Ask Dr. SETI ®
by David Brin
As we approach the 40th anniversary of the landmark Arecibo Message, I contemplate the recent revival of interest in transmitting "messages" into space. An earlier move in that direction was canceled soon after a couple of dozen of us wrote to the Arecibo Observatory director, reminding him that the matter may wind up being raised in other offices and chambers.
To be clear, the latest endeavor -- the New Arecibo Message contest, which asks kids to design our planet's next message to aliens -- is fine. In theory, we can engage in lots and lots of discussions, conferences about the how and why of future messages -- including fascinated kids and adults and experts around the globe -- as a completely separate matter than any decision about actually transmitting. I've participated in many such conferences and open fora, for 30 years. The topic of message content, encoding and decipherment is way-fun and often brings with it a better understanding of basics underlying communication between human cultures and even with other species on Earth. Certainly, using such challenges to liven interest among members of the next generation is laudable.
Alas, it's impossible to keep these endeavors separated. If folks concoct a message, they will want to send it and will feel cheated if it's not transmitted. That's human nature. So, a compromise has been offered. Choose one stellar system out there... perhaps the Andromeda Galaxy... or Sirius if we must pick one that's nearby and visible to all... and send all of the "messages" from these contests at that one point in space. The increase in humanity's risk is probably slight. And meanwhile, perhaps we can persuade the METI zealots to agree to an honest process of risk-appraisal.
Anyone who engages in attempts at diplomacy that bypass the State Department, who risks interplanetary contamination without consulting NASA's Planetary Protection Office, who alters visible traits of our planet without environmental impact review, or who makes assumptions about public safety without any risk analysis – and this includes observatory directors – should be aware they risk being held personally liable for any repercussions. And yes, those rules exist for good reasons, especially if your instrument is or was funded by the taxpayers. We are a civilization of responsible adults -- or should be. Perhaps, if we remember that, we might become worthy of First Contact.
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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this page last updated 2 March 2019
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