Scientists plan to send greetings to other worlds

December 26, 2016 by Lisa M. Krieger, The Mercury News
This is the "South Pillar" region of the star-forming region called the Carina Nebula. Like cracking open a watermelon and finding its seeds, the infrared telescope "busted open" this murky cloud to reveal star embryos tucked inside finger-like pillars of thick dust. Credit: NASA

After decades of fruitless scanning the skies for alien messages, scientists say it's time to try a basic rule of etiquette: Say "hello" first.

A new San Francisco-based organization called METI, or Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, plans to send signals to distant planets, rather than waiting for them to call Earth.

By the end of 2018, the project aims to send some conversation-starters via radio or laser signals to a rocky planet circling Proxima Centauri, the nearest star other than the sun, and then to more distant destinations, hundreds or thousands of light years away.

It would be the first effort to send powerful, repeated and intentional messages into space, targeting the same stars over months or years.

"If we want to start an exchange over the course of many generations, we want to learn and share information," said Douglas Vakoch, president of METI and former director of Interstellar Message Composition at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in Mountain View, Calif.,, known as SETI.

Founded last year, METI will host two workshops next year, one in Paris and the other in St. Louis. It also plans to start raising the $1 million needed annually to staff and build or borrow a powerful transmitter in a remote location.

Part of the mission will be to figure out how to craft the perfect message to say "Hello."

Like much else in science, the project has turned controversial. Some ask: If aliens are hostile, do we really want them to know where we are?

We shouldn't draw attention to ourselves, say science fiction writer David Brin and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

"We have almost zero idea of whether aliens are likely to be dangerous," physicist Mark Buchanan wrote in journal Nature Physics.

Other experts say it's worth waiting until we're better conversationalists - and, then, use use well-established groups with international consultation.

"Babbling babies are not always appreciated during adult conversation," said Andrew Fraknoi, chair of the astronomy department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. "Listening and learning is how children become adults, and why not try that for a while?"

Others endorse the effort. "I'd be happy to see this done," said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer with the SETI Institute. "I think there's something to be learned, nothing to be feared, and at least the possibility of discovering something truly revolutionary: We have company nearby."

"By reflecting on how we can communicate what it means to be human to someone who is not human, we view ourselves differently," said METI treasurer Dalia Rawson, a former dancer with Ballet San Jose and now managing director of the Silicon Valley Ballet. "By looking at our bodies, our movements, and our dance through the eyes of an alien, we gain a renewed appreciation of what it means to be uniquely human."

There have been plenty of other efforts to connect with aliens, but they've come in fits and starts. There are no regulations for sending signals into space.

In the early 1970s, NASA's Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft carried a message in the form of a gold plaque, then a phonograph record (stylus included). SETI's Frank Drake beamed a radio message that could be assembled into a pictogram of images. More recently, we've sent arithmetic, concerts of Vivaldi and Gershwin, and the Beatles song "Across the Universe."

SETI and the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project at the University of California, Berkeley, funded by internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner, scans space in hope of finding some signature of alien technology.

"If everyone who can send a message decides only to receive messages, it will be a very quiet galaxy," Fraknoi said.

Explore further: Should we call the cosmos seeking ET? Or is that risky?

More information: Mark Buchanan. Searching for trouble?, Nature Physics (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nphys3852

Douglas A. Vakoch. In defence of METI, Nature Physics (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nphys3897

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1 / 5 (1) Dec 26, 2016
Maybe we should have movie time with added popcorn to bring in everyone who hasn't seen STARMAN
3.5 / 5 (6) Dec 26, 2016
It is surprising anyone would contradict our world's greatest minds. Steven Hawking, Elan Musk etc. say trying to contact aliens is a vary bad idea, But not Seth Shostak(who?). He considers himself above such great minds. He would sell the human race out for his job.
BTW In 5 years our technology will be 32 times what it is now. And in 20 years our technology will be over 1 million times more advanced than it is now. Perhaps as a species we should just keep our mouths shut for just 20 years, by then we will know enough to say "Hi". The following link shows our projected rate of growth
Then again you have people like katesisco above, who scuff at the worlds greatest minds because he is obviously smarter.

