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Should we be Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence?

Updated on February 12, 2017

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a fascinating lecture at Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn by author and microwave sciences expert, Dr. James Benford. During the lecture, in which I remained still, quiet and enthralled, Dr. Benford discussed the argument for Messaging Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (METI). Dr. Benford explained that the scientific community was divided on the subject as to whether we should or shouldn’t be actively advertising Earth to ETs as having intelligent life.

As someone who has only in the last few years discovered a passion for science, I did not have the courage to put my hand up to speak, however the lecture certainly invited a lot of discussion between my husband and I on the car drive home, particularly on the whole for and against arguments of METI.

Unfortunately, even if I did have the courage to address the subject, the lecture was not the right forum to wage discussions on either argument – and Dr. Benford himself was quite articulate in that he was only interested in questions, not opinions.

Still, I wish I had been quicker to process the details of his presentation so that I might have been able to put the question to him: “What is it that makes you believe inter-stellar travel is possible?”

Is inter-stellar travel possible?

Personally, I don’t believe it is, or ever will be. If nothing travels faster than the speed of light – and our closest star system, Alpha Centauri, is 4.3 light years away - how would any intelligent civilisation survive the length of the journey? Even the concept of Fusion or Solar Sail powered starships could not reach the desired speed (or provide a habitable environment for that length of time) to make the journey possible. If everything within the universe is bound by the same universal laws, no matter how advanced that extra-terrestrial civilisation might be or how they might be utilising energy, they would still not have the means to survive the length of inter-stellar travel.

I realised, talking about his lecture on the way home, that his entire argument against METI was held together by the idea that inter-stellar travel was possible. For argument’s sake, let’s say that this factor was removed from his argument – what sort of threat would contacting another intelligent civilisation then pose on humanity?

How would humanity react to the discovery of alien intelligence in the universe?

The only real risk then, as Dr. Benford mentioned in his presentation, would be the potential culture shock to the human race to discover that we were not the only intelligent civilisation. He suggested that we would feel insignificant and would not be able to cope with the knowledge that there was a more-advanced intelligent species out there. As someone who sits on the cusp of Generation Y/Z, I believe this is an old-fashioned way of thinking and, if I had to guess, partly based on the way people interpret themselves through religious beliefs. I think Dr. Benford might be selling the human race a little short in our ability to process such a grand discovery. We are an adaptable race, an intelligent race and each new generation is not only open to the discovery of alien life, but expecting it.

So, why hold back with METI? Assuming our closest star system harboured alien intelligence and we decided to target that star system, it would take 4.3 light years before they received our communication. If 1 light year equals 10,018 human years - any response they might send would take at least 86,154 years before it was received here, back at Earth.

You might think, based on my disagreements with the opposing argument, that I’m totally pro-METI and yes, I’m certainly open to the possibility – but I do agree that money could be better spent searching as opposed to messaging and that there should be a globally recognised set of guidelines before we go ahead and wave to the rest of the galaxy.

Of course, this is only an opinion and I’m certainly not suggesting I know any better than our wonderful presenter that evening… I just wish I had the chance to ask him, “What is it that makes you believe inter-stellar travel is possible?”


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