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Who Speaks for Earth?
January 1, 2008 9:36 PM   Subscribe

Who Speaks for Earth? "After decades of searching, scientists have found no trace of extraterrestrial intelligence. Now, some of them hope to make contact by broadcasting messages to the stars. Are we prepared for an answer?"
posted by homunculus (63 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Did you know Carl Sagan had a hankering for taters while high? It's true!
posted by sourwookie at 9:44 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


My takeaway excerpt:

In an influential 1983 paper titled "The Great Silence," Brin provided a kind of taxonomy of explanations for the lack of an obvious alien presence. In addition to the usual answers positing that humanity is alone, or so dull that aliens have no interest in us, Brin included a more disturbing possibility: Nobody is on the air because something seeks and destroys everyone who broadcasts.
posted by vacapinta at 9:48 PM on January 1, 2008


We're totally getting eaten and turned into furniture. Which actually does seem like a fitting destiny for the species.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:50 PM on January 1, 2008


I think we should write and produce an audio play to be broadcast starward. A story about how Dr. Zaius thwarts the Daleks would really show them what we're all about. Are we prepared for their answer? I say yea, because their answer would be yay!
posted by juiceCake at 9:54 PM on January 1, 2008


I remember seeing a Nova episode about people broadcasting messages for aliens from earth when I was a kid.
posted by delmoi at 9:57 PM on January 1, 2008


Also on /.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:14 PM on January 1, 2008


Can we send an SOS?
posted by 3.2.3 at 10:20 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


We have been broadcasting for over half a century now. If there's an alien species fifty or sixty light years away from us, they're getting first run episodes of The Jackie Gleason Show.

Those speaking to potential aliens on behalf of Earth include Milton Berle, Soupy Sales, Lucille Ball, and Howdy Doody.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:23 PM on January 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


About this:
In 2001, Zaitsev and a group of Russian teenagers created the "Teen-Age Message to the Stars," which was broadcast in August and September of that year in the direction of six stars between 45 and 70 light years from Earth. The Teen-Age Message notably included greetings in Russian and English, and a 15-minute Theremin symphony for aliens.
That's this:
The 15-minute performance consisted of following melodies:
- Russian romance "Egress alone I to the ride".
- Beethoven. Finale of 9th Symphony (Anthem of European Union).
- Vivaldi. Seasons. March. Allegro.
- Sean-Sans. Swan.
- Rakhmaninov. Vocalize.
- Gershvin. Summertime.
- "Kalinka-Malinka" – Russian folk.
That ought to set some tentacles a tappin'.
posted by pracowity at 10:35 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


This is such a ridiculous under appreciation of the vast, limitless expanse of what life or consciousness, individuals, society, could be.

Altered states of consciousness allow some insight into how vast - hypnagonic hallucinations as sleep approaches, lucid dreams of forgotten time, high grade hallucinogens, schizophrenia. Any inter-state communication is impossible, which is why these are deemed altered and abnormal.

Imagine the challenges of interspecies communication. Why do we not communicate more frequently with apes, dolphins, or algae for the matter? What could we possibly say? Our states of existence are too drastically different, there is no shared reality.

The concept of alien civilizations and the audacity to assume to know anything about what that would even mean (does an advanced society destroy itself, etc.) is preposterously centric.
posted by iamck at 10:41 PM on January 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


I enjoyed the article. Thank you. It's nice to hear about SETI every now and again.

We have been broadcasting for over half a century now. If there's an alien species fifty or sixty light years away from us, they're getting first run episodes of The Jackie Gleason Show.


That was my first thought, too, but they seem to be talking about more powerful transmissions:

...even Zaitsev accepts that open and multinational discussion is needed before anyone pursues transmission programs more ambitious and powerful than his own. The major disagreement is actually over how soon we can expect powerful transmission tools to become widely available to those who would signal at whim.


Also, I'd never heard this theory before (nor likely too frequently, methinks):

Brin included a more disturbing possibility: Nobody is on the air because something seeks and destroys everyone who broadcasts.
posted by kisch mokusch at 10:49 PM on January 1, 2008


Math is the same for everyone. It won't be that hard. The problem is that there's no one there, at least in our galaxy. Otherwise, they'd already be here.
posted by cytherea at 10:49 PM on January 1, 2008


kisch mokusch Also, I'd never heard this theory before: [...] something seeks and destroys everyone who broadcasts.

