Texting Debate Hits Space
Saturday, July 28, 2012
Although a warm, starry, mid-summer night sky-scape may seem like a vast ocean of calm surrounding our tiny, watery, ball of excitement that is our home planet, the placid inkiness hides a global controversy that could potentially affect every Earthling. Whether you’re an astrophysicist with NASA or a farmer raising cattle between Leduc and Wetaskiwin, the decision being hotly contested could have enormous implications in their day to day life. Or not.
The issue is whether we should allow SETI, the decades-old Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence outside our solar system, to become more aggressive, with its new initiative they’ve dubbed METI; Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. The group intends to send out tight-beam infra-red spectrum messages to the heavens that won’t be diffused over space and time like radio waves do. Scientists have already ascertained that despite early fears, little green men are not watching reruns of the X-Files and Star Trek while laughing their prehensile tails off. Radio waves would have degraded too far to be of any use to someone trying to get free TV in Alpha Proxima, our closest neighbor in space. Not that we think anybody lives there.
These tight-beamed messages, however, wouldn’t degrade nearly as much and will continue through The Void until they hit something solid; be it planet, sun or robotic Death Star’s automated communication receptor. Obviously the chance of the latter is rather slim, given that even if these sci-fi geeks worst nightmares are out there, the chance of hitting one with a tight beam burst is extraordinarily remote.
The controversy is centers around whether it’s advisable to make our whereabouts known to whoever might be out there; a baby calling out in the jungle, unaware of any threats that may lie within, as some have described it. The other issue is whether the scientists who control the SETI, and now METI program, have a right to make the decision to send the message without input from the rest of the planet; people who may potentially adversely affected by the group’s more aggressive approach to first contact. Most see no harm in passively scouring the heavens for light or electromagnetic signatures that would indicate advanced civilizations. They do take issue with making our presence known without knowing what’s out there.
Pro-METI forces embrace the concept that any civilization intelligent enough to transverse the cosmos would have to be far enough advanced to have conquered their own war-like tendencies. Detractors write this position off as social anthropomorphism and wishful-thinking.
Although once under the auspices of NASA, the SETI group are now are privately funded and accountable to no one. They have research centers and monitoring equipment all over the globe. They also own a communication array paid for by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. (Yes, that’s the same Paul Allen who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates.) The communication satellite, known as the Allen Telescope Array, is a joint venture with University of California-Berkeley’s Radio Astronomy Laboratories.
With SETI having been released from government control, it is unclear what authority could stop the group from carrying out their plan without more careful scientific scrutiny of the risk associated with the program should it successfully contact other beings. And there are many; far too numerous to list here.
One oft-quoted concern regards the reality that historically, in human/human encounters, Europeans coming to the New World, for example, there are few, if any examples where the contact was beneficial to both parties. Even when contact was intended to be benevolent in nature, there were unexpected negative outcomes. According to one report, there were 50 million indigenous people living in the Americas prior to the arrival of the sea-faring states. Within a few years, the population was decimated, numbering only 8 million, mostly due to disease. Even without that threat, however, indigenous populations have rarely fared well when “advanced intelligences” discovered them. It is a history of genocide, cultural destruction, and enslavement. Why do we think it would be any different with aliens coming here?
Many will write this controversy off as a tempest in a tea-pot for the geeks of the world to keep busy with. If there are other life forms out there and they’re so gosh-darned smart, they probably already know we’re here. The fact they’ve decided not to call us up might be telling, however. Maybe they know what’s best. Others even speculate the skies are teeming intelligent life but they keep it on the down-low to prevent attracting attention. Maybe we should do the same. Yet some factions insist that since the probability of a signal actually finding someone who knows what it means and can send it back is so tiny, due to distance and time constraints, it amounts to no more than an ambitious, albeit pricey, science fair exhibit.
Elements on the pro-METI side do make an important point. They see that creating the ability to send out a message such as “Wassup? Anybody out there?” will give us a chance to eventually send the message, “Help! We’ve screwed up our planet and don’t know how to fix it!” They have given up on governments taking climate change seriously and have projections that show our window for saving the planet from self-emollition is rapidly closing, if it hasn’t closed already.
As “out there” as some of these concepts may seem, however, it should matter to everyone. The actions of these few could possibly, albeit unlikely, bring about unwanted consequences. Is the benefit derived worth the risk? Apparently, for many, it does. In world-wide surveys, invariably 70% are onside with the project. Uncomfortably, the masses have been wrong before.
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