ET: waiting for your call?
If you had the chance to send a message into space, what would it say? “Greetings, fellow sentient beings”? “We come in peace”? “Hi… we’ve kind of messed up our planet, and we wondered if by chance anyone out there had a spare one?”
The subject of alien life – and its presence or absence in the universe – has been moving up the agenda recently, thanks to the approaching anniversary of the day in April 1960 when Frank Drake, an astronomer at Cornell University, pointed a radio telescope towards Tau Ceti, a suitably Sun-like star in our galactic neighbourhood. Drake was looking for unusual radio transmissions, which could indicate the presence of intelligent life. And even though the search came up empty, it was a good enough idea to kickstart the SETI programme – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Fifty years later, the team at SETI are still looking, and still puzzled by what is known as the Fermi paradox (first put forward by Enrico Fermi, the atomic scientist): the universe is large enough that there should be a host of advanced civilisations out there, so why haven’t they been in touch?
Some have suggested that, while life may be abundant, complex and intelligent life may be exceedingly rare. Others think that bursts of gamma rays periodically sterilise the stars, forcing the process to begin again, or that any species which comes to dominate its planet will exhaust its resources long before it steps into the stars.
Then there is the problem of detection: SETI has spent decades looking for radio signals, but the equivalent emissions from our own planet are becoming harder to detect, as we graduate from radio broadcasts to digital distribution. “The trouble,” says Dr Drake, “is that we are making ourselves more and more difficult to be heard. We are broadcasting in much more efficient ways today and are making our signals fainter and fainter.”
Rather than sitting and waiting for ET to say hello, then, it may be better to go out and grab his attention. Nasa’s Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft carried small metal plaques identifying their time and place of origin. The Voyager message, carried on a 12-inch, gold-plated copper disk, contained sounds and images “selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth”: music, animal noises, spoken greetings in 55 languages, as well as messages from President Carter and the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Yet given that it will take this message in a celestial bottle 40,000 years to reach another planetary system, it seems most sensible to send signals by radio – which is where you come in. To mark the SETI anniversary, as well as the publication of Paul Davies’s The Eerie Silence, a new book about our search for extraterrestrial life, Penguin UK and National Science and Engineering Week will be firing off up to 5,000 messages into space via a radio telescope. The messages can be up to 40 words, and can say anything you like – greetings, warnings, confessions, jokes. The 50 best will be revealed in The Daily Telegraph in March, with each of the winners receiving a copy of Davies’s book.
Among the entries already submitted is the following from Andy Hamilton, writer of the hit sitcom Outnumbered: “Attractive, fun-loving lifeform, blessed (and cursed) with a hungry mind, and wondering if it is alone in the Universe, would like to meet other lifeforms with view to meaningful relationship. Must have good sense of humour.”
Quentin Cooper, the presenter of Radio 4’s Material World, is responsible for the plea at the start of this piece for another planet to despoil, while Paul Davies has opted for the slightly more obscure “10001001.00001001001101110011110001101000011101110100100011110010111101”, an expression of the strength of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation, as expressed in binary arithmetic. (Given our neurological and biological differences, the best way to communicate with alien life could be through the universal constants of maths and physics.) Comedian and QI panellist Alan Davies has a more pressing concern on his mind: “How do you address the issue of landfill on your planet, particularly with regard to disposable nappies…?”
It may be that we are firing these messages into an empty sky – that a better technique for hunting aliens would be to hunt for microbes here that may have come from Mars. Or, as Paul Davies has suggested, we could look for alien life in the history of our own planet: species which came and went before we evolved, or are lurking in the planet’s most inhospitable corners.
It may also be, as Professor Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University warned at a Royal Society seminar last month, that alien species will be as rapacious and aggressive as our own – that such a meeting would be more War of the Worlds than Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and we would do better to keep our cosmic heads down. In other words, by entering our competition, you may well doom the human race. Still, it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?
To enter the competition, submit your message of no more than 40 words at www.penguin.co.uk/eeriesilence Entries will be accepted until February 28, with the winners being announced in March. For full details and terms and conditions, see the website.