I'd have thought that's an old classic SF theme - possibly even predating War of the Worlds. I remember one story--but not title or author--that put the idea particularly well, and combined it with the "seeding life" idea, likening it to the actions of gardeners. Once the broadcast strength reaches a certain level, the planet is ready to be harvested.

Anyway, it''s completely a moot point. It doesn't matter how deeply the Active SETI people cogitate over their broadcasts, the rest of the world has been loudly broadcasting whatever they feel like since the late 1800's. Earth speaks for Earth. It's like sitting in a football stadium in the middle of a screaming crowd, agonizing over whether you, personally, have the right to speak on behalf of the crowd to the footballers, and if so, what it is you ought to quietly say.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:04 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Cripes. I've been madly broadcasting online for 10 years now, and still haven't encountered any intelligent life.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 11:17 PM on January 1, 2008


Oh the SF idea that we alert our presence and mark ourselves for destruction is familiar. I just hadn't taken it out to it's natural conclusion (that that's why it's so quiet out there). Seems kinda obvious now I think about it.
posted by kisch mokusch at 11:25 PM on January 1, 2008


The aweomest appearance of that trope is probably in Saberhagen's Berzerker series, where it turns out that humans are the only species badass enough to put up a fight to these intersteller extermination drones. Duke fucking Nukem shit, man.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 11:30 PM on January 1, 2008


Reynolds' Revelation Space series is also good, along those lines.

An interesting non-fiction book which explores dozens of hypotheses for our failure to encounter any intelligent life, is If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens... Where Is Everybody?
posted by Infinite Jest at 11:42 PM on January 1, 2008


The problem is that there's no one there, at least in our galaxy. Otherwise, they'd already be here.

That's not at all necessarily the case. Even if we assume that there's some kind of magical way to circumvent the limitation of the speed of light, and that there are civilizations out there who've found it, look at it this way: let's say for the sake of argument that we've been broadcasting a welter of electromagnetic signals for 65 years.

That gives us a bubble of 65 light years, with us at the centre, to the outer edge of the radiosphere where, if someone was listening, they might have 'heard' us. There are only something like 2000 stars in a 50 light-year radius, so, what, maybe 2500 stars or so out to 65 ly. So even assuming (wildly) that all of those stars a) have planets and b) have planets that are in the temperate zone that might support life, it's still a long stretch given that we've only been a technological civilization for a century or two out of the billions of years there's been life on this planet, that life on any one of those for-arguments'-sake-hospitable to life 2500 worlds could be at a similar or higher level of technology.

The odds, of course, rise when we look out to the rest of the galaxy, which contains something like 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. The numbers make it quite likely that there's somebody or -bodies out there, at various levels of development. Problem is, our radiosphere has only washed over a couple of thousand of the stars where their planets might be.

Another way to look at it -- if we draw a sphere around the galaxy (because I'm in a hurry and it's simple), we get a volume of 305,3628,104,400,000 cubic light years. Our radiosphere is something like 1,150,346 cubic light years (if my math is correct). So that radiosphere -- the region in which it might conceivably be possible for another civilization to have detected our signals -- is 1/2,654,528,903 the size of the notional 'galactic sphere'. Teeny!

OK, that's probably all wrong, but you get my point, even if my numbers are probably off. Space is big, and we've only made our little mark on a tiny wee bit of it.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:00 AM on January 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


I love the SF theme that every biological intelligent species gets destroyed when their machines rise up against them, then the machines wait around in the cold darkness to snap down like a bear trap on the next species that sticks its head up. Pioneered in Gregory Benford's Across The Sea of Suns I think? Though I liked Alistair Reynold's more recent take on it.

cytherea : Math is the same for everyone. It won't be that hard.

An interesting footnote on that is something that has been contemplated for more than a hundred years now conventionally called The Ozma Problem. It goes like this: if we were to establish something like radio contact with another civilization, unless both civilization were able to see something like a galaxy - a physical point of reference - in common, we would be unable to communicate what we mean by "left" and "right". That wouldn't necessarily cause any practical problems but if we explain to them how to decode a digitized image we send them, for example, we won't know whether they're looking at the same thing as us or its mirror image (hence "Ozma".)

