Many people are familiar with the famous line “Beam me up, Scotty!,” which is attributed to the popular show Star Trek. Well, scientists today can do just that – sort of.
For decades, scientists around the world have been monitoring the cosmos, hoping for a sign that we are not alone in the universe. Some, however, want to take the initiative and reach out to discover any possible life forms. Instead of beaming up Captain Kirk, these scientists beam messages into the depths of space. Some people, including the famous Stephen Hawking, are not convinced this is the best idea. What if, instead of something sweet and gentle, we get a monster? The consequences of welcoming aliens to our planet could be catastrophic. Critics say the better part of wisdom would be to keep our heads down until we have the means to protect ourselves from potential threats.
However, it is a bit late for that philosophy. Humans have been unintentionally sending proof of our existence into outer space for more than 70 years in the form of television and radio signals. Fewer of those signals are being leaked out to space today because satellites and cable are sending shows directly down to Earth.
Conversely, there have been some promising intentional efforts in the past to beam messages out to space, and scientists in support of those messages are itching to get even more out there. Douglas A. Vakoch is one such person.
Vakoch is the director of interstellar message composition at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in Mountain View, California. SETI has so far taken a passive listening approach. Now, Vakoch is saying that calling out to potential life forms might be the only way to see if we are alone in the universe. According to him, humans may even benefit from alien intelligence.
NASA is another organization that supports reaching out to possible extraterrestrial creatures—and it has done just that. Some examples are the Voyager probe that recently left the solar system carrying a golden record created by Carl Sagan. The record is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk that contains many different sounds and images intended to portray the Earth’s diverse life and culture. The assembled 115 images and sounds include natural ones, like the surf, wind and birds, and a selection of music from different cultures and eras. This is followed by greetings in 55 different languages, and printed messages from then President Jimmy Carter and United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. The disk even comes with symbols explaining how it should be played. NASA also beamed the Beatles song “Across the Universe” in 2008, and launched their New Horizons Probe. The probe contains salutations and eventually will exit the solar system.
While organizations like SETI and NASA support the search for alien life, others oppose it. SpaceX founder Elon Musk and planet hunter George Marcy worked together to start a petition cautioning against sending messages out into the cosmos. They say it is impossible to predict whether any aliens we might find will be benevolent or malignant. Astrophysicist and sci-fi author David Brin agrees. He thinks that although the chance of a nasty creature coming to Earth is low, it is still a bad idea. “I can’t bring myself to wager my grandchildren’s destiny on unreliable assumptions [about aliens],” Brin says. He wants to remind people of how European explorers brought calamity to the natives of the Americas more than 500 years ago.
The debate over searching for alien life rages on, and probably will for years to come. Humankind can only hope that if we do find someone, or something, it is friendly and peaceful. Until that happens, we are left only with our imaginations.
[Sources: Associated Press; nasa.gov]