This coming weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, experts will be discussing the potential benefits and risks of a SETI scheme in which messages about Earth — including the entire contents of Wikipedia — would be transmitted to hundreds of star systems.
This is an issue we've discussed many times before. Called Active SETI, or sometimes METI (Messages to Extraterrestrial Intelligence), it's the idea that we should deliberately broadcast messages to space in the hopes of attracting the attention of nearby aliens.
It's a highly polarizing issue. Proponents contend that Active SETI is necessary if we hope to find aliens and understand our place in the cosmos. Detractors warn that it poses a significant risk to all humanity, and that we can't know the intentions of aliens or the potential consequences of first contact.
During the upcoming AAAS session, experts will present arguments for and against a greater Active SETI effort. The session, which is organized by SETI Institute's Jill Tarter and David Black, will feature such thinkers as Seth Shostak, Doug Vakoch, David Brin, David Grinspoon, and David Tatel.
Writing at his blog, David Brin explains his position in advance:
To be clear, those of us who oppose charging into this arrogant activity, based on unexamined assumptions, aren't aiming to "stifle humanity forever." What we want is something that all of you would enjoy! A worldwide discussion of all aspects of this matter, televised and webbed so that all of us can look over the full range of fascinating concepts and evidence — before giving the nod to yelling "yooho, aliens! Lookit us!"
For Brin, it's important to facilitate a broader discussion, rather than having a precious few make such a momentous decision on behalf of the entire globe.
But as SETI chief executive David Black recently told the UK's Sunday Times, "There could be many civilizations out there but if they are all listening and no one is broadcasting then nothing will happen."
Needless to say, drafting a message will not be easy, and there's no consensus as to which details we should include in the message, though there's one idea to send the entire Wikipedia database.
"One question is... if we go ahead, what message should we send? Should it be the work of a few scientists or should we involve the whole world, perhaps through the internet?" added Black.
If approved, the scheme would see the messages broadcast to a radius of up to 20 light-years around Earth and at star systems thought to host potentially habitable planets.
Above: Aricebo Observatory (H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF/CC).
The name of the upcoming session is "Is It Time To Start Transmitting to the Cosmos?" and it's described by the SETI Institute thusly:
Since 1960, scientists have attempted to detect evidence of extraterrestrial technologies by using radio, and later, optical telescopes to "listen and look" in a passive, exploratory science called SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence). To date, no credible evidence has been detected. It has been argued that it is also necessary to transmit actively, and a few messages have been sent. Whether transmission represents a reasonable evolutionary step in our quest to understand our place in the cosmos, or a significant risk to all humanity, the topic deserves a thoughtful discussion involving as many participants as possible. During an episode of the TV series "Into the Universe," Stephen Hawking argued from analogy with Christopher Columbus and cautioned against transmission, saying that it "… didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans." Does this analogy even make sense? Who and how shall we decide about active SETI? This symposium will present a debate on the pros and cons of transmission, and a role for social media to enable a global conversation on the topic.
The session will take place at the AAAS on February 13th at 8:00 am. The following day, there will be an open public session at the SETI Institute.
Top image courtesy of NRAO/AUI.