Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The interstellar lighthouse

I must admit to having a fascination with aliens.

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 "SpaceSpeak" that aims to transmit messages to nearby star systems with habitable planets.

SpaceSpeak says, on its home page, "Whether it's a poem, a prayer, a message in support of a cause, or a note to any intelligent life forms that may be listening, your text, image, or audio clip will be broadcast into space with our radio transmitter.  Check back later to see how far it has traveled!...  Do you have a cause you believe in?  Want to reach to the peoples of other worlds?  We'll help you get your message out in a way no one else can.  So make the world a better place and let the universe know about it!...  SpaceSpeak will take your message, encode it, and beam it out into space where it will travel the heavens for millions of years.  Long after the Earth is gone, photons from your message will be racing across the cosmos in silent testament to your thoughts."

Your message has to be under two thousand characters long, but that seems to be the only limitation.

SpaceSpeak is the brainchild of Dr. Peter Beery and his wife Nanette, who are both teachers (Peter of engineering, Nanette of environmental science).  Both have been deeply interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life for years, and came up with the idea of sending messages into space to see who might respond a couple of years ago.  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 a few of the messages queued up on SpaceSpeak's site:
  • ligma balls
  • ur mom gay
  • This is an official request for the Red Pill.  Please send promptly.  Thank you.  -A half-asleep citizen of Earth who wants to be fully woke
  • Yo what up my alien brethren, the humans down here are REAL conquerable, come and get em boys.  Also, follow my insta and snap: @oscarjt10,  If yall want help to take over this bum ass earth, hit me up.
  • Tub thub ubnivub: Tabubthub Emumub Corbrub Fibmub Shub Blubthub Wub Jub Lubnub Mubxibubcub Cubmub Thub arub oub bub
Okay, right. What?

I mean, come on, people.  Do you really want humanity to be the subject of a documentary on an alien world called The Derpinoids of Dumbass-3?

And of course, this opens up another, darker possibility, which is that if we do succeed in contacting extraterrestrial life, the results might be unfortunate for us.  (Especially with people like @oscarjt10 giving them a deliberate invitation to conquer us.)  No less a scientific luminary than Stephen Hawking weighed in on the possibilities almost a decade ago.

"To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," Hawking said, in an interview with The Sunday Times in 2010.  "The real challenge is working out what aliens might actually be like.  We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet.  I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet.  Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.  If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the American Indians."

So, that's a little off-putting.

The other inevitable downside is the time it's going to take. Even if the messages reach intelligent life on a planet circling the closest star to the Sun (Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away), and they are capable of receiving and interpreting SpaceSpeak's message, and are able to send a response more or less immediately, it will take 8.4 years before we get it. By that time I'll be... well, kind of impatient.  A conversation that has a 8.4-year lag time between messages would be a bit on the frustrating side:
Us: "Hi Aliens." 
*8.4 years elapse* 
Them: "Hi, how are you today?" 
Us: "Oh, we're fine, how are you?  How's the weather where you are?" 
*8.4 more years* 
Them: "Can't complain.  Sunny and warm here, just took the kids to the beach.  Little Billy got sand in all six of his eyes, can you imagine?  Kids, right?"
Us:  "Ligma balls." 
*another 8.4 years* 
Them:  "Dafuq?" 
And so on.

Now, it's not that I'm actually against what SpaceSpeak is trying to accomplish, but it does seem like it has some pretty significant pitfalls.  Be that as it may, I hope the Beerys succeed in their wild scheme.  It would be cool if we humans would finally do something with our money other than designing bigger and better ways of torturing and killing each other.

So I encourage you to donate to SpaceSpeak, and also to log in and post a message.  It's nice to see that there are still a few people who have their hearts and minds turned toward the stars.

But if you do decide to send a message to the aliens, try to come up with something better than "ur mom gay," okay?


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a brilliant look at two opposing worldviews; Charles Mann's The Wizard and the Prophet.  Mann sees today's ecologists, environmental scientists, and even your average concerned citizens as falling into two broad classes -- wizards (who think that whatever ecological problems we face, human ingenuity will prevail over them) and prophets (who think that our present course is unsustainable, and if we don't change our ways we're doomed).

Mann looks at a representative member from each of the camps.  He selected Norman Borlaug, Nobel laureate and driving force behind the Green Revolution, to be the front man for the Wizards, and William Vogt, who was a strong voice for population control and conversation, as his prototypical Prophet.  He takes a close and personal look at each of their lives, and along the way outlines the thorny problems that gave rise to this disagreement -- problems we're going to have to solve regardless which worldview is correct.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]

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