Friday, June 30, 2017

Should We Announce Our Presence?

Let’s say you and a group of friends invent a transporter device, like on Star Trek, but with one major difference: You have no control over where it would send you. Suppose, on your first trip, you and your friends found yourselves in a back alley of totally unknown neighborhood in a foreign country. Would you announce your presence? Back in your own country, the news regularly reports stories of strangers being treated very badly by locals. Sure, those are isolated events. Most people back home act quite friendly to others. But you don’t know much about the customs and mores of these natives.

Image your machine transported you to another, alien planet, populated with local beings, where you would be the alien visitors. You know nothing about these beings. Are they so much more superior to you that they might look on you as you see a mosquito? Might they just eat you to sample a new delicacy?

That’s a quandary that faces humanity on a larger scale. We have discovered thousands of alien planets, many of which seem quite capable of supporting life, with more discoveries of potentially life-bearing planets coming every year. For some time, Project SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been actively searching for signals from aliens that populate other planets. That’s like you and your friends simply listening on a radio to see what you can learn about these other, foreign people.

But now, a newly formed group known as METI (Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), led by the former SETI scientist Douglas Vakoch, wants to take that a step farther and broadcast our existence to the universe. Some scientists argue vehemently against such an idea. Remember, they warn, what happened to the native populations of the Americas after the discovery of the New World by Europeans. In some areas, 90% or more of the natives were killed and their cultures virtually wiped out.

That, claim some voices of caution, is most likely our fate if other, alien races discovery our existence.

In 1974, the director of Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico, then the largest telescope in the world, wanted to showcase its newly renovated abilities. In a demonstration meant more for publicity than science, they designed and sent a 167 second radio message to a cluster of 300,000 stars, known as M-13. M-13 is 25,000 light years from earth, meaning we can’t get a return signal for 50,000 years.

Martin Ryle, then the Royal Astronomer of England fired off a strong condemnation of the stunt. He argued that ‘‘any creatures out there [might be] malevolent or hungry,’’ Ryle further demanded that the International Astronomical Union, the international governing body of things astronomical, forbid any further communication attempts to alien planets.

Today, the voices of dissent echoing Ryle’s caution include scientific luminaries like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. Like Ryle, they warn that aliens might treat us the way Cortez treated the Aztecs five centuries ago. The problem, they explain, is that humans have existed for a mere few hundred thousand years on a planet only 4.5 billion years old. The Milky Way has been making planets for more than 10 billion years. Any race of beings who detect our messages likely will be as advanced compared to us as we are to bacteria, and view Earth as a place with riches to be exploited. That doesn’t bode well, they say, for our continued existence.

Of course, not all humans are so brutal and calloused. Many actively work to help other less fortunate and less well educated than they are. We’ve protected many species and environments on our planet. But as recent political events show, that may not be a permanent situation. And as the fate of those original natives of the Americas reminds us, such kindness towards others often takes a back seat when the opportunity to enrich ourselves arrives.

So, what do you think? Should we announce our existence and location to the universe at large? Or should we remain in our dark alley corner?

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