Wednesday, July 6, 2011

If Darth Vader Calls, Don't Answer!

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, announced this week that budget cuts have forced its Allen Telescope Array into hibernation.

The array comprises 42 telescopes in the Hat Creek Area of Northern California that scan for radio signals from outer space. With this effort, SETI has been engaged in one of the most profound enterprises in human history: the search for life elsewhere in the universe.

SETI directs the telescopes to scan planet candidates orbiting in the habitable zone around their parent star, like Earth around the Sun, and ask, “Anybody home?”

Turns out the universe teems with radio signals. SETI has amassed an immense volume of signal data, so much in fact that they cannot be sure if their computer software detects every signal, and every kind of signal that might be broadcast from afar.

Their brilliant solution to this stultifying problem: Gamify! It’s a new word – means make it a game. SETI invited all the game-playing geekoids around the planet to invent ways to make the tedious analysis fun. They also hope to monetize the search process in an effort to make the project self-sustaining. Good thinking.

SETI’s complementary project, Earth Speaks, addresses the next logical question: If we discover intelligent life beyond Earth, should we reach out to them, and if so, what should we say?

The first impulse is to call out to another intelligent civilization, right? Like first-timers in France, we would stretch our necks and wave high overhead. Camera around neck, black sox, hairy legs, and sandals:

“Hey!” we’d say, with our big, goofy, American grin, certain we’ll be greeted in kind.

“Bonjour!” ET would reply. “Bienvenu! Please share my croissant.”

The Extra-terrestrially Intelligent would see our inherent worth right away and want to chat us up. We’d go on to become BFF’s, exchanging our Twitter accounts and holiday recipes.

They’d be surprised to see us, of course. It would take them a moment to focus, trust their eyes, look at their buddies and say, “I’ll be darned. Look. That funny looking guy’s trying to get our attention.”

But what if, as some surmise, such a civilization is eons ahead of us technologically, spiritually, morally? We might more likely need to pull our shoulders up around our ears and say, “Oops. Sorry! Didn’t mean to cause all that____________.” Fill in the blank: Pollution, noise, nuclear waste, animosity, political gridlock, self-serving greed.

Earth Speaks invites participants from around the globe to submit online text messages, pictures, and sounds that convey the sentiment they would want to communicate to an extraterrestrial civilization.

A text message? “Zup?” Somehow, I don’t think a text message will embody the yearning of the human spirit. LOL.

Pictures? OK. Let’s send pictures of babies from around the world. Baby animals too. Show our potential, our sweet nature, our desire to learn.

But what would you say?

Actually, if it’s ever found, the Golden Record onboard Voyager 2, hurtling through deep space, already speaks for us. Carl Sagan and his associates at Cornell University assembled 116 images, spoken greetings in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Jimmy Carter and U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim along with a variety of natural sounds - surf, wind, thunder, and animal sounds including the songs of birds and whales. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, featuring artists such as Mozart, Stravinsky, and Chuck Berry. Roll Over Beethoven. Tell ET the news.

But there is that other thought: That once the Frenchman, er, ET looks up from his knitting, he’ll focus on us with calculating precision, assesses our signals, and find us inferior. He just might reach out with the mentality of a praying mantis and snarf us up like an ear of corn.

So it’s not a question to be taken lightly….if we boldly seek and find someone, should we call out, or tiptoe back behind the moon?

Let’s say we set aside our terror at becoming an inter-galactic hors d’oeuvre, reach out and tap these guys on their alien shoulders

We’ll say, “Greetings.”

They’ll say, “Step into my parlor…”

My apologies. I don’t mean to let my paranoia overtake me.

I want SETI to survive. I don’t want to give up hope in that miraculous, transformative possibility.

Or, as Fox Mulder would say, “I want to believe.”