Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

John Thornhill (Opinion, January 6) asks if we should say “Hello, Universe” to use the adverb of the scientific organization I lead – METI International, which is dedicated to sending “messages of extraterrestrial intelligence” by sending radio signals to nearby stars. Ai, it’s too late to hide.

For 2 billion years, the Earth’s microbial life has made itself known to the universe through changes in our planet’s atmosphere. Space-based observatories such as the James Webb Space Telescope and its successors will look for signs of extraterrestrial life by studying the chemical composition of atmospheres that cover exoplanets – the planets orbiting stars other than our sun. Advanced extraterrestrial beings will have even greater abilities.

While we can logically understand that it is too late to hide ourselves from technological extraterrestrial beings, we may still have a nagging fear that it is somehow more risky to transmit than to remain silent, so we withhold it. This “reasoning” reflects a natural human tendency that cognitive psychologists call the omission bias. We assume it is safer to do nothing than to do something, to continue with the status quo rather than to try something else.

The danger of conceding to that error is evident by the lack of action of individuals who choose not to be vaccinated against Covid, rather than taking steps that will benefit public health. As with the vaccine, we can evaluate the dreaded dangers of METI, such as the possibility of being discovered for the first time by our intentional messages.

If we project our own advances in radio technology since the origins of radio astronomy in the 1930s, over a mere two centuries our people will have the ability to detect the earth’s level of leakage radiation at a distance of five hundred light-years – far outside the range of METI’s current targets.

Any civilization with warp propulsion – the ability to travel faster than the speed of light – will already know we are here, so there is no extra risk of METI. At a time when we face threats such as climate change and a global pandemic, it will be comforting to remove one item from our list of existential risks. It is tempting to look for some activity that can give us the illusion of control, that makes us believe that if we just do not transmit, the aliens will not overtake our world.

We can find a more rational reassurance of our safety in the fact that advanced aliens did not come to earth, even though they had 2 billion years of knowledge that life originated on our humble planet.

Douglas Vakoch
President, METI International,
San Francisco, CA, USA

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