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Guest Editorial

Mixed Messagess
by Louise Butler
from the March, 2016 issue of Mensa Bulletin,
used by permission

When I contemplate what message I would send to an alien species, I think first of Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. In many ways, they have answered the question for us, Asimov through his fictional writings and Sagan through his work with the intergalactic cryptographic disc placed on Pioneer 10.

On the gold-anodized aluminum plaque placed on both Pioneer 10 and 11, a naked and relatively anatomically correct man and woman stand before an outline of the spacecraft. The man’s hand is raised in greeting but also to show limb mobility. The plaque also has a diagram of our solar system with the path Pioneer took from the third planet. Probably the most important part is a diagram of a hydrogen atom with a notation showing its hyperfine transition from an electron spin state up and spin state down. A number 1 connects them as a key to possible measurement of either wave length or frequency. This plaque was designed by Sagan and Frank Drake, and math was their language of choice.

I believe that communicating with an alien race would be much like going on a first date. You want to look interesting but not needy, friendly but independent, sensitive yet curious.

Of course, any good date requires two-way communication. My primary question to them would be how they manifest the basic functions of life. According to NASA scientist Bruce Jakosky, in his book The Search for Life on Other Planets, being “alive” means meeting three requirements:

  1. using energy from some source to drive chemical reactions
  2. being capable of reproduction
  3. undergoing evolution
Longer lists simply take these three and break them down into more specific tasks. Far from complicating a simplicity, there is practical reason to stretch Jakosky’s big three to include specifics. Saying you can move is essential, but there is a broad perceptual difference between something that oozes and something that leaps. Saying you react to stimuli is basic, but there is a world of difference between creatures that perceive and those that intuit.

Broadly formed but targeted questions will inform our interlocutors as to what our species is like and let them know that we are searching for some form of commonality. (I have come up with six.) We are a species that hopes our terrestrial and extraterrestrial Venn diagrams will show some overlap. We hope for compatibility, and that is a good sign.

Every living creature on Earth, from humans to yeast, metabolize energy to drive chemical reactions. We exchange food and gasses for energy. Both require us to take in the desired product, utilize it effectively and then dispose of waste, yet contrasting how these activities occur in a human and in a yeast give us two entirely different views of the operating system. Because the purpose of communicating with another planet of sentient beings is to get to know them and not their entire zoological garden, we need a micro-view, at least to start with. So I would break a question of energy usage into two: (1) What do you use as energy to fuel your corporate selves? And (2) how do you eliminate waste resulting from that energy transfer? Now you have a filter through which to sift possible physical types.

Next we have the question of reproduction. Reproduction implies death. It also implies an urge to continue as a player in one’s environment. Far from simply getting it on and getting it done, reproduction may be the most hopeful thing any species does. In this case the how is not nearly as important as the why. You are either replacing units which no longer exist or are populating a seemingly infinite environment, the latter being a logical improbability. This invites another question: Given normal conditions, how long do you exist as a corporate self? No need for prurient interest here, just who and how often are they replacing. That is the difference between a salmon and an elephant.

Undergoing evolution, as a condition for life, is as convoluted as reproduction is straightforward. All living things on this planet maintain a stable internal environment. Yet, within the parameters of that homeostatic state, they react and respond to stimuli. They grow and show movement, even if only at the cellular level. All living things either adapt or succumb to changing stimuli, and somehow (in Earth’s case, through nucleic molecules) pass those successful adaptations on to future generations.

So evolution is a broad word that involves too many variables for a cogent examination of what a species is, how it appears and behaves. It requires more than just a yes or no response: (4) How do you perceive the environment? (5) How do you react in response to stimuli? (6) Has your macro-environment changed over time?

And so our three macro-view definitions of life become six more specific questions. Up to now, the question has been academic. It is designed to provoke thought among the only side of this equation that is now revealed to us. But, if answered, the specificity of these questions involves a chance to see our fellow galactic beings through words when a picture may be impossible or confusing. Asimov envisioned such answers. Sagan tried to anticipate and answer such questions from others.

Just like on a first date, the questions you ask reveal more about you than them. Just like a first date, the right questions and the right answers can lead to a second meeting, one that has more anticipation and less anxiety than the first.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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