Monday, 22 February 2010

What would you say to ET?

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This year is the 50th anniversary of SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – and to mark the occassion science writer Paul Davies' new book The Eerie Silence looks at the history of the so-far unsuccessful search for intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, and assesses its future prospects. The book's out in March, but having devoured our press copy in a matter of days, I can confirm that it's a fascinating read – we loved it so much we're running an extract in our March issue, so look out for that.

Davies is chair of SETI's Post-Detection Taskgroup, which I can only describe in entirely unscientific terms as possibly the coolest committee you could imagine – it's job is to work out what to do if (or when, for the optimists) we finally discover a signal from outer space. So if we're going to respond, the Taskgroup would play a major role in deciding what to say.

But there's no need to feel entirely left out – to coincide with the anniversary, the book and National Science and Engineering Week, Davies' publisher Penguin are running a competition where you can suggest the 40-word message you would transmit to an intelligent civilisation elsewhere in our Galaxy (as I learned from Davies' book, the idea of ever sending a message beyond the Milky Way is pushing it a little). 5,000 message will be sent out into space on 12 March during Science and Engineering Week, and the 50 best messages, chosen by a judging committee, will appear on the Penguin website, with the authors winning copies of The Eerie Silence.

So, if you fancy yourself as a potential Galactic Representative (don't we all...), go and submit your message over at the Penguin site, where you can also see the messages suggested by a few famous faces.

Of course, there's a school of thought that says we might like to consider whether we should be responding to ET at all, for fear of hastening our own destruction. After all, have all those sci-fi films taught us nothing? What do you think?


idcsteve said...

I think the alien threat is greatly overrated. As you can see here, puppies are much more dangerous.

AT said...

The few entries I've read seem to stick to a pretty benign template - you've got bleeding-heart references to environmental responsibility and harmless gags.

If you can't encode a fist in a message then I don't think we should send anything. If after 4,000 light years the aliens DON'T receive a punch in the face, then I want no part of the project.

Paul Sims said...

When I saw a lecture by Seth Shostak, who runs SETI, he suggested that we should just send the entire internet. Since it'd take a few thousand years to get back to them, so we can't have a conversation, he figures just send them everything we know.

Of course that also means we would be sending them a lot of porn, but that'd at least give them a (slightly unrepresentative)idea of our anatomy.