Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Bruce Dorminey
from his Forbes.com blog, used by permission
Two new separate groups of scientists now want to send coded radio messages into the cosmos in hopes of deliberately attracting the attention of intelligent space aliens. Known as Active SETI (Active Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), it’s arguably no safer to entice unknown offworlders into our planetary living room than to invite total strangers in for coffee and crullers.
But even if they are totally unsavory, it’s highly likely that an interstellar civilization would already be picking up our electromagnetic leakage and therefore already know we’re here, Douglas Vakoch, President of the San Francisco-based non-profit METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International, told me.
“It’s too late to conceal ourselves in the universe, so we should decide how we want to represent ourselves,” said Vakoch, an expert in interstellar message construction. “ Extraterrestrials may be waiting for a clear indication from us that we’re ready to start talking.”
To that end, METI International plans to launch what it terms a sustained project in messaging extraterrestrial intelligence that will draw upon an international cadre of experts to make certain that the message will be both information-rich and provocative enough to elicit a response.
“We hope to [radio] transmit by the end of 2018, with an emphasis on messages conveying basic mathematical and scientific concepts,” said Vakoch. “It would be ideal to use a powerful transmitter like those used for planetary radar studies, such as Arecibo Observatory.”
There have already been several intentional messages beamed into the cosmos. One of the most famous was a 1974 three-minute pulsed message sent from the Arecibo radiotelescope in Puerto Rico. Aimed toward M13, a stellar globular cluster some 24,000 light years away within our own Milky Way, it was written in part by longtime SETI searcher Frank Drake and the late Carl Sagan. But its 1679 binary digits offered only a few details about our solar system, the human species and Earth’s biochemistry.
Thus, proponents of sending future such messages contend that just as in politics, it’s better if we define ourselves before others make unwarranted assumptions about the nature of our civilization. That’s because any civilization capable of tapping into our interstellar broadcast leakage now drifting into the cosmos might soon get a warped view of our culture.
“If so, they will receive a biased view of our species based mostly on how it entertains itself,” Joao Pedro Magalhaes, a biologist at the University of Liverpool and an advocate for an Active SETI group, told me.
Although Magalhaes’s own U.K.-based active SETI initiative — which is not affiliated with METI International — doesn’t yet have a timeline for an actual transmission, he advocates that we simply send a message declaring we’re ready to learn from older, more advanced extraterrestrial civilizations.
“My proposal is for [sending] a transmission under the assumption that extraterrestrial intelligences are already aware of our existence,” said Magalhaes. If so, he says, then attempting to communicate with them using transmissions that are not above our normal broadcast radio and TV leakage will not put us in any more danger than we are already.
Both Magalhaes and Vakoch agree that any new attempts at active contact should ensure that we represent ourselves credibly. Vakoch says that this should include a means for E.T. to readily “unpack” the encoded information in our directed signals.
Although Vakoch supports previous efforts at such communication, he contends that instead of just sending a few of the chemical notations for compounds key to life here on Earth, we should include the whole Periodic Table of the Elements. He contends that this would allow the aliens to see the similarities and differences between the elements based on how they are grouped.
As for sending selfies?
Vakoch says we’d need to provide E.T. with a tutorial on how to read pictures.
“There are a lot of hidden assumptions embedded in the ways we portray three-dimensional objects on two-dimensional surfaces,” said Vakoch. “Even if aliens use pictures, they may use a different set of conventions to map solid objects onto flat surfaces.”
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this page last updated 2 July 2016
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