Top 10 messages to send to E.T.

Fear of alien invasion shouldn’t prevent pursuit of ‘active SETI’

Arecibo Observatory

In 1974, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico beamed a message toward the star cluster M13, 21,000 light-years from Earth, in hopes that an intelligent civilization might receive it. Scientists with the SETI project, which has been listening for alien life for decades, now propose sending more such messages in hopes that someone will finally answer. 

NAIC - Arecibo Observatory/Wikimedia Commons

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Let’s face it. Communicating with aliens isn’t working out any better than persuading creationists to accept evolution. Scientists with the SETI project have been listening for decades, but so far not a peep from E.T. Anyone longing for alien contact has to settle for watching sci-fi movies or Doctor Who.

Consequently some of science’s alien hunters have proposed being less passive. It’s time, they say, to launch “active SETI,” with a new acronym: METI, for messages to extraterrestrial intelligence.

“With active SETI  … we take an active role in transmitting intentional, powerful information-rich signals to other civilizations in the hope of getting a response,” Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute said during a news briefing February 12 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But some scientists — Stephen Hawking, for instance — are horrified at this prospect. Sending a signal to deep space will reveal our presence to possibly predatory civilizations. Betraying our location could trigger an alien mission of extermination, the naysayers fear. At the very least, they say, any messages should be sent out only after elaborate international discussions to determine whether to send a message at all and, if so, what the message should be.

“Active SETI is an enterprise that deserves broad-based international discussion,” Vakoch acknowledged. But he advised against holding your breath until that issue reaches the top of the United Nations’ to-do list.

Besides, “international discussions” aren’t typically very successful at resolving anything, such as what to do about most of the problems threatening the planet right now, let alone hypothetical invasions centuries from now.

Any nearby alien empire, after all, would already know about Earth by way of old TV shows, like I Love Lucy (or Doctor Who, for that matter). Even if such aliens were superintelligent and therefore didn’t watch TV, they’d have noticed various radio and radar signals. But those signals aren’t strong enough to be detected on more distant stars — if the aliens are listening in with technologies no better than those used on Earth today.

On the other hand, more advanced civilizations, capable of actually sending an attack armada, would have better eavesdropping equipment.  

“The reality is that any civilization that has the ability to travel between the stars can already pick up our accidental radio and TV leakage,” Vakoch said. “A civilization just 200 or 300 years more advanced than we are could pick up our leakage radiation at a distance of several hundred light-years. So there are no increased dangers of an alien invasion through active SETI.”

If that’s not reassuring enough, we can always hope that the aliens are Doctor Who fans (it figures they would be) and don’t know about fiction, like the Thermians from the movie Galaxy Quest. In which case we’d be safe if the first message we sent was “We Are Protected by The Doctor.”

Even without such protection, some scientists argue that fear of an alien invasion should not get in the way of pursuing the potential benefits of extraterrestrial e-mail. An advanced civilization could be a source of profound knowledge applicable to solving humankind’s greatest problems. Isn’t that worth the pesky risk of alien-induced annihilation?

Maybe. Yet all of this argumentation seems to miss a key point. The real best reason to send messages out there is to discover whether any aliens are out there. It may not even matter what message we send. “I think the important thing is the contact, and not so much the message,” says SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak.

Expecting that the aliens would send back excellent info to help us solve all our problems may be rather excessively optimistic. (It would be a little like honeybees hoping people would tell them how to prevent colony collapse disorder.) But an alien acknowledgment of existence, particularly from a long-lived civilization, would immediately help answer deep questions about whether life in the cosmos is a necessity or an accident, and whether there’s hope that any civilization can actually endure. Maybe later, details would come with cures for cancer, a guide to defying gravity and a way to guarantee that footballs are always properly inflated.

Still, there are issues to consider in choosing the message. For one thing, it has to be composed in a form that intelligent aliens would be able to decipher. Shostak has a suggestion in that regard.

“Personally, I’ve said we should send the entire Internet, because that’s so redundant it’s like sending a lot of hieroglyphics to the 19th century. They can figure it out on the basis of the redundancy.”

So a sufficiently advanced civilization, well acquainted with analyzing big data, ought to be able to decode the Internet accurately. In which case, two possible responses are likely: The aliens will conclude that Earth should be immediately exterminated, or they will send back the favorite examples of their cat videos.

It’s even more likely, though, that advanced aliens would prefer the message to come in tweet form. So, as a service to humankind, here are the top 10 (tweetable) messages to send to E.T.

10. Hello, are you 1) altruistic, or 2) evil? If 2, never mind, and please destroy this message.

9. Did you ever have dinosaurs on your planet? And if so, are they still around? (Apologies if you are the dinosaurs.)

8. Hey, if you guys are looking for a planet to wipe out, try Romulus.

7. Before you consider invading, perhaps you should read The War of the Worlds.                                              

6. Please do not judge us on the basis of Hannibal Lecter, the National Football League or Twitter.

5. Is the quantum state ontic or epistemic?

4. Our motto down here is “Live Long and Prosper.” Yours?

3. Klaatu Barada Nikto.

2. Keep up with Earthling science! Subscribe to @ScienceNews!

And the number one message to send to E.T.:

Phone Earth!

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried

Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

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