4.2 / 5 (5) Dec 26, 2016
Sounds like a bad idea to me. When a superior race "visits" a less advanced race, it usually has grave results for the latter. Just ask the Incans, Mayans, North American Indians, etc. Reaching out to the stars to say "hello" was the premise for the movie Battleship, wherein an obscure/rouge group in NASA were sending out coordinates to Earth - and, you guessed it, "visitors" arrived with no intention of coexisting with us. But, as usual in Hollywood, we kicked their alien butts!
4.5 / 5 (8) Dec 26, 2016
Stephen Hawking has already said that this was a dumb ass idea. We may be attracting the unwanted attention of a race with technology far superior to our own. We have a lot of resources and we may end up as slaves digging them up for this techno superior race. Or they could just want the entire planet for themselves and exterminate the entire human race. Are we willing to take that chance.
4.8 / 5 (6) Dec 26, 2016
How can highly intelligent people be so naive and stupid? There is no reason to believe aliens, organic or robotic, would be friendly.
Who invites unknown strangers into their home knowing absolutely nothing about them?
4.3 / 5 (6) Dec 26, 2016
Really, whoever came up with this idea needs to watch a Will Smith movie first.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 26, 2016
HELLO! what a waste of time as I spent last night trying to get off one of the space ships, They are here! and like someone that comes for dinner and won't leave they are a real pain!
2.8 / 5 (4) Dec 26, 2016
Dr. Who isn't protecting us.

Put the shoe on the other foot: Humans plan to exploit the planets we can get to. Altruism for local (extra terrestrial) life is only skin deep when there is need for population expansion and safety from cosmic disasters like local novas, etc. Current exploitation of Mars is concerned with possible life because it may be dangerous to colonists, not because of a "Prime Directive".

Humans may be as smart as any other space faring species, but not smart enough to communicate yet. Whatever else we do, we should remain quiet until we are able to travel to the planets we have been discovering, with sufficient armament to protect ourselves. We may not be the 800 pound gorilla we think we are.

Also, we are currently learning how to manipulate quantum effects (including entanglement). Secure instant communication could come from this, but we are ignorant so far. Light speed communications may be as smoke signals to our neighbors.
1.3 / 5 (7) Dec 26, 2016
There is zero proof that life, let alone intelligent life, exists outside of earth. Sending faith-borne wishes into space is no different than praying to an omnipotent creator of the universe. Ironic to the nth.
not rated yet Dec 26, 2016
"...Part of the mission will be to figure out how to craft the perfect message to say "Hello."

2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 26, 2016
Beware of who you invite from outer space. They might just shop your head off, throw gays from the roof of buildings or worse....tell you that you can keep your insurance company and doctor.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 26, 2016
We have been send transmissions into space since the advent of radio.
I cannot help but consider this a simple attempt at government funding and nothing else.
4 / 5 (4) Dec 26, 2016
All these scientists should be required to watch The Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man several times...
Dec 26, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
2.3 / 5 (7) Dec 26, 2016
Is this a Donald Trump plan?

Is that a Hillary "Loser" Clinton question?
5 / 5 (3) Dec 26, 2016
We've been broadcasting our existence for almost 100 years: The first commercial radio broadcast was licensed in 1920. Me thinks it's too late to put a sock in it!
3 / 5 (2) Dec 26, 2016
Star trekking across the universe!
5 / 5 (1) Dec 26, 2016
Merry Christmas to the residents of Tau Ceti!
not rated yet Dec 26, 2016
maybe they are just 2 inches high and they just think they can conquer us
3.8 / 5 (6) Dec 27, 2016
Send all the greetings you want. Being invaded by aliens is dead last on the list of threats to the human race.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 27, 2016
Who knows how it would end,
but we should welcome an event where the fear and presence of superior beings might make humans appreciate taking care of this world and everything on it---I mean come on; there are people that actually complain about environmental regulations.
5 / 5 (3) Dec 27, 2016
Who knows how it would end,
but we should welcome an event where the fear and presence of superior beings might make humans appreciate taking care of this world and everything on it---I mean come on; there are people that actually complain about environmental regulations.

