From The Guardian: “Making contact with alien worlds could make us care more about our own”

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The Guardian

Sunday 26 July 2015
Ann Druyan

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Nebulosity in Cygnus: ‘We will not send a message until a global debate has taken place.’ Photograph: Alan Dyer/Stocktrek Images/Corbis

The scientific search for extraterrestrial civilisations has languished for more than a decade, as the hunt for habitable planets and simpler forms of life has thrived. Nasa’s stunningly successful Kepler mission has discovered a thousand new worlds orbiting other stars.

NASA Kepler Telescope

Astrobiology is a burgeoning field. But the search for intelligent life, begun in 1960 by astronomer Frank Drake, somehow fell off the funding radar.

That changed this past week at a press conference at London’s Royal Society, with the announcement by entrepreneur Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking of Milner’s $100m, 10-year Breakthrough Listen Initiative. Utilising two of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes, Breakthrough Listen will survey the million closest stars and hundred closest galaxies, 10 times more sky than ever before. Milner’s commitment will also support the broadest search for optical laser transmissions ever mounted. The project leadership includes astronomer royal Martin Rees, Geoff Marcy, discoverer of some 70 extra-solar planets and Pete Worden, former director of the Nasa Ames Research Centre.

I was at the press conference in my capacity as co-chair, with Frank Drake, of Breakthrough Message, an open global competition with $1m in prizes. It invites entrants to create messages to form a digital portrait of life on Earth. Although there is no immediate plan to broadcast these messages into space.

Frank and I have collaborated on this kind of thing before. In 1977, we worked with Carl Sagan and others to create the Voyager interstellar message, the golden phonograph records affixed to Nasa’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft.

NASA Voyager 1

Our message consisted of greetings in 55 human languages, and the salutations of humpback whales, as well as 118 images, 27 pieces from the world’s great musical traditions and an essay written in sound that tells the story of our planet from its earliest formation, through the evolution of life and development of technology up to the present. We also sought to convey something about the joy of being alive. It included the first words of a mother to her new-born baby, a kiss and the brain waves of a young woman in love.

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Nasa’s Golden Record, sent on Voyager 1 and 2. Photograph: AP

The Voyager spacecraft were destined to venture further than anything our hands had ever touched, exiting our solar system for the ocean of interstellar space. Our golden records have a shelf-life of a billion years. We undertook this work with a profound appreciation of the honour of creating a kind of Noah’s Ark of human culture. This was during the period when our long-term prospects for survival as a species were shadowed by the ever-ratcheting nuclear arms race. We agonised over whether to portray our species accurately, with its hunger and violence, or to only send the best of us. In the end, we opted for the studio portrait rather than the candid, afraid that images of cruelty or deprivation would be open to misinterpretation.

Space is mostly empty, so the chance of either spacecraft encountering another world is virtually nil. Our message will only be received in the event that an alien craft finds a derelict Voyager and examines its contents.

The Voyager Golden Record is a message in a bottle tossed in the cosmic ocean with long odds of being found and understood. That seems harmless enough, but a concerted attempt to send a message via radio telescope raises fears of existential danger. Human advanced technology is so recently acquired that any spacefaring civilisation would, most likely, be far ahead of us. Hawking has said he doesn’t know anything about the extraterrestrials, but he knows about us. If our own history is any guide, he warns, first contact with a technologically superior civilisation would be disastrous.

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Ann Druyan with Geoff Marcy in London on 20 July for the the Breakthrough Initiatives press conference. Photograph: Stuart C Wilson

We respect that view and pledge not to send our message until a global debate has taken place. Still, I cannot help but wonder if we can assume that the extraterrestrials will have made technological leaps but somehow remained as politically and emotionally stunted as we are today. Perhaps they will have succeeded in finding ways to conquer their tendencies toward greed and violence, their shortsightedness – just as so many of us struggle to do here on Earth. Could a deeper familiarity with the vast emptiness foster a greater respect for the preciousness and ancient continuity of life?

Whether we decide to transmit our message or not, the act of conceptualising it can be transformative. Every gesture of recognition that we share a planetary civilisation takes us closer to maturity. We can’t think about how we might present ourselves to the beings of another world without seeing this one anew. And that is what is called for if we are to awaken from our stupor and act to protect it.

See the full article here.

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