One of the wackier sci-fi-type points that a mathematician named Martin Gardner brings up is that, assuming symmetry holds throughout particle physics, we could end up talking with someone resident in a galaxy composed of antimatter but have no way of telling.

But I concur with iamck that our thinking on this - what aliens might be like and what the biggest problems in communicating with them might be - is usually oversimplified.
posted by XMLicious at 12:01 AM on January 2, 2008


The problem with the whole "Aliens are getting 'I Love Lucy' first-runs," is that by the time the signal would reach a different star (say, Proxima,) it would have attenuated and dispersed so much as to be indistinguishable from noise. SETI says that even a 5MHz and 5 MWatt TV broadcast would not be detected beyond the solar system with a radio telescope even 100 times as powerful as the one at Arecibo. ETs would need receivers the size of planets to even have a hope of detecting a radio or TV signal from the 1930's on (pre-1930's broadcasts were simply not powerful enough to penetrate the atmosphere,) and unless they were pointed directly at the signal, they would require a phased array setup of multiple receivers to find that needle in the haystack. Really, low bandwidth and much higher power (possible sometrhing that not even SETI is doing,) would be needed for the signal to even be discovered even a lightyear away, let alone 50 or 60.
posted by Snyder at 12:17 AM on January 2, 2008


Pioneered in Gregory Benford's Across The Sea of Suns I think?

Oh hell naw, the first Berzerker story was written in 1963!
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 1:00 AM on January 2, 2008


"Brin provided a kind of taxonomy of explanations for the lack of an obvious alien presence. In addition to the usual answers positing that humanity is alone, or so dull that aliens have no interest in us,"

It's not just that we're dull, it's that we're made out of meat.
posted by homunculus at 1:09 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Saberhagen for the win! I'm glad I put in that question mark.
posted by XMLicious at 1:30 AM on January 2, 2008


And doubleplusgood on They're Made of Meat.
posted by XMLicious at 1:32 AM on January 2, 2008


It's a profoundly disturbing notion that any alien emissary would meet with George Bush.

/assuming they could traverse the distance, blah-blah ...
posted by RavinDave at 2:23 AM on January 2, 2008



Those speaking to potential aliens on behalf of Earth include Milton Berle, Soupy Sales, Lucille Ball, and Howdy Doody.


After seeing that, maybe nobody wants to call us?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:24 AM on January 2, 2008


Those speaking to potential aliens on behalf of Earth include Milton Berle, Soupy Sales, Lucille Ball, and Howdy Doody.

I'll take that over George Bush, Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Osama bin Laden.
posted by psmealey at 4:03 AM on January 2, 2008


I think that the lack of a galactic civ is quite reasonable if there is no FTL. Perhaps they're like us, and see essentially no reason to settle elsewhere. If there is no FTL and habitable planets are kind of sparse, then you're looking at generational colony ships, which have a lot of social problems associated with them. Anything which can accomplish the engineering needed is a social organism, but it's hard to imagine a social creature which is willing to cut off essentially all ties to its society for the trip AND would be functional for the trip/arrival.

For us in particular, I'm kind of down on the number of habitable planets. We need an oxidizing atmosphere, which isn't natural absent biology. Then we have to deal with that biology without a) dying from infections/immune responses or b) destroying it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:29 AM on January 2, 2008


I remember seeing a Nova episode about people broadcasting messages for aliens from earth when I was a kid.

There's of course television and radio broadcasts, but (i am not a signals expert) our abilities of reception currently would be unable to detect a signal from a civilization just like ours a few light years away. The idea that they will just run into Hitler giving a speech before the Olympics is a bit flawed. High power directional tranmissions are a bit more reasonable. Ideally, you want to be able to broadcast something you yourself would be able to detect if you were 100 light years away and without knowing exactly where to listen.

I think that the lack of a galactic civ is quite reasonable if there is no FTL.

