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How Will We Make First Contact With Aliens: Doritos, Lights, or Music?

Reaching out to life beyond our planet is a lot messier than you might think.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Recently, a group called METI International made waves by pointing a radio telescope based in Norway toward Luyten’s Star, a quiet, humdrum star 12.36 light years away with two Earth-mass-ish planets right in the “habitable zone” where water, under the right conditions, would stay liquid—and could potentially support life.

The man behind the message (for a planet that could possibly, maybe have life, transmitted as music along with a few math equations), was Douglas Vakoch, a psychologist and SETI researcher. Vakoch chose one of Luyten’s Star’s planets (called GJ 273b) chiefly based on its proximity. The message—which combines music and math—works like a clock, setting a rhythm for the music, then broadcasting it through two different tones to create a binary message, he told Wired.

“Sending intentional signals and waiting for a reply requires tremendous patience, and with Luyten’s Star we have the prospect of getting a response in just a quarter of a century—a blink of the eye on galactic timescales,” Vakoch said. At 12.36 light years, a civilization could receive the message in 2029-2030 and get one back to us by 2042—barely any time at all in cosmic terms.

The message wasn’t without controversy. There are plenty of critics of METI, or Active SETI as the practice is frequently also called, as opposed to the more “passive” listening of other SETI programs. But while sci-fi or any stray Stephen Hawking thought might provoke fears of an alien invasion, critics of METI fall more frequently into a different camp: Who should be making the call to our neighbors?

Shelley Wright, a physicist at the University of California-San Diego, began working on SETI initiatives in 1999. Despite their similar sounding names, METI and SETI are separate organizations. While the movie Contact made the popular image of a SETI researcher one hunting for radio signals, Wright has been looking for light beacons coming from other civilizations (a process known as optical SETI).

She also co-signed a 2015 statement urging researches to think long and hard about sending messages to other planets. The list includes a “who’s who” of SETI and exoplanet researchers alongside a few science writers and, of course, Elon Musk. The possibility of a millions-Earth-year-more-advanced civilization is raised in the letter, but the last point is perhaps the central thesis to the letter. “Intentionally signaling other civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy raises concerns from all the people of Earth, about both the message and the consequences of contact,” the letter says. “A worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent.”

“My primary concern is that individual rogue voices are representing humanity without our collective consent and given an opportunity to join the discussion,” Wright said.

By “rogue voices,” she may very well mean Vakoch’s stream of thought. She wasn’t particularly impressed with Vakoch’s musical math message, telling The Daily Beast, “I enjoyed learning about their signal and it seemed like a fun activity for those involved, but the majority of these activities have to do with the thrill factor of sending a beacon, and for gaining exposure for that particular organization and/or facility.”

But Vakoch’s message isn’t the first—nor will it be the last.

The most famous signal is one drawn up by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake in 1974 and blasted out of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. It featured information on DNA, the numbers one through 10, a human figure, a crude guide to our solar system, and a pixelated radio dish, all encoded as a very simple bitmap that could be reconstructed in binary.

But not all messages are created equally, like attempts that amounted to sending a Dorito’s commercial to another planet or some plain-language text messages and a few theremin pieces beamed at six nearby targets—inelegant, indecipherable, and self-serving. (Also, one Active SETI message was just a Beatles song blasted into space.)

Vakoch staunchly believes his message is different from the rest.

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“Past interstellar messages have tried to talk about everything, at the risk of communicating nothing,” Vakoch said. “Instead, we focus on communicating a few key mathematical and scientific principles needed to explain radio waves themselves.”

Wright pointed to the Pioneer Plaque, a simple plate aboard the Pioneer 10 and 11 craft, as an example of an Active SETI message that seemed right to her. The plates featured a map of radio-loud compact stars called “pulsars” that would help point back toward Earth. It also featured a neutral hydrogen atom diagram and a drawing of a nude man and woman, and a diagram of our solar system. The spiritual successors to the Pioneer missions, the Voyager 1 and 2 crafts, had a similar plate placed over a phonographic record made of gold. That record featured music, encoded images, dozens of languages, and more. (Drake and Sagan were instrumental in the creation of both the record and the plaque.)

Wright says the right way to go about it is to let a consortium of organizations examine what we should send, how the message should be encoded, and what kind of power is needed. She says the exploration of this idea is important to SETI research, in fact. But also, that just because we could send something out doesn’t mean that we should.

“Before sending a message I believe there needs to be extensive international based endeavor, potentially United Nations level,” she says. “The involvement should include scientists, politicians, and the general public that is 100% transparent.”

This surprisingly echoes Vakoch’s sentiments, even if in the views of some researchers he jumped the gun a little.

“My dream is that António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, would put this at the top of his agenda, so we could get the sort of broad based international discussion this topic deserves,” he says. But there’s a big point of difference between he and Wright. While Wright wants to wait for this conversation, Vakoch says that, “Until then, organizations with interests in interstellar communication have a special obligation to promote that discussion.”

Vakoch convened a group in May of this year to discuss what that message would take. Input from that meeting went into the Luyten’s Star message sent in October, which is music encoded with bits of science and physics knowledge. In April 2018, METI will send out some follow-up messages getting a little bit more in the weeds with a music lesson meant to teach melody, put together by 33 artists at the electronic 2018 Sónar Festival.

“That will allow us to introduce the fundamentals of musical melodies by turning the transmitter into a musical instrument itself, and demonstrating music through the structure of the radio signals and their relationship  to one another,” Vakoch said.

If other Active SETI groups want to join in similar efforts, he urges them to keep exact records to help out researchers receiving any reply decades later. Eventually, he hopes for an optical beam of METI’s own. But for right now, he’s just ready to get things underway.

“[We] may need to repeat these transmissions to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of stars before we get a response,” Vakoch said. “And that will require a fundamental shift of mindset that views science as a multigenerational project. So METI will continue to transmit to other stars in the coming months and years, starting with the stars closest to Earth and methodically moving outward.”

But to Wright and others, the impatience may have the peril of misrepresenting our species.

“The process of METI I believe is really important for the world to jointly think about what our message would be for first contact with another alien civilization,” she said.