Serious talk about contacting aliens is sparking a fiery debate in the scientific community












One of humanity’s biggest questions is “Are we alone?” But is that still the right question? Astronomers have confirmed over 1,800 exoplanets in our galaxy and estimate that there are around 100 billion in total . Abuut 50 of these seem to be habitable. So, chances are good that we are not alone.

A better question for the new age is: If ET exists, what should we do about it? That’s what scientists at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute discussed last month at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.

SETI is famous for its series of telescopes that search the skies for messages that look like they could be sent by intelligent extraterrestrial beings. But so far the cosmos has been quiet.

And after 50 years of listening, some of the folks at SETI are starting to say it’s high time for a change to the way we search. If we’re ever going to make contact, then the burden is on us to do more than listen: We should be initiating the conversation, the director of SETI’s interstellar message composition, Douglas A. Vakoch, told Business Insider.

This initiation project, Vakoch calls Active SETI.

“It may be that signalling of our intention to make contact is what’s really required to trigger a response,” Vakoch said. And so “the most critical reason to add Active SETI to our search strategy is that this may be the strategy that lets us make contact.”

A bold move for humankind

Aerecibo radio telescope in Perto Rico.
Vakock and some of his colleagues at SETI want to use some of the institute’s telescopes, including the Aerecibo radio telescope in Perto Rico, not only to listen but to send powerful transmissions deep into space that clearly state: We are here and we want to communicate. That’s a very bold move for humankind, and not everyone is on board. Those who are hesitant or downright against the idea include Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Elon Musk, and Sean Carroll.

Why are these men, who are famous for their innovation and intelligence, seemingly so close-minded? After all, if Active SETI did succeed, making contact with an alien race would be the most important discovery in human history not only from a technological stand point but from an intellectual one, as well. DeGrasse Tyson was especially firm on his stance during a recent interview with Business Insider.

“We don’t give our address to members of our own species whom we don’t know. So, the urge to give our home address to aliens? That’s audacious,” he said.

The problem is that even though making contact would be the most important discovery in human history, it might also be one of our last discoveries. In a statement issued earlier this year a group of scientists state, “We know nothing of ETI’s [Extraterrestrial Intelligence] intentions and capabilities, and it is impossible to predict whether ETI will be benign or hostile.” Of the several dozens of people who signed this statement in a cautionary measure against Active SETI was Elon Musk.

Fear of the unknown didn’t stop Francis Magellan, Lewis and Clark, or Neil Armstrong, human history’s most important explorers. But the key difference is that if something goes wrong when we make contact with aliens, we’re not just risking the lives of the few who brave the unknown. The existence of our entire species and the thousands of other species on Earth is at stake.

To this, Vakoch and his colleagues argue that any alien civilisation advanced enough to wipe out life on Earth would already know we’re here. We’ve been transmitting into space since the ’70s. Anyone advanced enough to obliterate our speices would be advanced enough to listen, and would be here by now or are already on their way. So we’re pretty screwed in that regard.

“What Active SETI does is announces ourselves to civilizations that don’t have those capacities far in advance of humans,” he said.

Moreover, extinction is just half of the issue here.

“One of the key questions that we raise when contemplating Active SETI is: Who speaks for Earth?” Vakoch told Business Insider. “And the answer is, well, everyone should.”

That’s why Vakoch and his colleagues at SETI launched the study “Earth Speaks”, which solicits online comments from, quite literally, everyone on Earth, or at least everyone with access to the Internet. And the overall theme shining through the thousands of submissions is encouraging. Many people articulate the fact that they’re ready to make contact, so “I suspect that the idea has been discussed so often that people will accommodate to this discovery pretty readily,” Vakoch said. And despite the unknowns, deGrasse Tyson did acknowledge how incredible a discovery it would be:

“But here’s the thing: Holding aside those uncertainties, it would be awesome to make contact with an advanced civilisation.”

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