Science | Design & Technology

Scientists send aliens a bold new message

Is this sensible? If you are lost, getting found is obviously a good thing. When it comes to humanity broadcasting a message to aliens, the answer is much less clear-cut. Imagine you were stranded on a desert island. How would you get yourself rescued?  Obviously, it would make no sense to start swimming in one direction in the hope of finding someone. Instead, you would encourage them to come to you: by scrawling a message in the sand, or lighting a beacon. Scientists are taking the same approach in the search for extraterrestrial life. They have devised a new message, the Beacon in the Galaxy (BITG), which will soon be beamed out into space. It contains digital images of human beings, along with information about life on Earth and the location of our solar system. And it invites any sentient being that finds it to respond. It is being beamed directly at the part of space where we think it is most likely we will find extraterrestrial life. Some think this may be unwise. Physicist Michio Kaku has compared us with the Aztecs, warning that aliens may wipe us out just as the Spanish did in central America. And scientists have to overcome another problem: how can we make ourselves understood? The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” He showed that we communicate with others via “language games” that give our words meaning. For example, if someone shouts “Water!”, this might mean they have found an oasis after weeks in the desert, or that there is a fire that must be put out. We cannot know except by reference to the “rules” of language. This mostly works amongst human beings because these language games are familiar to us: we can instinctively work out from our context what “game” we are playing. But aliens would have completely different points of reference. Like lions, they might be unable to take part in the same language games as us, leaving us incapable of communicating. Is this sensible? Making friends Yes: There are probably aliens elsewhere in the galaxy. As such, we should make it clear that we want peace and communication. That way, they are less likely to attack. No: There is no way of stating our intentions clearly to a civilisation that might have no means of understanding us. The BITG is nothing more than an invitation to come and conquer the Earth. Or…? The BITG is probably just a waste of time. The chances of it actually reaching an alien civilisation are minuscule, and unless their technology is far in advance of our own they will struggle to return an answer.   KeywordsExtraterrestrial - Anything from outside Earth.

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