Fri. Jan 21st, 2022


Mankind has been plagued by a number of pressing issues over the past year: a global pandemic, economic disruption, climate change and rising geopolitical tensions over Ukraine and Taiwan, to name a few. But in the future we can look back on our time and ask one much more consequential question: was it really such a good idea to contact strangers?

Michio Kaku, the prominent theoretical physicist and author, is not the only one who thinks that any successful attempt to warn any extraterrestrial intelligence on our presence could be a catastrophically bad idea. “I think this will be the biggest mistake in human history,” he has to the New York Times last year. Kaku conjured up images of technologically superior interstellar winners treated people as cruelly as Hernan Cortes dealt with Montezuma’s Aztecs in the 16th century. “If the aliens were to come, it’s not going to be a pretty sight,” he said. “Some people will worship them as gods. Other people will think they are demons. And other people will want to make a deal. ”

But there are many astronomers who are excited about the idea of ​​making contact with any extraterrestrial intelligence and are sharpening efforts to do so. One of the goals of the $ 10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which has just been launched, is to search for habitable exoplanets (planets orbiting stars outside our solar system), where other life forms can still be found.

But there is a significant difference between the passive search for extraterrestrial intelligence, known as SETI, which is relatively uncontroversial among astronomers, and active messages from extraterrestrial intelligence, or METI, which arouse much more opposition.

The first attempt to greet the rest of the universe was made in 1974. when a group of astronomers a message of the Arecibo Observatory Radio Telescope aimed at the star cluster M13, some 25 000 light years away. Many thousands of years will pass before we can expect any kind of response – unless you overdose on good faith and believe that two crop circles, with a human face and an adaptation of the original message, were already found in 2001 in an English field in Hampshire. form the “Arecibo answers”.

Several sins have since left our solar system on a one-way map to advertise mankind’s existence. Nasa, including space agencies, sponsors research in the field of astrobiology, which pursues “origins-of-life and life-beyond-the-earth” investigations.

In 2015, a non-profit research and education organization, Called METI International, was founded in San Francisco for the purpose of sending messages to extraterrestrial civilizations. Two years later, it conveyed a message, including math formulas and music by Jean-Michel Jarre, to the red dwarf Luyten’s Star, 12 light years away.

Douglas Vakoch, president and founder of METI International, argues that if aliens were sophisticated enough to travel great distances to reach the earth, they would probably need anything we have to offer. So we should not be afraid to start a cosmic conversation. “Fear does not protect us, it only limits us,” he says.

One intriguing idea, driven by Jeff Hawkins in his book A thousand brains, is that we can launch some massive orbiting sunblockers to indicate our presence on earth. These blockers, which would orbit the Sun for millions of years, would cause slight, unnatural, noticeable reduction in starlight, similar to sending a message in a bottle to the rest of the galaxy.

But all attempts to contact strangers raise profound questions. Who has the right to speak on behalf of our planet? What message should we send? As Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Toronto, asked: why should scientists unilaterally decide on the planet’s risk tolerance levels, as opposed to a six-year-old girl in Namibia who will live longer and have more at stake?

These are good questions, emphasizing how much the debate about METI revolves around people rather than strangers. The controversy may also be considered a rare scientific debate, as neither party can provide a fragment of evidence to support their arguments. The discussion is entirely speculative, shaped by alarmist science fiction narratives, sketchy beliefs in the universality of mankind’s impulses, and (possibly false) assumptions that extraterrestrial intelligence exists.

Ultimately, therefore, the question narrows to this: is humanity’s collective desire for discovery greater than its fear of the unknown? To which, I would argue, many centuries of human history have given a clear answer: Yes.

john.thornhill@ft.com



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