Dr John Elliott, from St Andrew’s University, is central to SETI’s search for extra-terrestrial civilisations. He’s worked out how to ‘talk’ to aliens, and what we should do once contact is made. Writer at Large Neil Mackay reports



St Andrews University academic Dr John Elliot is part of SETI’s ‘post-detection hub’, focusing on protocols such as the  legal, social, psychological, scientific and religious responses humanity should employ if alien life is discovered


IF an alien civilisation ever does contact humanity, one man will be at the centre of it all: Dr John Elliott, a softly-spoken, mild-mannered academic from St Andrews University.

Elliott is one of the most significant figures in SETI - the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence, an organisation spawned by Nasa, which now encompasses hundreds of the world’s leading scientists across the globe.

Elliott has crafted the ultra-complex linguistic technology needed to decode any alien message, and leads what’s known as SETI’s ‘post-detection hub’. Established by Elliott just last November, the hub is based at St Andrews. It’s currently drafting the ‘alien protocols’ which will govern how humanity interacts with extra-terrestrials should contact ever be made.

Put crudely - and Elliott will surely hate the analogy - he’s the character in every alien movie advising the president about what to do when spaceships land on the Whitehouse lawn: the genius scientist on hand to help humanity.

The protocols that Elliott’s branch of SETI are devising include the legal, social, psychological, scientific and even religious responses humanity should employ if extra-terrestrial intelligence is discovered - especially how our governments and international bodies like the UN behave.

The protocols advise on how information about alien contact should be disseminated to the world’s population; the impact on societies across the planet; the effect on science and research; how we’d interact with any alien life; the possible medical, technological, legal and economic consequences; and the implications for human life and culture across the globe.

It’s quite the task. After all, it’s only the future of intergalactic relations which depends on Elliott and his team.



Above, this landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope



It all began in the 1990s when Elliott, a rather brilliant young computer scientist, was working on his PhD. His field of expertise was language and artificial intelligence. “The search for extra-terrestrial life wasn’t on my radar back then,” he explains. Elliott began unravelling ‘what language really is’: he wanted to discover the mechanics of language on an almost atomic level. So he took apart the vast array of human languages - including ancient and dead languages - and put them back together, like an engineer dismantling a car to see how it operates.

Then his eureka moment arrived. “Suddenly it just went ‘ping!’. I thought: what happens if you receive an alien message? Could you tell that a language was in there?”

If Elliott could establish the fundamental ‘physics’ of language he’d take a step towards unlocking completely unknown languages, like alien speech or writing.

“So I went off on that mission, looking beneath the veneer of the symbols we use in writing and the sounds we make in speech. I was doing these mathematical measures of the way language is put together.”

What he discovered is that all languages on Earth are fundamentally the same in terms of their mechanics. Chinese, English, Latin, German, Ancient Egyptian, are all just slightly different codes.


Elliott then turned his attention to animals, specifically dolphins, apes and birds. Did animals have language and if so, was it structured like human speech? If they did, then this latter-day Doctor Doolittle was another step closer to discovering how to decode alien language should contact ever be made.

The answer was yes: animals did have language and it was similar to human speech. “The template you come up with for how human speech works is reflected in the animal kingdom, just in a more simplistic sway,” he says. “They’re just much less complex than we are.”

Infant dolphins, he explains, babble like babies, then their language abilities expand as they mature, just like us. Dolphins can communicate ideas like ‘shark over there’ or ‘baby follow me’. Elliott says dolphin language abilities are “roughly five-ninths” that of humans. “Brain capacity directly reflects the complexity of language,” he adds.

By now, Elliott had a template to deconstruct any future alien communication. Eventually, his work caught the attention of SETI. He was voted onto the SETI permanent committee, with the International Academy of Astronautics, and the rest is history. He became an integral and leading member of the international team searching for extra-terrestrial life. Elliott also founded the UK’s SETI Research Network which he now chairs, with Lord Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, as patron.

In all, there’s around 40 academics from Canada to Australia, America to Greece, working with the post-detection hub. Arthur C Clarke spoke of the “great importance” of Elliott’s work, and he has been called “one of the five most important people on the planet” in the search for alien life.






The notion of alien contact has moved from the realms of science fiction to a legitimate part of the news cycle of late. First came astonishing video, released by the Pentagon, of American military jets encountering unexplained objects in the sky. Just last week, US congressional hearings heard from military officials who claimed the American government knows more about UFOs than it’s letting on.

Elliott doesn’t buy any of that. He’s pretty confident that aliens haven’t - yet - visited Earth. Though, he’s sure intelligent life exists out there in the vastness of space.

The public, he says, should think of SETI as not just the search for extra-terrestrial ‘intelligence’, but extra-terrestrial ‘technology’. It’s more likely we’ll first discover alien hardware, or signals, rather than exotic life-forms.