Oh, I dont know. I think certain ideas are ludicrous to us because we're modern humans, like 100,000+ year lifespans or projects that take millions of years to finish. Does it go against our ideas of society and mortality? Sure, but that's pretty meaningless as we only have humanity as one data point in these matters. Also, we dont understand alien motivations. Even something unlikely can be done under duress or for, say, religious or political reasons.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:47 AM on January 2, 2008


a robot made out of meat: There is the issue of using robot exploration though - Von Neumann machines should be able to spread through an entire galaxy in a relatively short time. Whether anyone would be able or would want to bother making them is another question - especially if they're likely to die before seeing any returns on the project.
posted by edd at 5:00 AM on January 2, 2008


I don't think that VNMs are a sure bet either. The robotics that we create and envision are very complex, with lots of different materials and material classes involved. People always say "oh, it'll get whatever metals it needs from asteroids" but asteroids are possibly a very poor source for whatever mixture of rare metals that you need (my understanding is that Sol is very enriched in very heavy metals as solar systems go). Asteroids are also far apart; it takes a lot of energy to go from one to the next. Your VNM needs to carry simply enormous ability to find, harvest, refine, and fabricate. The more ability, the more complexity, the more problems with the former. I can just imagine this huge ship wandering around an asteroid belt going "...still looking for platinum, bismuth, and cobalt. This sucks, I'm playing tetris." You can give it 1000s of years, but it needs to be able to repair whatever misc damage it encounters along the way at the same time scale that it accumulates. To be able to reproduce its entire production chain a VNM needs to be more like a ready-made robotic colony. That means that you have to really really trust your robots.

These are technical problems, which could be overcome. It's just that the scale and difficulty involved are pretty enormous, which makes the undertaking less likely. Maybe the "trust your robots" part is the most difficult; we haven't even really begun on artificial consciousness/advanced intelligence which is a key element.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:28 AM on January 2, 2008


I've always been amused by the whole question of whether there's intelligent life on other worlds, and whether it'll be friendly when we meet it.

When, in human history, have our explorers ever come upon a new land and not butchered or subjugated those they found there? Isn't it painfully obvious that someday we will be the rapacious, "alien" invaders?
posted by JaredSeth at 6:37 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Who Speaks for Earth?

I nominate Zen Master This.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:41 AM on January 2, 2008


I don't think we will ever become aware of an intelligent life form somewhere out there. Aside from the usual problems everyone identifies, I simply don't think we're clever enough to receive the message or have the wherewithal to spend centuries listening.

A much more interesting question would be if we could genetically engineer another intelligent species here. Why waste time starting from scratch with robots, when animals are nearly there already? They can feed and heal themselves, and they can reproduce. All we need to do is get the right parts of their brains to get much bigger, and it's off to the races.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:22 AM on January 2, 2008


Couple points to make:

1). What if we are in an area of space where we are the only ones here. EG like out in the sticks. There could be a more jam backed area of space full of weird star wars style life.

2). What if aliens heard our broadcasts and they are just as primitive space travelwise as us? It could take 60+ years for us to get a response.

3). Aliens heard us and said... "Wow how pointless, come back when you have mastered the full power of your own star system." Like in star trek, they have not made formal contact because we lack a certain level of development.

4). They already have had contact and the governments don't want us to know what is going on.

5). They are already here and they are changing our planet to suit their needs. Setting up governments/things to control us.

6). They do come here and visit us every 50 years or so to check on us. They are waiting for us to grow up so they will have someone to hang out with.

7). Lastly we are lucky that all of our radio waves were absorbed by a blackhole. Because just 70 years away there is an evil alien race that likes to enslave and slaughter other aliens for something to do on the weekends.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:34 AM on January 2, 2008


After decades of searching, scientists have found no trace of extraterrestrial intelligence.

What about the pyramids?
posted by sour cream at 7:36 AM on January 2, 2008


SETI says that even a 5MHz and 5 MWatt TV broadcast would not be detected beyond the solar system with a radio telescope even 100 times as powerful as the one at Arecibo.

Then how is it we're still receiving faint telemetry from Voyager 1?
posted by mr. creosote at 7:41 AM on January 2, 2008


Are we prepared for the answer?

Send more Cagney and Lacey! Who they fuck cancelled Frank's Place?
posted by Pollomacho at 7:41 AM on January 2, 2008



6). They do come here and visit us every 50 years or so to check on us. They are waiting for us to grow up so they will have someone to hang out with.


I'm not so sure about this one. Would you not talk to Plato if you had the chance because he is 2000 years "behind" us? I think if aliens were so technologically superior, it would be an interesting cultural study at least to expose us to their technology and see how it changes our perception of human social structures.