I'm quite sure humans would then gladly destroy this world, everything on it and even other ones to make sure they can survive and even surpass those superior beings then.....
It's all about survival. Our species may have evolved enough to dominate our world, but we know not about what we....well....don't know. Imagination can then do its work....
Will it be "We exist. Why not others?" or "We exist. We're the first and only!"? The latter would be nicer for our sake. The former would be dreadful. If the aliens are not peaceful enough to leave us alone, they'll be, if not afraid/ashamed of our society, aggressive enough to conquer or crush us.
Better watch and spy than say "hello" for now.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 27, 2016
Who knows how it would end,
but we should welcome an event where the fear and presence of superior beings might make humans appreciate taking care of this world and everything on it---I mean come on; there are people that actually complain about environmental regulations.

Well it would have to be an incredibly lucky-for-us kind of superior being, one that is superior and magical enough to cross lightyears of space to get here, but somehow still stupid enough for us to defeat with a determined combined effort. I think a quantum exchange of Hillary Clinton for Donald Trump just at the moment of the oath of office is much more likely.
2 / 5 (8) Dec 27, 2016
Hey, . . . look!

It's us, . . . lunch!
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 28, 2016
They might as well send over a cookbook and an inventory of elements and compounds they can harvest.

These scientists are whacked if they think any good can come from advertising how vulnerable and naive we are.
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 28, 2016
They might as well send over a cookbook and an inventory of elements and compounds they can harvest
Ahaahaaaaa well there's NOTHING here that a machine world couldn't find locally or make for itself.

I didn't think there were many people left who thought this tired idea wasn't ignorant. But we've got 2 morons in a row (1 who doesnt read posts) who prove me wrong.
3 / 5 (4) Dec 28, 2016
Hey maybe they like the idea of sitting on a Miami Beach sipping mai-tais while they are sucking the molten iron out of our core. Maybe they like goose livers as much as I do but geese don't grow well on their home planet of limpdickonia.

My head hurts.
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 28, 2016
Seems like a waste of time. Any species advanced enough to detect our signals by the time it reaches them probably already know we are here and just don't care. But the much more likely case is we are alone in this local sector and are just wasting our time and effort
3 / 5 (2) Jan 03, 2017
Foolishness. The distances in space are too vast for us to ever be able to contact anyone. Most possible locations would take the life of our civilization, beginning to end, to make ONE WAY communication transit. It's like an ant yelling (if they could yell) at that guy at the other end of the football field and expecting him to hear and reply. Face it. We are alone, if only because of distance.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 03, 2017
O dukes...

Assuming the nut-fringe is right and we aren't alone in the solar system, it's reasonable to assume that we're a wild-life reserve/lifeboat otherwise we'd be up to our ears in exobiologicals.

Assuming that we are alone in the solar system, it's reasonable to assume that anyone out there to hear us and whom could actually come here in any meaningful span of time would not need to subjugate this planet in order to survive.

Assuming that those same folks whom might hear us and come here are also meat-based, it is reasonable to assume that those same folks would likely suffer similar social ills as ourselves.

I vote we pipe the eff down and pray that if there's a market out there for interstellar sport-hunting/folk-remedy components it doesn't think up a way we can be monetized.
1 / 5 (2) Jan 03, 2017
Hey, . . . look!

It's us, . . . lunch!

Aliens would only eat gskamp if they need a strong laxative.
not rated yet Jan 03, 2017
@Dark_Solar: "and whom could actually come here", "those same folks whom might hear us" should have 'who', not 'whom', since it's the subject not the object.
Jan 11, 2017
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