Advances in science over recent decades mean humanity now has the ability to identify alien signals. Given we’ve reached that technological stage, Elliott believes it’s time to get our act together when it comes to the rather troubling question of ‘what we do if a signal is discovered’.


Without any procedures in place, the planet could descend into chaos in the event of alien contact. There could be panic in the streets, mass suicides, religious mania, crime, social unrest, and economic collapse. However, many scientists believe that if handled properly, alien contact could be a moment which uplifts humanity, brings us together, and heralds a new dawn of scientific advancement and even peace.

An alien signal would be picked up in one of two ways: either it’s beamed directly to us from another planet, or we intercept it via eavesdropping with radio telescopes. If it was beamed directly to us, Elliott hopes it would more than likely contain some sort of ‘Rosetta Stone’ allowing us to decipher the message. If we simply intercept it, then humanity would have to fall back on Elliott’s linguistic research and algorithms to figure out what they’re saying.

However, as Elliott points out: “It’s all well and good having this capability with language, but what do you do next? What will we do post-detection?” That was the impetus behind creating SETI’s post-detection hub at St Andrews. As the hub is less than a year old, work on the ‘alien protocols’ is still at an early stage.


For Elliott, “the central tenet is transparency”: if contact occurs, the world must know the truth. But how to do that in a safe, timely manner? Under Elliott’s leadership, the hub has recruited an astonishing array of international talent to help draft humanity’s response, including philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, zoologists, medics, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, radio specialists, former NASA staff, astronomers, linguists, lawyers, and experts in politics and international relations. Michael Garrett, director of Britain’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, is also part of the post-detection team.

“I can’t think of a more multidisciplinary endeavour in the history of humankind,” Elliott adds.

It’s little wonder the team is stacked with so many big brains. Work on ‘post-detection protocols’ is as complex as the search for alien life.

Think of this issue: how might all the differing governments of Earth react? Certainly Iran, North Korea, and Saudia Arabia would behave differently to America or Europe. What would Russia or China do? Would some states react aggressively? Would there be religious reactions? How would our governments, or the UN, even prepare the statement which tells the world that contact has been made without causing mass panic? How would our technologies change, our societies evolve or devolve?


Matters wouldn’t be as dramatic, Elliott says, if any signal came from “light years away”. That would evidently cause much less panic than direct contact with an alien race.

What Elliott’s work has taught him is how little humanity really knows. “In a sense, we’re just out of the caves,” he says - and it took roughly four billion years for intelligent life to evolve on Earth.

We now stand on the threshold of finding life out there somewhere. If it’s found, it will undoubtedly be by someone who’s part of SETI. There’s scientists linked to SETI all round the world aiming their telescopes at the stars hoping to find that alien signal.

Once extra-terrestrial intelligence is discovered, Elliott says, “we need a seamless, efficient way of mitigating any negativity”. His alien protocols would become the interface between the scientists who discover alien life, and the politicians sculpting humanity’s reaction.


Contact might not come from what Elliott calls a “classic signal” - a message sent directly to us, or us intercepting alien communications. It could come in the shape of the discovery of alien artefacts. Elliott says we should think of “the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey”. Perhaps, as we explore the mysteries of space we discover proof of extra-terrestrials through technological finds.

The least dramatic form of contact would be the discovery of microbial life on another planet in the solar system. “It would be proof of concept for life being prevalent everywhere in the universe,” Elliott says. Though it wouldn’t prove alien intelligence.

Probes provide perhaps the greatest chance of discovery, Elliott believes. Either an alien probe arriving on Earth, or one of our probes discovering alien intelligence. Using probes fitted with AI is much less risky than sending a living explorer - either alien or human - to voyage through space.


It’s all but impossible to view the universe and believe there’s no life out there. Our sun will last 10 billion years. Orange dwarf stars can go on for 40 billion years, and red dwarfs much longer. We know there’s maybe 200-300 billion stars just in the our galaxy - and every one “has probably got a planet nearby”, Elliott adds. We’re increasingly finding exo-planets - worlds similar to Earth that could harbour life. “Add up all these figures - how colossal it is, how many planets there must be - and the answer is: life has to be out there,” he says.

Elliott quotes the famous astronomer Carl Sagan, who said that if the universe is empty then it’s “an awful waste of space” if we’re the only creatures. If an alien civilisation were “millions of years longer-lived than us, then their technologies will be like magic, we’d very much be the baby in the room”.

However, no claims of UFO contact here on Earth stand up to scrutiny so far, Elliott believes. “I haven’t seen something that’s got compelling evidence.” Most folk “in the SETI community” are of the opinion that aliens coming to Earth “isn’t impossible, it’s just very improbable given the distance, time and effort involved”. The Earth is by no means at “galactic centre, we’re in the suburbs”.

