Calling the Cosmos

The Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. The world’s largest single antenna, it has a million watt transmitter. AP Photo/Seth Shostak, SETI Institute.

So far, so good, earthlings.

Our broadcast of signals to another solar system to see if anyone’s home has not yielded an invasion of hungry aliens, or anything else.

Of course, it hasn’t reached its intended destination yet, either, even though the message was sent in 1974.

The New York Times Magazine today carries the update on the 168 seconds of noise, known as the Arecibo message. It’s apparently not even out of the driveway yet on its long trip even though it’s been more than 40 years.

For the most part, earthlings have been listening for signs of life from another system rather than sending out signals to let someone else “out there” know we’re here. That, apparently is about to change because SETI Institute scientist Douglas Vakoch, a northern Minnesota native, is planning an ongoing series of messages to begin in 2018.

But not everyone is convinced the idea of sending messages into the cosmos is a good idea, or one without risk.

Considering these deep thoughts constructs a lesson in the reality that we — people who think of ourselves as highly evolved — are cosmic infants.

The anti-METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) movement is predicated on a grim statistical likelihood: If we do ever manage to make contact with another intelligent life-form, then almost by definition, our new pen pals will be far more advanced than we are. The best way to understand this is to consider, on a percentage basis, just how young our own high-tech civilization actually is. We have been sending structured radio signals from Earth for only the last 100 years. If the universe were exactly 14 billion years old, then it would have taken 13,999,999,900 years for radio communication to be harnessed on our planet. The odds that our message would reach a society that had been tinkering with radio for a shorter, or even similar, period of time would be staggeringly long. Imagine another planet that deviates from our timetable by just a tenth of 1 percent: If they are more advanced than us, then they will have been using radio (and successor technologies) for 14 million years. Of course, depending on where they live in the universe, their signals might take millions of years to reach us. But even if you factor in that transmission lag, if we pick up a signal from another galaxy, we will almost certainly find ourselves in conversation with a more advanced civilization.

It is this asymmetry that has convinced so many future-minded thinkers that METI is a bad idea. The history of colonialism here on Earth weighs particularly heavy on the imaginations of the METI critics. Stephen Hawking, for instance, made this observation in a 2010 documentary series: ‘‘If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.’’ David Brin echoes the Hawking critique: ‘‘Every single case we know of a more technologically advanced culture contacting a less technologically advanced culture resulted at least in pain.’’

What good does it do to fret about any of this?

The article’s author, Steven Johnson says “thinking hard about what kinds of civilization we might be able to talk to ends up making us think even harder about what kind of civilization we want to be ourselves.”