Recently I read an article in a Berkeley magazine, Greater Good (Spring 2008), which posed the question: “If we try to communicate with extraterrestrials, what should we say to them, and how can we make sure they’ll understand us?” This, in fact, is a project of the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute, a non-profit in Mountain View, California. I posed the same two questions at a dinner party recently at the home of long-time Santa Monican, Kit Dreyfus, and a group of us had a lively discussion.
Responding to the first question, one guest had a one word answer, “Help!” And, given the state of our planet, it seemed not so comical an answer.
The Institute in Mountain View, mostly comprised of scientists, initially tried to design communication probes based on scientific or mathematical principles – assuming these might be understood by any civilization capable of communicating with us. Of course, this assumes, as several dinner party guests observed, that our symbols could be intelligible to “extras” who may operate on totally different systems. This notwithstanding, the Institute then decided that they should try to convey to other civilizations or beings or Extra Ts that we have a propensity for altruism, that we care about beauty, truth, and justice.
Of course, the problem here is that our track record is rather spotty at best. We killed more than 100 million of ourselves in the 20th century. We – the human species – are given to genocide, racism, murder – by individuals and by states; we are also tolerant of torture, homelessness, child labor and prostitution, class divides that enable some to amass gargantuan estates while 20,000-30,000 children die every day on our planet of malnutrition, starvation, and diseases. And the sad, sorry list goes on and on. We think very highly of ourselves, but it is difficult to know how to explain the above – even if we had the technological-linguistic ability to communicate anything at all.
One dinner guest, however, suggested that a civilization on a cold planet might very well want to visit us and to learn how we have been able to heat up our globe so rapidly!
The director of the SETI Institute, Douglas Vakoch, suggests that we not lie about our dismal records and instead offer illustrations of individual acts of altruism practiced by humans that would at least demonstrate our potential.
Vakoch believes it is important that there be wide input on what we should try to communicate to ETs and, consequently, he has brought together for discussion philosophers, astronomers, theologians, and musicians (assuming, as one guest pointed out, that these ETs have ears – or eyes for that matter). But this whole project is rather iffy anyway, so one has to proceed partially on faith and hope. There is, however, a growing opinion among astronomers and astro-physicists that life on other planets is statistically probable. After all, since the mid-1990s we have located more than 250 planets outside our solar system.
So, whether or not we ever connect to aliens, it seems a worthwhile venture to hold wide discussions of not only how we might communicate across interstellar space but what to shoot out there. Perhaps the process will give us a sort of objectivity we currently seem to lack and, perhaps, a realization that we have compiled a dismal record to date in how we treat each other and that we might clean up our act here before we are visited or reached from those out there.