The scientific organization METI (Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) is gearing up for its first ever broadcast into space, hoping to contact another intelligent entity and discover that humanity is not only not alone in the universe but shares it with at least one other intelligent alien species. But not everyone, including renowned futurists and esteemed scientists, believes that attempting to make first contact by broadcasting Earth’s presence to the universe is a particularly good idea. In fact, some scientists believe that allowing aliens of unknown intent to know of our existence might very well be detrimental to life on Earth.
The Independent reported this week that the San Francisco-based METI, which plans to launch its signaling program in 2018, is moving forward with its proactive approach to searching for alien intelligence. Specifically, unlike SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence), which takes a passive approach and listens and/or attempts to detect alien signals or signatures of life, METI will actually broadcast radio signals into space in an effort to attain first contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence.
Still, the METI program is not going to simply spray the cosmos with radio noise. The plan is to send a direct radio signal to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, or, to be more precise, to the planet orbiting that star, Proxima b. Astronomers have determined that Proxima b is in the habitable zone of its parent star and could possibly harbor living organisms. Given that Proxima b has the potential to sustain life (as we currently understand it), METI is seizing the opportunity to broadcast to the neighboring star and planet, and hopefully, achieve alien contact.
But there are those within the scientific community that do not share the optimism in reaching out and making first contact; especially when that first contact could be with aliens far more advanced and perhaps more aggressive than humanity.
For instance, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has cautioned that allowing other alien intelligence to become aware of our existence might lead to subjugation or the complete destruction of the human race. In an online film posted in September entitled “Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places,” The Guardian reported that the famed scientist stated that humanity should be wary of answering any messages that might come from space. He said that doing so might be analogous to when Native Americans first encountered Christopher Columbus and the far more advanced Europeans. Things “didn’t turn out so well” for the Native Americans, he pointed out.
Prior to Hawking’s warning, physicist Mark Buchanan cautioned in an August issue of the journal Nature Physics that humanity might be “Searching For Trouble?”, writing, “We have almost zero idea of whether aliens are likely to be dangerous.”
Still, not everyone sees the METI project as the destruction of mankind. SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak believes messaging provides an opportunity. “I’d be happy to see this done,” he said, according to the San Jose Mercury News. “I think there’s something to be learned, nothing to be feared, and at least the possibility of discovering something truly revolutionary: We have company nearby.”
So what will be in the first message sent by METI to Proxima b? According to The Independent, the missive will likely be comprised of “basic mathematical and scientific concepts.”
Douglas Vakoch, president of METI and former director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, told The Mercury News math and science are universal and that such concepts would not be lost in translation, no matter how alien the recipient. “If they have radio transmitters, they’re good engineers. And if you’re a good engineer, you’ve got to know that 2 + 2 = 4,” Vakoch says. “That’s true on Earth and it’s true on Proxima Centauri.”
METI is currently in the process of raising money to fund its various alien outreach initiatives. They are hoping to raise $1 million to get the project underway and estimate that continuing operational costs will likely be an additional $1 million each year. But METI is thinking long-term, planning numerous workshops and a crowdfunding drive to make contacting aliens a reality.
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