Search for Aliens

The Kernel

The Problems with Talking to Aliens

May 17, 2015

Online magazine feature:

In the constellation Boötes, a star a bit smaller than our sun flares sporadically, dimming and brightening, but still too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Scientists have named this red dwarf Gliese 526 and categorized it as a star that just might have a habitable planet or two. No one has spotted a planet yet, but the abundance of planets orbiting other, similar stars make the chances look good. If life exists in that star system, we would be neighbors: Gliese 526 is a mere 17.6 light years away.

If that life is intelligent, and listening, they just might be the first non-human beings to receive a message from Earth. In the summer of 2013, a small team of scientists and entrepreneurs announced the start of a project they called “Lone Signal.” Using a recommissioned radio dish in Carmel, Calif., the group, led by scientist and musician Jacob Haqq-Misra, would send messages to Gliese 526. Conceivably, some of the senders could get a reply in their lifetimes.

The Lone Signal was just one recent attempt at communicating with alien intelligence, an effort often called Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) or Active Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Active SETI) to contrast with passively listening for alien broadcasts. It’s a vibrant, if small, field of work with basis in real science. However, like the Lone Signal project, METI and SETI projects are rife with funding troubles and punctuated by fierce debate. Some experts argue that humans should keep their heads down rather than sending signals into space, lest we call down the wrath of an angry and powerful alien civilization. Others contend that we have a moral obligation to let extraterrestrial beings know they are not alone.

“This is one of those fields of human knowledge and science that has no known subject matter,” says science-fiction author David Brin. Perhaps as a result, the debate can get so passionate that it strays outside the normally civil, dry academic language of other scientific debates. “There’s nothing to analyze and no chance of there being a resolution right away, so as a result anyone can opine anything.”

Yet the subject also brings up grand notions—time, the scale of space, the nature of the universe and life itself.


photo by Hans/22016 images

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