Weekend Feature: "The METI Controversy" -Is the Effort to Send Messages to an Alien Civilization a Threat to Earth?
If we should pick up signals from alien civilizations, Stephen Hawking, our century's Einstein, warns: "we should have be wary of answering back, until we have evolved" a bit further. Meeting a more advanced civilization, at our present stage,' Hawking says "might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus. I don't think they were better off for it."
Earth's attempts to contact intelligent, extraterrestrial life could be too disorganised or cryptic for non-human beings to decode, US physicists have reported. In a submission to the international journal, Space Policy, astrophysicists Dimitra Atri, Julia DeMarines and Jacob Haqq-Misra suggested that a protocol be developed to improve the likelihood that messages would be understood.
Dr Alexander Zaitzev, of the Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics at the Russian Academy of Sciences, doesn't think much of these worries either way. A proponent of METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), in a paper he shows that the odds of one of the METI messages being detected is a millionth of that due to powerful radar pulses regularly used in astronomical investigation. Though whether writing a paper saying "This METI thing we're doing has only a tiny chance of working" is overall a good idea remains to be seen. An important point is that METI represents an intentional will to make contact, rather than the accidental alien interception of some random radiation from Earth - the difference between saying "Hello!" and just being a suspicious strange noise late at night.
Most of the objections to contacting aliens are weak under close examination. We can't suddenly decide to hide after fifty years of pumping electromagnetic radiation into space without rhyme or reason - in fact, we'd better hope that an advanced civilization doesn't catch an episode of "American Idol" and just vaporize us outright.
Then there's the assumption that aliens would have the same kind of technology we do - despite the extremely obvious fact that our technology can't actually get to other exo planets. Any attempt to mask radio emissions will likely look like cavemen closing their eyes to hide from satellite imaging.
Undaunted by prior controversy swirling around the METI effort, Atri and his team argued that Earth had been emitting electromagnetic signals for more than a century, mostly as "unintended leakage from television, aviation, and telecommunication".
"An advanced civilization within a radius of 100 light years could detect our television shows and already know we are here, so there is little hope in concealing our location in space," they wrote.
Since 1974, humans have broadcast the numbers one through ten, atomic numbers of elements in DNA, graphics of a human, the solar system, and Arecibo, musical melodies, text messages, photographs and drawings.
The researchers believe that messages had become increasingly "anthropocentric" and complex, which could make them more difficult for extraterrestrial listeners to decode and decipher.
"Modern technology allows for large amounts of data to be transmitted at moderate costs, but the broadcast of massive amounts of information assumes that the recipient extraterrestrials will be capable of comprehending a complex message," they wrote.
"Given that we know very little about the nature of extraterrestrial civilizations, if they exist, we are likely to increase the probability of us successfully communicating to them if we use a message that the recipient is likely to understand."
Once developed, a METI protocol could be used to test communication across human cultural boundaries, the researchers wrote.
They suggested the establishment of a website through which members of the public could create sample messages that conformed to the protocol, and retrieve and attempt to decrypt messages by other users.
"A METI protocol is needed in order for a unified and international effort to be made in messaging extraterrestrials," they concluded.
The simple fact is that certain people have always opposed progress while other, better people have driven it. "Experts" decried boiled water as unhealthy compared the vital stuff straight from the river, cursed antibiotics as a temporary placebo, and confidently declared that computers were nothing but expensive toys. As an intelligent species we must make every effort to contact anyone (or thing) we can.
Casey Kazan with Luke McKinney.