in any industry. Astronomers recently discovered their limitations.

[Photo: Marco Bicci via Shutterstock]

The scientific community was abuzz recently when it was widely reported that Russian astronomers, along with an Italian researcher, had recorded a signal that was, as of then, unexplained.

After looking into what exactly was detected—something from the solar system HD 164595 some 94 light-years away—the Russian astronomers issued a statement explaining that the signal was most likely not extraterrestrial.

But organizations focusing on the search for alien life, such as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) Institute, are continuing to look into the event. Part of the reason is because the signal was received over a year ago, on May 15, 2015, according to a SETI blog post.

At the time, though, the discoverers didn’t immediately alert the SETI community, a breach of long-established practice and protocol. How did that breakdown happen?

When Even The Best-Laid Plans Go Awry

One reason SETI’s protocol likely sputtered is simple. Even though the drafted document has been written and revised for over two decades, the nine rules researchers are supposed to follow when they receive what they think may be an extraterrestrial signal don't necessarily conform to the dynamic nature of the field. Technologies are constantly changing, making it easier to see places we've never seen before, like surface of a comet, for instance. Scientists are still sorting out how best to act on the new data that's coming in all the time.

SETI's rules are a set of defensive actions: if x happens, then y next. That makes them similar to the way measures are created in the cybersecurity sector; SETI’s rules exist to protect those involved but are usually carried out during exceptional circumstances. Security professionals generally have plans in place about what to do during an emergency, yet the reality never plays out the same as it did when conceptualized.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this was the 2013 Target data breach, which exposed personal and payment information of some 40 million customers. The company had numerous security protocols in place—which, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, may have even detected the hack while it was happening. But when theoretical security planning was pushed into active procedure, several things went awry.

When Time Isn’t On Your Side

While Target was alerted by federal law enforcement about two weeks after the hack, data breaches take an average of 146 days to be discovered, according to a report from Mandiant. The potential receipt of an alien signal likewise needs to be vetted, which can also chew up a considerable amount of time.

Franck Marchis, a principal investigator at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute, explained that it's a way to ensure findings are real. Astronomers must "use the scientific method," he said. "Before making an announcement, you contact your colleagues," he explained. "You ask them to confirm that they also see the signal."

Researchers are working around the globe scanning the skies for any sort of abnormality they can detect. Every so often, they find something that defies explanation. The reason SETI has prescribed rules in place is to give a semblance of order to the process of figuring out these unknowns. The scientists I spoke to described the protocol as a safeguard to make sure every signal is properly vetted.

But as Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute who was part of the committee that crafted the document, told me, the protocol is just a prescription. "It’s recommended behavior," he said. "There’s no force of law." After years of meetings and reviews, the protocol has become widely accepted in the astronomy community. And according to Shostak, it’s a "valuable document."

Both he and Marchis pointed to a signal SETI detected in 1997 that ended up being a false alarm. Though it looked promising, after colleagues weighed in, it became clear that the blip was in fact terrestrial.

How Communication Can Break Down Protocols

Still, it's not always a smooth experience. If a promising signal is detected, it creates excitement. A scientist emailing a few friends about the discovery could also notify the press. "It spreads very quickly," Shostak explained. Often a finding that has yet to be completely vetted by the entire astronomy community gets leaked.

That is also reassuring, according to Shostak. He said that findings can get overlooked by the entities that matter—namely the government and the military. But the press has a way of garnering widespread interest that can then get the community involved in a healthy, global debate. The downside: "What’s actually going to happen is a very messy media story," Shostak said, "with conflicting reports."

Yet methodological fissures still remain in the astronomy world. Earlier this year Fast Company reported on the widening difference of opinions when it comes to studying potentially alien lifeforms. While organizations like SETI focus on passively scanning the open skies for any external sign of life, other organizations like METI—Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence—believe it may be more useful to take a more proactive searching approach. Meanwhile, the protocol itself states: "No response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place."

Despite this, the scientists I talked with maintained that nearly every expert in the field is at least aware of the protocol and should know how follow it. But in this case, the team that discovered this faraway blip waited for over a year before making any sort of noise.

While this may seem odd, there's at least one possible explanation for the announcement’s timing. Claudio Maccone, the Italian researcher (who is also the chair of the International Academy of Astronautics Permanent SETI Committee) who first saw the signal, is scheduled to show his findings at the 67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara later this month. Still, this doesn’t quite explain why the Russian astronomers already issued a statement saying it was most likely no extraterrestrial.

Shostak told me that he asked Maccone why the team didn’t alert others about the finding last year. "He said they were shy," Shostak explained. "I don’t know what that means."

Though the protocol has been updated again somewhat recently, it's clear that even the most high-tech scientists can be hampered by rudimentary organizational breakdowns. Do these perceived hiccups actually help push the science forward? Shostak sees the messiness as inevitable; Marchis points to just how important it is that others follow the protocol to truly corroborate findings.

Either way, the truth is out there.

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