It was near Green Bank, W.Va., in 1960 that a young radio astronomer named Frank Drake conducted the first extensive search for alien civilizations in deep space. He aimed the 85-foot dish of a radio telescope at two nearby, sun-like stars, tuning to a frequency he thought an alien civilization might use for interstellar communication.
But the stars had nothing to say.
So began SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a form of astronomical inquiry that has captured the imaginations of people around the planet but has so far failed to detect a single “hello.” Pick your explanation: They’re not there; they’re too far away; they’re insular and aloof; they’re zoned out on computer games; they’re watching us in mild bemusement and wondering when we’ll grow up.
Now some SETI researchers are pushing a more aggressive agenda: Instead of just listening, we would transmit messages into deep space, targeting newly discovered planets orbiting distant stars. Through “active SETI,” we’d boldly announce our presence and try to get the conversation started.
Naturally this is controversial, because of . . . well, the Klingons. The bad aliens.
“ETI’s reaction to a message from Earth cannot presently be known,” states a petition signed by 28 scientists, researchers and thought leaders, among them SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “We know nothing of ETI’s intentions and capabilities, and it is impossible to predict whether ETI will be benign or hostile.”
This objection is moot, however, according to the proponents of active SETI. They argue that even if there are unfriendlies out there, they already know about us. That’s because “I Love Lucy” and other TV and radio broadcasts are radiating from Earth at the speed of light. Aliens with advanced instruments could also detect our navigational radar beacons and would see that we’ve illuminated our cities.
“We have already sent signals into space that will alert the aliens to our presence with the transmissions and street lighting of the last 70 years,” Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute and a supporter of the more aggressive approach, has written. “These emissions cannot be recalled.”
That’s true only to a point, say the critics of active SETI. They argue that unintentional planetary leakage, such as “I Love Lucy,” is omnidirectional and faint, and much harder to detect than an intentional, narrowly focused signal transmitted at a known planet.
These critics add that it’s bad form for scientists to attempt such interstellar communication without getting permission from the rest of humanity. Plus there’s the question of what, exactly, a message to the stars ought to say.
Thus one of the greatest scientific mysteries — are we alone in the universe? — leads to a thorny political and cultural question: Who speaks for Earth?