Phoning E.T.?: The Debate Over Search for Life Beyond Earth
Is it time to try to make contact with intelligent life forms beyond our solar system? The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute thinks so. The group recently brought its message to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting.
To borrow a line spoken by Jodie Foster in the 1997 flick Contact: If there isn’t life out there, beyond Earth, then it’d be an awful waste of space.
That’s the same line of thinking that drives the work being done by folks at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and others conducting SETI research. As it turns out, that work—which SETI researchers hope will soon involve deliberately sending messages to potential intelligent life forms—is highly controversial. The debate was thrust into the public eye at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting last month.
AAAS doesn’t have a dog in the fight, but the group said it does support providing a venue for these kinds of discussions where the scientific evidence and related questions can be explored by industry leaders.
“AAAS is an international science meeting that convenes leading scientists from a range of disciplines and areas of research,” Tiffany Lohwater, director of meetings and public engagement at AAAS, said in an email to Associations Now. “As such, we welcome discussion of scientific issues from different perspectives, including societal implications, as part of our meeting.”
The interstellar messaging debate certainly fit the bill.
What’s the Fuss About?
Active SETI, also referred to as Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), involves using high-powered equipment on Earth to transmit messages into space with the hopes that some intelligent lifeforms will receive the message and possibly send a response, according to the SETI Institute.
The practice, though rarely conducted, has been around since the 1960s. In 2008, the snack company Doritos made waves, literally, when it beamed an advertisement into space, aimed at a galaxy 42 light years away. That same year, NASA transmitted the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” into deep space.
The implications of METI, cited by program supporters and detractors, are enormous both scientifically and societally.
A letter cosigned by dozens of influential leaders in the science community and other industries, which included famed entrepreneur Elon Musk, raised a number of concerns with regards to making contact.
“We feel the decision whether or not to transmit must be based upon a worldwide consensus, and not a decision based upon the wishes of a few individuals with access to powerful communications equipment,” the letter stated. “Intentionally signaling other civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy raises concerns from all the people of Earth, about both the message and the consequences of contact. A worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent.”
In essence, they argued that there’s no way to tell if the contacted lifeforms would be friendly like ET or destructive and deadly like the monsters depicted in James Cameron’s Aliens. Thus, the decision to make contact should be made on an international level.
Even Frank Drake, considered to be the father of the SETI field, said he thinks it’s too soon to start deliberately trying to make contact.
“I think it’s a waste of time at the present,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It’s like somebody trying to send an email to somebody whose email address they don’t know, and whose name they don’t know.”
Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar message composition at the SETI Institute and a presenter on the SETI panel, recently told AAAS’s Science magazine that the Institute has no imminent plans to transmit any messages, but they’ve been hard at work trying to get that discussion off the ground.
“It’s ‘either-or’ thinking,” he said. “Either we have international discussion, or we transmit. We should be doing both.”