For more than 50 years, astronomers have been listening to space, hoping to pick up signals from other civilizations. The project is called the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. In more than a half-century, we’ve heard absolutely nothing. So can we—and better yet, should we—get the conversation with aliens started?
Scientists don’t exactly agree on the matter.
Some believe we should start beaming signals into the universe in a program called “active SETI.” Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, like the idea. Other scientists question the wisdom of broadcasting our existence to aliens—do we really want to be inviting extraterrestrials to visit or planet?
“There are some people who think it’s dangerous because you don’t know who’s out there,” Shostak comments. He does not share those fears, however.
But assuming aliens are not peaceable travelers, their response to any communication could be hostile. David Brin, a scientists and science fiction writer, has an interesting perspective on the matter. He believes that broadcasting powerful signals would change the nature of our planet, making Earth more observable from space. At the very least, he thinks “active SETI” should go through a standard environment review.
David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist who studies the possibilities of life throughout the universe. He works for the Planetary Science Institute in Washington, D.C. and believes the most important thing is that we make the decision as a group.
“The more I think about it, the more it seems almost anti-human to say, ‘I’m just going to be the ambassador for the whole human race and start broadcasting to aliens on my own,” he comments.
One thing we know for sure is that researchers are taking the idea very seriously. Even though we have not found extraterrestrials, many scientists are confident that life exists on other worlds. Recently, we’ve learned that habitable planets are much more common than we once thought—and all we have to do is look at life on Earth to see that plenty of life can survive in extreme environments.
“Everything we’ve learned about other planets and the diversity of life on Earth points us in the direction of believing there is abundant life elsewhere in the universe,” Grinspoon argues. The next assumption, of course, is that some of this life would be intelligent. “It’s not just a fantasy that someone might pick up a signal if we broadcast it. It’s my belief that there probably are creatures out there. And some of them probably have much more advanced technology than we do.”
Scientists have already been developing ways to communicate, like shooting a capsule into space or using light to communicate. Douglas Vakoch of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International in San Francisco recommends beaming radio messages at other stars, aiming radar pulses at nearby star systems.
“Maybe some civilizations out there are doing what we’re doing,” Vakoch notes. “They’re listening, but they’re not transmitting.”
Active SETI, in contrast, “is an attempt to let any civilization out there know not only that we’re here, but also that we’re interested in making contact.” Vakoch believes it could be an opportunity to connect with a more advanced culture that could give us tools to solve Earth’s problems—but others have a less optimistic perspective.
“It’s worth bearing in mind that every time human civilizations that didn’t know about each other came into contact, there was pain,” Bring argues advising that government leaders should talk it over before making their next move. “Why did some contact situations [in history] go better than others? It turns out, there were some commonalities in the ones that were less painful. This should be something we study, not something we avoid.”
Other scientists argue that we have probably already been communicating through FM radio and television signals anyways—not to mention the signals flying around between satellites. We could have been transmitting for a century already.
“The real question is should we transmit with the intention of being understood?” Philip Lubin, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, notes.
Grinspoon thinks we should learn how to communicate with each other, fist.
It’s actually more important to try to have a conversation with our fellow human beings than it is to have a conversation with aliens,” he says. “That is our survival challenge.”
Source: Science News for Students