This I Believe

Andrew - San Francisco, California
Entered on January 27, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: nature, science
  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.


I was on a local news web site recently. It was not the New York Times, but also wasn’t National Inquirer. It’s a busy little site devoted to things happening in my small slice of heaven.

I laughed at a creative bit of headline writing: “Has E.T. Made a Call?”

For fun, I clicked on the link. The story was no joke.

I read the piece quickly thinking I’d find the punch line at the end. Nope. I read the story a second, then a third time. If nothing else it was unambiguous: An extraterrestrial signal has been picked up by a radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

The story even announced a year-end meeting for scientists to debate the content of a return message.

It was credible to me because I’ve met the two scientists quoted in the article. They’re legit. The third player was the science reporter … a seasoned, well-regarded journalist.

Despite all that there was problem … a problem of protocol.

Announcing humans aren’t alone in the universe is a pretty big deal so researchers must follow a detailed procedure when the signal is received. It’s called the Declaration of Principals and every scientific big-wig is on the list to get the call before the news is released to the rest of us.

I kind of doubt that a local news web site would break the biggest story since the discovery of fire. But maybe word leaked out prematurely. I live in the area where much of this research is being conducted so it’s not impossible somebody slipped up.

I left a message for the reporter. He called back the next day. He was adamant. One of the two men he interviewed had said a mysterious signal had been picked up by a radio telescope in Australia … not Puerto Rico. This scientist further claimed another senior astronomer was convinced the signal was not a mystery at all … it came from an extraterrestrial source a long, long way from here.

The reporter was told the other astronomer was unavailable for comment.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one raising questions. The story was removed from the web site.

Have we intercepted a signal? I don’t know. I do know that it wouldn’t be the first time scientists almost announced we weren’t alone. That experience has made these people very cautious.

A message from E-T will not be in English or Spanish or even Klingon. It could be simply spamming the universe with mathematic formulas. Humans have done that on the assumption the language of math is pretty universal.

But it may not be a message at all. I know one astronomer who thinks the only thing we’ll pick up is a signal from a navigational beacon. Even for advanced civilizations the universe is a big hunk of real estate to travel around in. It is reasonable to think that navigation beacons might be critical to get from Alpha to Beta.

And that brings us to the issue of time and space. The distances are incomprehensible. One scientist pal believes a civilization sending a signal would be long gone by the time we get it. We send a signal in return and by the time we get an answer, we and our planet are very, very dead.

I believe if there’s a meeting at the end of the year to discuss what to say in response to an alien signal, the scientists have the odd task of drafting a planetary obituary. The obit will include our stellar coordinates, our planet’s approximate birth date and the mother-of-all memory chips containing everything we know about everything.