Are we really sure that we want to make First Contact, or any contact at all? Remember what happened to the Maya, Aztecs and Inca? Well, whatever you think about this question doesn’t matter, as it turns out. Some of our fellow earthlings have decided to reach out and touch someone — anyone! — Out There and they’re not asking permission.
In October of last year, a group of scientists and artists took it upon themselves to make a grand gesture in your name and that of all humankind. They beamed a message directly to Luyten's Star, also known as GJ 273, some twelve light-years away. As it happens, this red dwarf star has at least two planets – exoworlds – and one of them, GJ 273b, has the potential to be habitable, at least given our current understanding of habitability. More on that in a moment. The idea behind this gesture was that if GJ 273b is indeed habitable, and supports an advanced civilization, then maybe they’ll write … er … beam back. The Sónar Calling <> project was a collaboration between METI International and the Sónar Musical Festival of Barcelona, Spain. METI – short for Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence -- is a San Francisco non-profit which researches the science and technology of making contact with alien civilizations. Sónar is a three day celebration of “advanced” music which has been going on for twenty-five years; 123,00 people from 101 countries attended in 2017.
The Sónar Calling message contained a science and math tutorial designed to help any ETs decode the transmission and understand who sent it. It also included a series of ten second clips of new music by such Sónar Festival favorites as Jean-Michel Jarre, Autechre and Matmos. How to decide which compositions were “advanced” enough to send to our extraterrestrial neighbors? “Sónar Festival has selected 33 musicians or groups, with the criteria that they were a complete and varied representation of what Sónar has been … The criterion is not in any way stylistic. The question we have asked ourselves is: Who are the creators who have opened new paths for music in recent years?” Note that if you feel your work was unjustly overlooked by Sónar’s panel of judges, a second message is scheduled for August, 2018. (JPK notes: This happened. You didn’t make the cut on this one either!)
Many science fiction readers would probably applaud METI’s efforts. After all, what it’s trying to do is just a step beyond SETI -- not just looking for ETs but reaching out to them. Sónar Calling recalls the famed Golden Records that we stashed aboard the two Voyager space probes, which, not coincidentally, also contained musical recordings. Among them were works by such worthies as Beethoven and Chuck Berry.
But the Sónar Calling message is different. Consider that it will take 40,000 years before the Voyager probes come even remotely close to another solar system and then they’ll still be a couple of light years away from any exoplanets. The chances of an alien ever listening to Johnny B. Goode on our Golden Greatest Hits album are infinitesimal. On the other hand, if the inhabitants of GJ 273b decide to respond to Sónar Calling, we could be puzzling over their reply as soon as 2043.
Unless they decided to deliver it in person.
In case you’re wondering whether the artists and scientists behind Sónar Calling asked permission before they made that gesture on our behalf, the answer is nope, they didn’t. No wonder. Who is in a position to grant such permission?
In a previous column, we considered Stephen Hawking’s misgivings about the runaway research into artificial intelligence. He has warned of a future in which “… we may face an intelligence explosion that ultimately results in machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails.” AI is the alien threat that we ourselves are creating, but Hawking is also worried about another alien threat. In his video Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places he warns that “Meeting an advanced civilization might be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That’s didn’t turn out so well.”
While some dismiss Hawking as a high-tech Cassandra, he is not against all exotic research. He was present at the launch of the Breakthrough Listen Project, the most comprehensive SETI project to date, where he said, “In an infinite Universe, there must be other life. There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer.” And he serves on the Board of Directors of Breakthrough Starshot Initiative along with billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner which “aims to demonstrate proof of concept for ultra-fast light-driven nanocrafts, and lay the foundations for a first launch to Alpha Centauri within the next generation.” Ultra-fast light-driven nanocrafts? Milner explains here that, in the not too distant future, a spacecraft the size of a postage stamp, equipped with solar sails and propelled by lasers, could achieve speeds approaching .2c (c being the speed of light) for a reconnaissance flyby of our nearest stellar neighbor. Science fiction, you say? The Starshot team has already launched fully functional prototypes dubbed Sprites, 3.5-by-3.5 centimeter solar-powered probes that weigh just four grams.