And at this point, the only great technological leap they would have over us would be medical, e.g. exceedingly long life or immortality. Even FTL travel would reduce a trip to the stars to the significance of an East Coasters trip to China. After a couple of years, we've seen what there is to see.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:52 AM on January 2, 2008


Brin included a more disturbing possibility: Nobody is on the air because something seeks and destroys everyone who broadcasts.

That's right, the aliens may have their own "RIAA" who claim that their crazy alien copyright laws apply to us here on earth, so don't just go broadcastin' willy nilly!
posted by TechnoLustLuddite at 7:53 AM on January 2, 2008


That's right, the aliens may have their own "RIAA" who claim that their crazy alien copyright laws apply to us here on earth, so don't just go broadcastin' willy nilly!

That line from your TJ Hooker was a violation of intergalactic copyright law 243 stroke 7B, as it was identical to a line forged by Kravvlaak the Mighty before the destruction of the Third Moon of Trafa'ar by Slevvnaar VI when your pitiful planet was still in the infancy of situation comedy!
posted by Pollomacho at 8:19 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


They'll be here in less than 1000 years demanding a conclusion to Single Female Lawyer.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:20 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's like everything, I guess. There are good people, there are bad people, and there are people who are unable to tell the difference between the two.

Same goes for humans to be found elsewhere.

Why humans and not aliens? Because something that we are able to indentify with and communicate with — and which loves — is human.

Regardless of how many eyes, arms, wings, fins, flippers, brains, hearts or tentacles it has.

What separates us from other species is that we are human, not that we are different species. Human is its own kind.
posted by humannaire at 9:06 AM on January 2, 2008


When, in human history, have our explorers ever come upon a new land and not butchered or subjugated those they found there? Isn't it painfully obvious that someday we will be the rapacious, "alien" invaders?

I like Verhoeven's take on this.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:25 AM on January 2, 2008


Then how is it we're still receiving faint telemetry from Voyager 1?

Because it's narrowband broadcast, somewhere around 10 KHz if I recall. Because it's relatively low bandwidth, it doesn't suffer from dispersal as much, but it also has a very slow information transfer rate, normally at 160 bit/s.
posted by Snyder at 9:29 AM on January 2, 2008


Now, some of them hope to make contact by broadcasting messages to the stars. Are we prepared for an answer?"

I for one welcome our new overlords: 685.000 google hits.
posted by ersatz at 9:30 AM on January 2, 2008


When, in human history, have our explorers ever come upon a new land and not butchered or subjugated those they found there? Isn't it painfully obvious that someday we will be the rapacious, "alien" invaders?

You know, there's a heck of a lot of human history that is not the history of violent Europeans. How about Ibn Battuta who traveled over 75000 miles in his global explorations in the 12th century? Zheng He, a castrated Chinese muslim, lead a massive fleet of ships in three journeys of exploration and diplomacy around SE Asia, the Arabian Sea and down to East Africa in the decades before Columbus.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:43 AM on January 2, 2008


It won't be a matter of deciding who speaks for us and what we'll say. Imagine that aliens are to us as we are to ants. The ants don't tell us anything. We look, we inspect, we sample, we do as we like. The ants just hope the anthill isn't wrecked.

Any aliens that find us might read and understand everything in all of our libraries, monitor all of our broadcasts, take any samples of us they might need to complete the picture, pick up and carry away a city if it suits them.

I'm good to ants. How about you?
posted by pracowity at 9:49 AM on January 2, 2008


Maybe it's painfully obvious that some day we'll be illegal aliens, the migrant workers of a galactic civilization, causing gibbering multitonal outrage over our use of public services while we pay taxes and fulfill essential roles in the economy. That happens in history alot too.

Oh no, wait - the counterexample would be the other way around, with the aliens coming to Earth and being real illegal aliens. So maybe it will be like the episode of South Park where immigrants came from the future and worked for pennies because they could deposit it in a bank and it would be worth millions back in the future, which forced everyone to become gay. That's what's painfully obvious.
posted by XMLicious at 9:54 AM on January 2, 2008


I believe, that at least locally, we ARE the most advanced civilization out there.

If we go exploring in the future, I bet we'll find all sorts of garden planets with Life on them but that got "stuck" somewhere in their development. For example, populated by the equivalent of dinosaurs - huge, terrible things with peabrains which manage to thwart the emergence of anything smarter.
posted by vacapinta at 10:02 AM on January 2, 2008


You know, there's a heck of a lot of human history that is not the history of violent Europeans

If they were Winners, that history would be beamed about 65 light-years away, right now.

