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 18, 2024

ET, call Lexington

If you needed more evidence that we're living in surreal times, some scientists have collaborated with the Tourism Board of Lexington, Kentucky to send a message to aliens inviting them to come to the city for a visit.

The message was sent via infrared laser toward TRAPPIST-1, a multi-planet system about forty light years from Earth.  Astonishingly, they actually got permission from the Federal Aviation Administration -- not a government office known either for its flexibility or its sense of humor -- to beam the message out.  The message, in coded bitmap form, contained information regarding the intent of the transmission, some photographs of the Lexington area, and an audio recording of blues musician Tee Dee Young.

"The bitmap image is the key to it all," said Andrew Byrd, a linguistics expert at the University of Kentucky, who was one of the scholars involved in the project.  "We included imagery representing the elements of life, our iconic Lexington rolling hills, and the molecular structure for water, bourbon, and even dopamine because Lexington is fun."

It also contained the message, "Come to Lexington!  We have horses and bourbon.  Just don't eat us."

I feel obliged to interject here that I'm not making any of this up.

The Lexington Tourism Board's promo art for the project, which I also did not make up

Regular readers of Skeptophilia know that the possibility of alien life -- perhaps intelligent life -- is a near-obsession with me, but I'm not sure this is really the way to go about trying to contact it.  While TRAPPIST-1 isn't a bad choice given the fact that it's fairly close and we know it has seven planets, there's no indication any of them host life.  Four of the planets appear to orbit within the star's "Goldilocks Zone," where the temperatures are "just right" for water to exist in liquid form, but that doesn't mean the planets have liquid water, or even atmospheres.  The fact that the planets have such tight orbits -- the farthest one only has an orbital radius six percent of Earth's, and orbits its star in nineteen days -- suggests they're probably tidally locked, meaning the same side of the planet always faces the star.  (I wrote about the difficulty of life evolving on a tidally-locked planet a year ago, if you're curious to read more about it.)

Then there's the problem of waving hello at aliens who might be vastly more powerful than we are and would respond by squashing us.  Stephen Hawking addressed this in stark terms back in 2010, saying, "We don't know much about aliens, but we know about humans.  If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced.  A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead of us.  If so, they will be vastly more powerful, and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria."

Of course, if there are intelligent aliens out there, they probably already know about us.  At least the ones under 104 light years away do, because there's an expanding bubble of radio and television transmissions sweeping outward from us at the speed of light that began with the first commercial radio broadcast in 1920.  Assuming any aliens on the receiving end are at least as smart and technologically capable as we are, they're probably already decoding those transmissions and listening to Fibber McGee and Molly and watching Lost in Space, after which they will definitely think we're no more valuable than bacteria.

The last issue -- and this may be the good news, here, if you buy what Hawking said -- is that because TRAPPIST-1 is forty light years away, any aliens who might live there won't receive the message until 2064, and the earliest we could get a response is 2104.  Even if they have some kind of superluminal means of travel and jumped into their spaceships as soon as they got the message, it wouldn't be until the 2060s that they could even potentially get here.  

At least the Lexington Tourism Board has a good window of time to get their hotels ready for the influx of alien tourists.  And if they turn out to be hostile, at that point (if I'm still alive) I'll be over a hundred years old, and I figure that an alien laser pistol blast to the face is about as dramatic a way to check out as I could ask for, so I suspect I'll be fine with the Earth being invaded regardless which way it goes.

So the Lexington Tourism Board's efforts fall squarely into the "No Harm If It Amuses You" department.  And I guess the more time people spend focusing on this sort of thing, the less they'll spend dreaming up new and different ways to be awful to each other.  So as far as that goes, I'm all for sending messages to the stars.

Even if the best things you can think of to talk about are horses, bourbon, and dopamine.


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