But note that Starshot would be a flyby mission, and not a contact mission. Others besides Hawking have been troubled by METI’s contact agenda, including sf writer David Brin. His essay Shouting At the Cosmos…Or How SETI has Taken a Worrisome Turn Into Dangerous Territory lays out the case for caution. He regrets that there has been no international oversight of METI efforts, writing, “Very few in the public — or even the astronomical community — are presently aware of this situation, which has so far come up only before a small committee of the International Academy of Astronautics.” And even when people address the issue, “go slow” advocates are often “derided as paranoid, repressive of free expression and nonsensical.” Perhaps this is because METI supporters believe that it’s already too late to hide our existence, since leakage from our radio broadcasts has been travelling through the cosmos for decades. Everybody knows that if there are civilizations out there, they could already be learning all about us from listening to the Jack Benny Program and watching Star Trek TOS. Unfortunately what everybody knows is wrong. Check out Will Hitler Be the First Person That Aliens See? which discusses the difficulties of high frequency transmissions penetrating our reflective ionosphere and of lower frequency transmissions degrading over time and distance. Unless a signal was pinpointed as precisely as the Sónar Calling message, tuning in an episode of The Walking Dead someday on Gliese 832 c would be like "trying to detect the small ripple from a pebble dropped in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California - from Japan.”
So the Sónar Calling message would seem to be something new in our relationship to the universe. Except it isn’t. Rather it is only the latest in a series of METI projects <> that date back to the Arecibo Message, sent in 1974. If all this interstellar messaging gives you pause, check out the Lifeboat Foundation a nonprofit organization “dedicated to encouraging scientific advancements while helping humanity survive existential risks and possible misuse of increasingly powerful technologies.” Its AlienShield Program seeks to limit efforts to “purposely provide our technological level and location to potentially hostile aliens” while developing a rational first contact protocol.
In 1961 Dr. Frank Drake proposed his famous equation N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L <> as a tool to estimate the number (N) of advanced alien civilizations in the Milky Way. For those who are still a bit fuzzy on the Drake variables, here's a quick recap: (R*) is the rate of formation of stars capable of supporting intelligent life times the fraction (fp) of those stars which have planets times the number (ne) of planets per star capable of supporting life times the fraction (fl) of those planets where life evolves times the fraction (fi) of those livable planets where intelligence evolves times the fraction (fc) of intelligent species which bother to communicate times the longevity (L) of those chatty civilizations. Back then, the best we could do was guess about some of the variables. While we are still guessing about fl, fi and fc, in the past fifty years we’ve learned more about R*, fp and ne. The first exoplanet was discovered in 1992 but it wasn’t until the Kepler Telescope <> launched in 2009 that we really began to count exoplanets. As I write, 3,710 planets in 2,780 systems have been observed, but check for updates at the NASA Exoplanet Archive. And if you want the latest exoplanet news and views, click over to NASA’s excellent Exoplanet Exploration site, which features late-breaking bulletins, profiles of scientists and their research, and extensive galleries of images and videos. Based on data from Kepler and other sources, astronomers now estimate that our galaxy contains upwards of 50 billion planets.
How many are habitable? Defining habitability is complex and at the far reaches of our understanding. By some estimates at least 500 million exoplanets in our galaxy could be in the habitable zone. On the theory that life as we know it requires liquid water, habitable exoplanets were supposed to orbit neither too close nor too far away from their stars. This was sometimes called the Goldilocks Zone but is more properly, if less memorably, called the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ). But a “just right” orbit is no guarantee of habitability; in our solar system both Venus and Mars are in the Sun’s CHZ. Nor is the presence of liquid water a reliable indicator; the harsh radiation environments of many stars is inimical to life. But given that the science is still evolving, if you want to shop some potentially habitable galactic real estate, try the Planetary Habitability Laboratory of the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.
When I began my career in science fiction, there were no confirmed exoplanets. Writers were free to populate distant solar systems with made up worlds where their aliens could live. One solar system that was a particular favorite for placing habitable -- and inhabited -- planets was that of Epsilon Eridani. I, along with literally dozens of my friends, colleagues, and literary betters set stories around this spectral type K2 star, so similar to the sun and just 10.5 light years away. Alas, the existence of planets there is controversial, and in any event, it is unlikely that they would be habitable. Episilon Eridani is a relatively young star and emits high levels of ultraviolet radiation.
But that’s the science fiction writer’s burden. Like science itself, the damn stories keep needing rewrites!