Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 17 September 2015

Attempts to reflect equality and diversity in our messages to extraterrestrials is a waste of time

Long life | 17 September 2015
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How do you address extraterrestrials in outer space? The main problem with this is that there may not be any extraterrestrials out there to address. The next problem is that, if there are any, they will be unimaginably far away. According to Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, the nearest star that could potentially accommodate life is ten light years from Earth, or (I hope I’ve got this right) about 60,000,000,000,000 miles. So even if there are aliens living out there, and even if they receive and understand whatever message we send them and decide to answer it, we would probably have to wait about 200 years for their reply — or so Mr Sandberg told the British Science Festival in Bradford the other day.

The prospects for contacting aliens seem so hopeless that it’s amazing that anyone would bother to try, but there are people still pursuing this goal with dogged determination. And at the British Science Festival the focus was not on the futility of the effort but on the nature of the message that aliens should be sent.

One can see why people should want to believe in extraterrestrial life: it does indeed seem strange that whoever created the universe with its millions of heavenly bodies should have chosen only this one little speck of a planet as a home for living things. On the other hand, there is still no evidence of life anywhere else. So to worry about the kind of message to send these possibly non-existent, and almost certainly unreachable, creatures in outer space seems rather premature. Nevertheless, the main concern in Bradford was to avoid misleading aliens about the nature of life on earth.

The last message fired off into space in 1972 took the form of a plaque attached to the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which has now left the solar system and is zooming along to no one knows where in the far reaches of space. This plaque displays simple line drawings of a naked man and a naked woman, so as to give the alien who finds it an idea of what we earthlings look like. This greatly concerned Dr Jill Stuart, an expert on space policy at the London School of Economics, who told the science festival that it gave quite the wrong impression.

‘The plaque shows a man raising his hand in a very manly fashion, while a woman stands behind him, appearing all meek and submissive,’ she said. ‘We really need to rethink that with any messages we are sending out now. Attitudes have changed so much in just 40 years.’ Dr Stuart added that she would also feel ‘uncomfortable with sending out any images that include western-dominated material’ (though the drawings on the plaque look as if they could be of anyone).

I wonder what kind of image would be more representative of the world today: a drowning migrant, a Muslim extremist beheading a hostage, an American policeman shooting a black man? But Dr Stuart needn’t worry. Aliens are unlikely to have even the faintest idea what any image is about; as Mr Sandberg said, we don’t even know if aliens have eyes. And in any event, by the time any alien finds a new message, another 40 years will have passed and attitudes will have changed all over again.

Nevertheless, it is all worth thinking about, because a very rich Russian entrepreneur-cum-physicist called Yuri Milner is offering a one-million-dollar prize to the person who devises the best message to send into space on behalf of the world. He is also spending $100 million on a project to make use of the world’s best radio telescopes to listen out for any communications that aliens may feel tempted to make.

All this has breathed new excitement into the hitherto increasingly forlorn search for extraterrestrial life. I find it difficult to take any of it remotely seriously, but one million dollars is not to be sniffed at. If I can’t think of a winning message, as I fear I won’t be able to, I feel sure that some Spectator reader can.