I recall being the tender age of five years old and sitting spellbound watching the impossibly ridiculous aliens on the television show Lost in Space -- and being only a couple of years older and being positively captivated by the marginally-less-ridiculous aliens on the original Star Trek. Even now I still have a soft spot in my heart for bug-eyed little gray guys, and I have the posters on my classroom wall to prove it (including a replica of Fox Mulder's famous UFO poster with the caption "I Want To Believe"). I also once paid a visit to the International UFO Museum of Roswell, New Mexico, with interesting results:
So I suppose it's to be expected that I was pretty excited about a new project called "Lone Signal" that aims to transmit messages to nearby star systems with habitable planets.
Lone Signal says, on its home page, "At Lone Signal, we believe that crowdsourcing messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) is the ideal approach to establishing a stable, cohesive, and well-resourced interstellar beacon on Earth. We invite you to join us in the first collective and continuous METI experiment in human history. Lone Signal allows anyone with Internet access to compose and transmit messages to strategically selected stellar systems."
You can send one Twitter-style 140-character message for free, and four additional ones for 99 cents. The idea is then to use satellite equipment in Carmel Valley, California that Lone Signal's CEO, Jamie King, purchased, to send these messages to the star Gliese 526, which is 17 light years away and has a planet in the so-called "Goldilocks Zone" where the temperature is right to have water in its liquid form.
King is currently trying to raise enough money to buy additional satellite equipment -- and we're not just talking about a couple of dishes, here. He wants to generate enough interest in his project to raise $100 million -- sufficient to turn the Earth into a "transmitting beacon," sending continuous signals to nearby stars that seem like good candidates for hosting intelligent life. Creating an interstellar lighthouse, is what it amounts to.
I'm not entirely sure what I think about this.
First, on the positive side, there's the coolness factor. The idea that we might be capable of sending a coordinated message to intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy is nothing short of thrilling. Ever since watching Captain Kirk interact with Balok and the Andorians and the Salt Vampire, I've lived in hope of one day finding out that we really aren't alone in the universe. To me, finding unequivocal evidence of life on another planet would be just about the most exciting thing I can imagine, even if they don't turn out to have blue skin and antennae.
The problem, though, is that this message is going to be composed by... random humans. And I hate to point it out, and I say this with all due affection (being a random human myself), but when you put something like this in the hands of average people, the results can be kind of... dumb. For example, take a look at the next three messages queued up on Lone Signal's site:
"A dog can't get struck by lightning. you know why? 'Cause he's too close to the ground. See, lightning strikes tall things. Now if they were giraffes out there in the field, now then..."