|The Arecibo Message ... 1974|
The search is known as METI: Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence. This is not to be confused with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which deals with searching for messages from aliens. To/from. Therein lies the difference as well as a major scientific/philosophical dispute.
The SETI project was popularized in the novel, “Contact,” by astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who was central, along with astronomer, astrophysicist Frank Drake, in creating the program by which huge radio telescopes have listened for decades -- still do -- for signals from far-distant civilizations.
The book was later made into a movie starring Jodie Foster. You may remember it. It vaguely resembles the book, which I only recently finished reading as part of my return-to-reading movement that was sparked by a “sudden” appreciation of the science of synchronicity. In brief, I started noticing that coincidences led to more coincidences -- books led to other books, ideas to other ideas, etc. -- and that I ignored the connection between events/people/things at my own loss.
There was a reason that article by Steven Johnson about METI appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine two weeks ago. It was to catch me up on where the search for evidence of life elsewhere in the universe had gone since Sagan’s book was published in 1985. What purpose it may have served for you, I haven’t a clue, but for me it meant there was probably some issue to write about that could lead to more fruitful thought than that monotonous White House disaster.
The fact that I live in Pine Bush, a hamlet in upstate New York known as the UFO capital of the Northeast, just clinched the deal. Of course, in Pine Bush there are quite a few people who believe that extraterrestrials have already been here more than once. Checking us out. Maybe so, but since I have yet to experience a UFO, I’m interested in the debate going on over SETI vs. METI.
It boils down to: It’s all well and good to listen for messages from outer space. If we receive one, it means there is other life out there. We can then decide how, or whether, to respond. The hesitation has to do with not knowing if the other life is friendly or not. If we send out a big hello to the universe, the nay-sayers argue, any civilization that receives it will be far more advanced than ours and could well look upon us as Columbus did on the Native Americans. As Stephen Hawking, the most prominent METI nay-sayer, pointed out, that experience “did not go well” for the Native Americans. Do not advertise our presence, he says, and Elon Musk and many other scientists agree.
But many others disagree, arguing that another civilization, advanced enough to receive our message, would likely also be advanced enough to understand the value of being peaceful.
So, what to do?
METI’s web page lists several objectives, including:
- “Promote international cooperation and collaboration in METI, SETI, and astrobiology.
- “Understand and communicate the societal implications and relevance of searching for life beyond Earth, even before detection of extraterrestrial life.
- “Research and communicate to the public the many factors that influence the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe …”
I’d say the non-profit agency has noble, worthwhile goals. It’s the kind of project that could serve to remind all of us Earthlings of our relative insignificance in the universe and serve as a unifying, educational mission for our querulous planet. Of course, with even scientists being in disagreement about whether to send or just keep listening, I’m skeptical about political leaders being able to reach agreement. In fact, there’s an argument just waiting for the anti-science crowd to adopt: The Fermi Paradox.
Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist who created the first nuclear reactor, asked (I paraphrase): If the universe is so big (100 billion galaxies, 50 sextillion Earth-like planets) and so old (13.82 billion years), there should be 10,000,000,000,000,000 intelligent civilizations in the observable universe and, after millions of years of technological progress, an alien civilization should be capable of long-distance space travel. So where is everyone?
Well, as I said, there are some neighbors of mine who say aliens have already been here. How could we miss them? Government coverup of UFO sightings is a popular -- and not wholly dismissible -- theory.
Either way, I say the METI people -- who used to be the SETI people -- have the right idea. Be pro-active. Send out a big hello to the universe. An inter-galactic tweet. Get an international group of smart, sensitive people from various walks of life to create it. Set up contingencies for what to do if we get a reply … or a visit. War or peace. Then push the button over and over again for however long it takes for some life form out there to receive and understand it.
For the record, a three-minute message was sent out to the universe from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in 1974, under the direction of Drake. It has yet to reach its destination, but it drew immediate strong opposition from the Royal Astronomer of England at the time, who, like Hawking, warned of placing the earth in peril. Since then, we’ve been mostly listening.
I don’t expect to be around when the message is received -- they’re talking about light years here, remember -- but I do think it’s the synchronistic thing to do. Someone has to get the ball rolling. Douglas Vakoch, the head of METI, says the fears are exaggerated. He thinks 100 years of television and radio signals sent into space should have -- for better or worse -- already alerted aliens to our existence and he plans to start sending messages next year.
So … hello, world.