Which is not to say that Winners should get to broadcast history. But the first impression that hypothetical aliens have of us will be mostly from our (European, cowboys-and-Indians, winner-take-all) culture.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:06 AM on January 2, 2008


But the first impression that hypothetical aliens have of us will be mostly from our (European, cowboys-and-Indians, winner-take-all) culture.

Especially since early episodes of Gunsmoke and the Rifleman will be some of the first things to reach them.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:18 AM on January 2, 2008


Okay, I have to point out that the behavior described by JaredSeth - butchering and subjugating people in the new lands - is not by any measure more typical of Europeans than anyone else. Pollomacho is the one who mentioned Europeans. The Sioux moving from the Great Lakes to the Plains, the Bantu pushing Khosian tribes into the desert as they moved West and South in Africa, the Chinese establishing colonies in IndoChina, the Japanese exterminating or marginalizing the Ainu and Ryukyuans - we're all pretty handy at butchering and subjugating.
posted by XMLicious at 10:29 AM on January 2, 2008


Pollomacho, I know not all exploration has resulted in bloodshed, but I expect that if we ever manage to overcome the challenges involved in interstellar travel, it will be either via the military or some huge corporate venture, neither of which give me much hope that we'd be all Star Trek-Prime Directive about it.
posted by JaredSeth at 10:52 AM on January 2, 2008


Mankind has been motivated throughout history by many more things than militarism and corporate greed. Frankly nationalism and corporate greed are relative newcomers in the history of mankind anyway. Nationhood and profit are only a few hundred years old as concepts go. Perhaps we are a bit naive to think that they are as long lasting as the things that have motivated humans for bigger stretches of their history.

What about religion? Couldn't a new spiritualism drive mankind into deep space looking for God? Hell, Scientology and Mormonism are freaky to us now (not to mention the weirdness that is Christianity or Islam), think about religion 10000 years from now. The oldest common religions on Earth today are only a few thousand years old and they are full of freaky supernatural bullshit. For all we really know of the future, MetaFilter could be the seed of a community of future spirituality where the snark is the ultimate form of enlightenment!

Science and discovery? Does science factor at all into this equasion or has the whole thing been so tainted now that it can only be a greed issue?

How about just plain curiosity? That drove a lot of people to examine their world.

Survival? Here's the motivating factor the oldest and the one behind humankind's biggest leaps forward for the last few million years. Survival drove us to walk upright. It drove us to walk our hairy asses out of the rift valley. It drove us over the ice bridges wearing nothing but skin pelts and chasing sloths the size of Mac trucks. It drove us to domesticate creatures as diverse and nasty as the camel, the silk worm and digestive bacterium. It drove us to forge metals from dirt and build sewer systems as grand as cathedrals. Why is it such a stretch to believe that simple survival might drive us to the stars?
posted by Pollomacho at 11:15 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


If there's an alien species fifty or sixty light years away from us, they're getting first run episodes of The Jackie Gleason Show.

Bang! Zoom! To the moooon, Alice.
posted by pracowity at 11:29 AM on January 2, 2008


For all we really know of the future, MetaFilter could be the seed of a community of future spirituality where the snark is the ultimate form of enlightenment!

Meh, the French did it first. /snark
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:47 AM on January 2, 2008


Meh, the French did it first. /snark

Also known as Les Douze. "Tu mere est si grosse...*"

[*I am truly sorry for my poor French in this poor attempt at a joke]
posted by Pollomacho at 12:02 PM on January 2, 2008


For me, smart enough to send messages back really quickly = smart enough to know that it's wise to let us just get on with it

...and allow us to come moments from destroying ourselves only to then take a few of us away to recolonise another planet...

or... the moment they get a message they immediatly launch a "meteorite" practical joke in our direction and see how we react in a crisis situation. Although the 300 lightyear cliffhanger might be too much for even an alien civilisation to bear.
posted by takeyourmedicine at 12:53 PM on January 2, 2008


Carl Sagan did have a few takes on this by comparing us to ants, and our relation to aliens as ants are to humans. For example:

"We might perceive the infrared glow of construction projects bigger than stars, directed by beings with brains unimaginably mightier than our own. What would these aliens look like? Would they seem like gods to us? Would they deign to communicate with us? Or would they ignore us, as we ignore the ants at our feet?"