“However, you can’t say it never happened. It could have happened before we even evolved. But there’s nothing to say it did happen. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.”



Explanations for the Wow! signal, detected more than 40 years ago, have ranged from intermittent natural phenomena to secret spy satellites to an alien civilisation

Explanations for the Wow! signal, detected more than 40 years ago, have ranged from intermittent natural phenomena to secret spy satellites to an alien civilisation


While Elliott evidently believes in intelligent alien life, he also accepts there’s a “certain likeliness” to this rather tragic notion: alien civilisations may evolve and go extinct before any have the chance to meet. Intelligent life all across the universe may reach the stage of nuclear power and early space travel and then blow itself to smithereens. It’s a warning to humans over where we now stand on our own evolutionary path.

“We might receive a signal and the sender is already extinct,” he adds. “It could be the last gasp of that civilisation.”

But we must be prepared for the possibility of encountering alien intelligence. If pandemic taught us anything, Elliott feels, it’s that humanity must be ready for the unexpected. Simply preparing ourselves for an alien encounter - by improving radio telescopes, say - will lead to huge scientific advances. It might help us understand black holes, or theories like wormholes and parallel universes.

So what should we do if we ever encounter alien life? “Be friendly,” says Elliott. They’ll be much more advanced, so acting tough probably isn’t the smart move. But there’s no reason, he believes, that an alien race would visit Earth just to harm us. “There’s loads of other Earths,” he says, if they wanted plunder. It would be hard to get here - even for advanced intelligences - so any journey would be made out of “curiosity”, and any civilisation capable of travelling across the universe would have most probably got past its warlike stage.We shouldn’t imagine, though, that we’ll meet some kind of “Star Trek” alien, Elliott says. Just look at the octopus, he notes. We share a common ancestor in a flatworm 600 million years ago, but it evolved “a completely different intelligence” to ours. Aliens and humans may look unimaginably strange to each other.


Although one big benefit in drafting SETI’s alien protocols is the prevention of humanity going crazy should an encounter take place, Elliott actually believes contact wouldn’t lead to rioting and panic.

Given the most likely contact scenario seems to be a probe with alien AI from thousands of light years away, the great distance means humanity would probably not be scared, but rather curious, and that could lead to a huge scientific leap forward as we scramble to reply.

Even if aliens did land on the Whitehouse lawn, the advanced state of their civilisation would mean they’d more likely come in peace to bestow gifts and wisdom on us than cause harm, Elliott speculates. However, not everyone agrees.

Stephen Hawking felt contact would be dangerous, and SETI is “50-50 split” on whether humanity should reply if we picked up a message. It’s called the ‘dark forest hypothesis’ and supposes that all across the universe there may be civilisations remaining quiet in case they risk extinction in the event of discovery by alien races.

That theory perhaps says more about humans, than any aliens out there.

Elliott thinks if extra-terrestrial civilisations were advanced enough for interstellar travel they’d easily pick up proof of life on other planets anyway, despite their inhabitants trying to hide. “They could just shine the equivalent of a huge searchlight through the ‘forest',” he says. “You couldn’t hide. It would be a lost chance to communicate, with all its potential benefits.”


If possible any reply to an alien communication should be in their own language. Again, this is where Elliott’s linguistic work comes into play. “You want a short greeting of peaceful intent, a linguistic handshake.” We’d also want to give them a flavour of human language too. But the big question then arises: which language?

In the age of conspiracy and distrust, the protocols would be essential in ensuring all the nations of the world believed the information governments were relaying in the event of contact. “We need systems in place so when we say [contact has been made] that it’s understood as the truth.”

Clearly, Elliott’s big dream is meeting an alien face-to-face. “It would be like the Sistine Chapel,” he says, referencing the image of God touching Adam’s hand. “A connection with something else.”

There’s some very earthly benefits to Elliott’s astonishing work on alien contact. His linguistic breakthroughs in understanding the deep patterns of human language have been picked up by MI5 officers combating terror and police fighting paedophile crime. Elliott’s algorithms can be applied digitally to active terror cells to deconstruct their intentions and movements.

Similar algorithms can be thrown into the computers of sex offenders to search huge amounts of information that would take police perhaps months to plough through, finding evidence of grooming behaviour. His work has even been looked at as a means of “immediately detecting” anti-social crime.

The police approached Elliott as commanders were aware of his work with SETI and linguistics and wanted to come at crime-fighting problems “from a completely different viewpoint”.

Unsurprisingly, the one matter which holds back Elliott and his SETI colleagues is money. Like so many scientists labouring in fields which don’t have direct and immediate commercial spin-offs, they need cash. It’s his abiding “frustration”, he says. “It’s much harder to get funding than it is to convince people that there’s actually life out there.”