OUR quest to contact aliens has reportedly created a rift between scientists responsible for handling humanity’s potential communication with ET.
For the past five decades or so, a network of scientists and astronomers have been scanning the cosmos looking for any radio signals or electronic signs left by an advanced alien species.
This network is largely known as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Despite all their efforts, the cosmic radio waves have remained quiet when it comes to celestial messages from intelligent life.
The cynics among us would probably be quick to invoke the idea of the Fermi Paradox as to why such exercises by SETI are a fool’s errand — but some of the researchers are highly optimistic. The director of the institute, Seth Shostak, has famously predicted we’ll make some sort of contact with an alien species within the next two decades.
Of course, he is way more bullish on this topic than anybody else, and sadly there has so far been nothing to support his optimism.
So a splinter group of stargazing researchers inside SETI wants to be more proactive in the hunt for ET. Instead of just combing the skies looking for signals, they want to go on the offensive and beam messages into the cosmos on behalf of the human race.
The group calls themselves Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or METI, and they are dedicated to designing and sending messages intended for extraterrestrial recipients.
It won’t be the first time we’ve sent messages into space but some worrywarts think it’s a bad, or potentially even dangerous idea to solicit the attention of an unknown and obviously intelligent alien race. Those opposed to the idea include Stephen Hawking who thinks sophisticated aliens might view us like we view bacteria.
But Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International, is dismissive of such concerns.
“One of the reasons people are so afraid of METI is that it seems riskier to do something than to do nothing,” Mr Vakoch told Motherboard over e-mail.
“When we try to evaluate the risks and benefits of an unknown situation where we have little or no actual data, we fall back on the most vivid images that come to mind. But just because the first images of alien contact that come to mind are horrific, that doesn’t mean they’re realistic.”
METI plans on beaming out its first messages in 2018, the only question is how do you communicate with a species we have absolutely no idea about?
Previous solutions to this conundrum have proposed things like sending some form of a purely mathematical language, music, or pictograms in the direction of potentially habitable exoplanets.
The message will almost certainly need to be rooted in maths and physics, since they’re the fundamental language of the universe as we know it and thus are likely to be the only two types of knowledge we have in common. And that is exactly METI’s plan.
“Some of the most prominent messages of the past have tried to cover everything,” Mr Vakoch said. “We’re taking the opposite approach. Rather than trying to communicate everything (about math, science and life on Earth), we are focusing on saying a few things very clearly.”
But the question remains: will anyone, or anything, hear it?