Scientists warn public on alien communication

Phone home: Fictional hero E.T. builds an alien communication device from household objects.

If aliens call, what should we say? Scientists are asking the public how — and if — we should reply to a message from complex extraterrestrial life. It could alter the course of human history.

For decades, the most powerful telescopes on Earth have listened to the vast cosmos for signs of life. So far, scientists have heard only silence.

But, as our technology improves, the search is speeding up. Now, scientists have stopped to think: if we do receive a message from intelligent alien life, how should we respond? Should we reply at all?

To find out, the UK Seti Research Network (UKSRN) has launched the largest-ever survey about alien contact, including questions on who should have the authority to respond, and what the message should contain.

For ideas, we can look to humanity’s past efforts to talk to aliens. In 1974, a group of scientists sent the Arecibo message to a cluster of stars called M13. The radio message contained a graphic of our solar system and a human figure. But don’t expect a reply soon: M13 is 25,000 light years away.

The UKSRN thinks it could be dangerous for a young civilisation like ours to broadcast our existence across the universe.

Any alien race able to reach Earth, Stephen Hawking argued in 2016, would be much more advanced than humanity. And it’s unlikely they would come all this way just to say hello.

“Meeting an advanced civilisation could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well,” warned Stephen Hawking in 2016.

Reach for the stars?

How should we respond to an alien message? Perhaps not at all. It could be from a race of aliens — their home destroyed — scouring the galaxy for a habitable planet to take over. A civilisation that advanced might see us as pests.

But we have been beaming high-frequency radio and TV into space for 100 years. If aliens are looking, they can find us. So, why not send a democratic, positive message to the stars from all of humanity? It is an historic opportunity.

You Decide

  1. Are we alone in the universe?

Activities

  1. Draw a picture of what you think an alien could look like. Give it a name in its own alien language.

Some People Say...

“I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”

Bill Watterson, US cartoonist and author of Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The UKSRN has launched a survey to find out how the public think humanity should respond if aliens make contact with us.
What do we not know?
Whether we would actually believe it if we were told that aliens had made contact. Scientists at UKSRN fear that fake news would get in the way of genuine reporting about alien contact.

Word Watch

Seti
Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. A collective term for all scientific searches for alien life.
Authority
Having control or power over something.
Light years
The distance that light (the fastest thing in the universe) can travel in one year — roughly, six million million miles.
Young
We have only had radio technology for 100 years. Aliens could be much more advanced.
Stephen Hawking
Physicist famed for his research into black holes. He suffered from motor neurone disease (MND) and died in 2018.
Columbus
Christopher Columbus, who led the first European expeditions to the Americas.

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