A concern shared by many people today is over whether or not it’s wise to send messages into deep space. If aliens receive our missives, how do we know they’re friendly and won’t take an unhealthy interest in our planet? Any number of science fiction films describe the catastrophic results of an unfriendly visit by extraterrestrials. Maybe they will come to serve man — in a souffl�. Lately, these and other anxieties have been the subject of lively chatter on sites like BBC News, Live Science, and Universe Today.
Nor is it just fringe groups thinking about this. The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) hosted a debate about on the question last month, according to Science Magazine. Universe Today reports that Stephen Hawking has expressed his own reservations about messaging, worrying at the prospect of some would-be colonizers invading Earth — or obliterating all of us lesser-evolved creatures who are causing global warming and ruining the planet, as others have opined.
Insiders call sending messages, as opposed to receiving them, "Active SETI." All kinds of questions come to mind. Who should speak for Earth? Who should be the representative for earthlings when aliens land and say, "Take me to your leader"? Would it be better to remain silent? Or is the barn door already open? Are they, even now, meditating on the implications of old episodes of I Love Lucy? (See Universe Today on this.) Did they already retrieve the Voyager record or hear the Arecibo message?
The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) community, for the most part, is in favor of Active SETI. No worries, they reassure critics; any reply will likely take thousands of years, after we are all long dead. What the heck, Seth Shostak reasons; let’s upload the Internet! (BBC News). Undoubtedly, SETI insiders appreciate the publicity over this controversy, since keeping funds flowing for SETI projects has been a challenge after fifty years without a word from the other end of the line. Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak, Doug Vakoch, and even pioneer Frank Drake seem to be enjoying the limelight.
It’s not that anybody knows there are listeners out there. "This is the only really important scientific field without any subject matter," astrophysicist David Brin says at Live Science. "It’s an area in which opinion rules, and everybody has a very fierce opinion."
Advocates of intelligent design may chuckle. Communication with alien intelligence, after all, presupposes ID. We’ve discussed this in regard to signal reception: listening and eavesdropping on ET (see Paul Nelson’s piece on this). The whole premise of SETI is that human minds can distinguish between intelligent and natural signals, even without knowing anything about the identity of the senders.
This dependence on ID works both ways. In sending messages outward, SETI scientists (or politicians) assume that the aliens have minds not unlike ours, and are (like humans) capable of distinguishing informational signals from natural processes. So the scientists who work on SETI are intelligent design advocates in spite of themselves.
David Weintraub takes a jab at religious people, asking "Is Your Religion Ready to Meet ET?" (The Conversation):
How will humankind react after astronomers hand over rock-solid scientific evidence for the existence of life beyond the Earth? No more speculating. No more wondering. The moment scientists announce this discovery, everything will change. Not least of all, our philosophies and religions will need to incorporate the new information.
Bill Nye has said much the same.
This discussion is going to go on for a while. Let’s give a friendly counter-jab, then, right back at them, and ask, "Is your naturalism ready to meet ID?"
Image: Arecibo Radio Telescope, by H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF.(Quazgaa at en.wikipedia.Later version(s) were uploaded by Jakuzem at en.wikipedia.) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.