Looking for Columbus among the stars

Carl Sagan thought that first contact with an alien civilization would be like the Karate Kid's first contact with his wise, old sensei; Stephen Hawking thinks it will be like the Aztecs' fist contact with the Conquistadors.

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A still from the 1979 classic sci-fi film “Alien.”

WASHINGTON, May 17, 2017 — In the film “Contact,” an alien species broadcasts a sophisticated message to Earth that, when decoded, contains plans to build a machine to send a human representative to meet with them.

Jodie Foster in the film “Contact.”

“You’re an interesting species,” says the alien at first contact, “an interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone. Only, you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the loneliness bearable is each other.”

“What happens now?” asks astronomer Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster).

“Now, you go home.”


“Home?” says the confused Arroway, “I have so many questions. Do we get to come back?”

“This is just a first step. In time, you’ll take another … This is the way it’s been done for billions of years. Small moves, Ellie, small moves.”


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Arroway returns to Earth with nothing in the way of evidence. Of course, many do not believe her, including skeptical congressional investigators angry over the project’s $500 billion price tag and the many lives lost.

Ironically, Eleanor Arroway, woman of science, asks humanity to take her first-contact account on faith.

The end of the story is a bit anti-climactic.

So, you ask, does Earth have an ambassador to meet and greet a visitor from another planet?

Seven years ago, rumor had it that Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman was the most likely candidate. After all, she headed the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), headquartered in Vienna, from 2010 to 2014.

Astrophysicist Mazlan Othman.

When the Manchester Guardian eventually reached out to Othman, she dismissed the rumors, “It sounds really cool but I have to deny it,” she said.

UNOOSA formed after the General Assembly passed resolution 1348 in 1958 to prevent Cold War belligerents from militarizing space.

With our universe populated with billions of galaxies, many much older than our own Milky Way, it’s very likely that life, even intelligent life, has evolved on many of them. And yet, we have not received even a rudimentary television or radio signal from any of them.

Physicist Enrico Fermi.

In the 1950s, it was physicist Enrico Fermi who said older, more evolved and intelligent species in our universe should already have established contact with Earth. This inspired the famous “Fermi Paradox”:

“Where is everybody?”

This prompted Dr. Frank Drake (of the famous “Drake Equation”), astronomer Carl Sagan and others to compose their own radio message in 1974 containing the atomic numbers of the elements, the number of nucleotides in DNA and a graphic representation of its double helix, a simple drawing of a human being, and the number of planets in our solar system, pointing out the one sending the message.

Carl Sagon (left) speaks with Frank Drake in 1994.

It was sent to the M13 constellation of stars with the aid of the 1,000-foot-diameter Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

In 1977, Sagan suggested sending a back-up message to our galactic neighbors by attaching a golden record containing sounds and images of Earth for transport aboard the Voyager 1 space probe.

Engraved on the record was a mathematical description on how to build a record player and directions to Earth.


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In roughly 40,000 years, Voyager should find itself in the neighborhood of Gliese 445, a red dwarf star 17.6 light-years from our sun.

So far, there have been no return hellos.

In 2018, scientists will step up efforts to get the attention of someone or something “out there.” The Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) program has in its mission statement the fostering of “multidisciplinary research on the design and transmission of interstellar messages.”

But that may not be a good thing. An operating assumption of Drake and Sagan is that highly evolved alien species have moved beyond interstellar warfare and intergalactic imperialism.

Prominent cosmologist Stephen Hawking begs to differ. “Aliens almost certainly exist,” said Hawking, “but humans should avoid making contact. One day we might receive a signal from a planet like Gliese 832c. But we should be wary about beaming back a response to any advance life-forms in real life.”

He fears alien contact could be as disastrous for Earthlings as the contact between the Old World and the New. “Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

While promoting his film “Alien Covenant,” number six in the “Alien” film franchise, director Ridley Scott told Agence France-Presse that if we ever make contact with alien “superior beings,” resistance will be, well, futile.

Director Ridley Scott.

“If you are stupid enough to challenge them, you will be taken out in three seconds,” adding that the best course is to make a “run for it,” said Scott.

In May of 2015, Russian astronomers announced they detected a strong radio signal coming from the distant star HD 164595, some 94 light years from Earth.

But Yulia Sotnikova, of the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the signal was found to have emanated from Earth, adding that “no sought-for signal has been detected yet.”

Yet.

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