Editor Jocelyn Bell sits and poses with a smile. She is a white woman with short reddish hair above her shoulders. She is wearing a purple short-sleeved shirt and her left arm is propped up on the backrest of the chair she is sitting on.
Broadview editor and publisher Jocelyn Bell. (Photograph by Regina Garcia)

Topics: Ethical Living | Editor's Letter, Science

If we find intelligent alien life, should we communicate with it?

As science fiction explores the relationships between humans and aliens, Broadview editor Jocelyn Bell ponders what big discoveries could mean for us

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Back in August 1977, Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope picked up a 72-second signal that seemed to come from the Sagittarius constellation. Astronomer Jerry Ehman spotted the anomalous sequence “6EQUJ5” on the printed data, circled it in red and wrote “Wow!” in the margin. It became known as the “Wow! signal.” Some still consider it the most hopeful sign of extraterrestrial communication detected to date.

The human desire to discover if we’re alone in the universe has only intensified in the years since. In Broadview’s July/August cover story, author David Wilson illustrates how the search for life beyond our solar system is gaining mainstream legitimacy. And that search is leading to philosophical questions about how finding ETs could forever change what it means to be an Earthling.

I love grappling with these questions and the ones that immediately follow: If we find intelligent alien life, should we try to communicate with it? How would we do that, and what would we say? Who would make these decisions on behalf of eight billion of us?


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Sci-fi writers and movie makers have had a heyday with these quandaries. In Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film, Arrival, octopus-like aliens touch down on Earth, and linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) must find a way to read their inkblot communications. Banks succeeds, but confusion over whether the aliens are saying “tool” or “weapon” launches a global frenzy of terror. A shared vocabulary is one thing; meaning is quite another.

In this year’s Netflix series 3 Body Problem, humans have sent signals into the universe and aliens are responding. In one plot twist, the relationship between human and alien takes a turn when the aliens can’t distinguish between a fairy tale’s moral “truth” and the “lie” that is fiction — mistrust, fear and more violence result.

Back in real life, many astronomers oppose any attempt to tell extraterrestrials we’re here. As physicist Stephen Hawking once said: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”


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But the search continues, and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute is devising experiments aimed at testing the assumption that ETs would actually want to make contact with Earthlings, at least the human kind.

Gazing up at the stars on a clear summer night, I like to imagine who or what’s out there, and to sense the smallness of our messy global problems compared to the vastness of the universe.

And yet, I worry that Hawking is right about attempting contact. We already have so much difficulty communicating with other members of our own species across lines of religion, culture, language and ethnicity. Maybe before we try talking to aliens, we should learn to talk to each other.

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Jocelyn Bell is the editor and publisher of Broadview.

This story first appeared in Broadview’s July/August 2024 issue with the title “Talking to Aliens.”

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Jocelyn Bell

Editor/Publisher

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