If given the opportunity to send a message to intelligent beings on another planet, what would you say?
We call in peace.
Take your time … you have until 2018 to decide. That’s when a new organization called Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (METI) plans to begin sending messages to Proxima b, a planet orbiting nearby Proxima Centauri, followed by similar signals aimed at other planets that appear to be candidates for supporting extraterrestrial life forms that can hear.
If METI sounds familiar, that’s because it’s just one letter and a 180-degree opposite philosophy away from SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in Mountain View, California. METI, based in San Francisco, was formed by Douglas Vakoch, the former director of Interstellar Message Composition at SETI. He started METI in 2015 and is now planning workshops in Paris and St. Louis as well as fundraising efforts to get the $1 million he says METI will need annually to build a transmitter and start blasting Earthly greetings to unsuspecting ETs.
If we want to start an exchange over the course of many generations, we want to learn and share information.
“Exchange” and “share” are controversial actions, especially when we do neither that well within our own species. What do we say to an alien species after we say “Hello”? Is “Hello” even a proper greeting?
Babbling babies are not always appreciated during adult conversation. Listening and learning is how children become adults, and why not try that for a while?
Who’s calling us babbling babies? Andrew Fraknoi, chair of the astronomy department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. He gets no argument from Stephen Hawking, who earlier this year predicted dire consequences from responding to alien signals or planning a meet-and-greet.
We should be wary of answering back. Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus — that didn’t turn out so well.
While humans have been unwittingly sending signals into space since the invention of radio and intentionally including messages on space probes like Pioneer 10 and 11, METI will be the first effort to concentrate a steady stream of messages at one location in space over a long period. Stephen Hawking may fear the idea, but Seth Shostak, senior astronomer with SETI, likes it.
I’d be happy to see this done. 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.
Some even wax poetic about the idea. Here’s METI treasurer Dalia Rawson, a former ballet dancer and current managing director of the Silicon Valley Ballet
By reflecting on how we can communicate what it means to be human to someone who is not human, we view ourselves differently. By looking at our bodies, our movements, and our dance through the eyes of an alien, we gain a renewed appreciation of what it means to be uniquely human.
Is Dalia suggesting we blast our neighbors with dance music? Send Bieber to Proxima b? Future generations may agree with Stephen Hawking.
That didn’t turn out so well.