"If the earth be regarded as a sort of ant-hill, and the life and death of human beings as the life and death of so many ants which run into and out of so many holes in search of food and sunlight, it is quite certain that no adequate importance will be attached to the duties of human life, and that a profound fatalism and hopelessness, instead of new hopefulness, will attach to human effort . . . [F]or the present at least, our horizons are quite vast enough . . . ; till we can get used to the infinite horizons we already have, and not lose our balance so much as we usually do in contemplating them, the yearning for still wider horizons is premature. WHAT DO WE REALLY WANT from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish. You might think that grown-ups would be ashamed to put such disappointments into print."

I believe that last one is from Pale Blue Dot. There was a good piece in Contact as well that elaborated on the first quote, but I can't seem to find it. Was an really interesting perspective on how indifferent the universe could be to our attempts to communicate.
posted by samsara at 1:35 PM on January 2, 2008


“ I bet we'll find all sorts of garden planets with Life on them but that got "stuck" somewhere in their development.... huge, terrible things with peabrains which manage to thwart the emergence of anything smarter.”

So pretty much like Earth in this century.

There are a number of ways we might be missing communication. Basic conceptualization of ourselves as an ‘other.’ Aliens might not get we’re talking to them as specifically apart from the universe or something else. Who’s to say they have a separate ego, even as a collective?

I think the big question is one of species. Do we want our species to go on? At least after the sun dies.
Funny, I’ve spoken to some people who don’t at all care what happens to the world after they die.
Or don’t care what happens after they and their children and perhaps their grand and great-grandchildren die.
So given the scale of time here, we have to ask, what is it we as a species want from extraterrestrial contact?
Because the big assumption that we want our species around to do it, isn’t a universally held proposition. (Which, really, is a shame)

Therefore it’s not just who speaks for Earth in terms of humans now (whenever ‘now’ is), but also who speaks for Earth on behalf of all species for all time in the past and the future.
The assumption (a correct one I think) is that humans will.
But what entity could possibly speak for all of us throughout history and in the future?
I’d have to go with some sort of AI collective or some such. Perhaps a universally agreed upon statement of some sort.
(I’m thinking AI because the tough part is in transmitting that much information)
Whatever the case, the question does force us to confront ourselves as a species and question what our goals are - even in terms of survival.

Right now, as a species, we’re pretty much still living in mom’s basement not thinking much about real life at all.
Who’s to say alien contact would be as gross as it would be in the movies? Why can’t it be a very subtle thing?
Doesn’t much matter because we’re not even listening to ourselves right now.
All the advice from our finest minds - still - goes unheeded. Most of that advice does assume infinite propogation. Just as good as, if not better than, speaking to aliens.
Unless we’re waiting for them to show us the way off planet. Even then, many chicks are left to break out of their own shells. If they can’t do it, they’re not considered fit for survival.
Seems like whether there are aliens or not, we need to make a decision as to how long we want our species to live and whether wealth and plochops are worth endangering that life.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:43 PM on January 2, 2008


There was a terrific Radio Lab episode a while back where they talked to Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, about the creation of the golden record. Spoiler: It's an exquisitely beautiful tear-jerker.
posted by well_balanced at 2:51 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


The only great technological leap they would have over us would be medical, e.g. exceedingly long life or immortality. Even FTL travel would reduce a trip to the stars to the significance of an East Coasters trip to China. After a couple of years, we've seen what there is to see.

Respectfully, I think that this is profoundly wrong. Any species capable of communicating, much less visiting, this planet (within a timeframe which could reasonably be considered the near future) would likely be technologically a long way in advance of humankind.*

Intergalactic travel and exploration is likely to require resources on such a scale that a species able to do so will have a culture wildly divergent from those of Earth which are (with aberrant exceptions) orientated around the relative scarcity of resources. To steal a line from Iain Banks, what are you expecting to arrive, capitalists in space? If so, we’re likely to be in for a rough ride.

*With respect to our medium and longer term future (bearing in mind the likely lifespan of a terrestrial species) I won’t hazard a guess. I’ll leave that to the better informed such as Michio Kaku.
posted by dmt at 9:25 AM on January 3, 2008


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