What if we're not alone? How aggressively should we search for extraterrestrial life?

There's a heated debate in certain circles with potentially profound implications for the future of humanity — or, potentially, with as little import as those medieval considerations of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

It revolves around a core existential question: Are we alone in the universe? And its logical outgrowth: Should we step out of the shadows to find out by beaming signals into the cosmos.

The issue is explored by Steven Johnson in the July 2 edition of The New York Times Magazine.

A figure as notable as Stephen Hawking (not to mention Elon Musk) is convinced we're not alone and has been warning against efforts to ramp up our interstellar calls, as it were, in hopes that E.T. will pick up the phone and answer. While it would be a singular moment in human history, the British cosmologist's concern is that a civilization capable of detecting and responding to our existence might be millions or even billions of years more advanced. And his fear is that actions we take today might doom humans hundreds or even thousands of years in the future — assuming we survive that long — in encountering alien visitors who might view us the way we view bacteria. Just consider the history of our own planet, replete with bad things that happened, even inadvertently, when more technologically advanced cultures encountered those less advanced.

It could be a benevolent E.T. But do we want to risk sending an electronic "yoo-hoo" to the Borg?

Until now, most — but not all — of our efforts have involved passive listening, or even watching, for signs of extraterrestrial transmissions — radio waves captured by radio telescopes or laser flashes captured by optical telescopes. Until now, we haven't experienced the sort of eureka moment portrayed in Carl Sagan's novel "Contact" and the 1997 movie based on the book. At least, no eureka moment that we can confirm.

There are, however, 37 unexplained signals detected in a scan of the northern sky — noted as "37 candidate events" — outlined in a 1993 paper by Paul Horowitz and Carl Sagan in The Astrophysical Journal. These signals, which could not be detected in later observations, were first observed in Worcester County, at the Harvard University-Smithsonian radio telescope that once operated in the town of Harvard. (When you consider Robert Goddard's launching the space age in Auburn with the first liquid-fueled rocket, Worcester County has a bit of notable history related to the exploration of space — physically in Auburn, and virtually in Harvard.)

Professor Horowitz, a Harvard University researcher now retired but still active in the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, said in a telephone and email exchange this week that he views efforts to reach out to life elsewhere to be harmless, but also rather pointless. Because of the likely technological disparity, it would be akin to ants making little circles in the sand hoping we'd notice. He counsels passive listening for now, but not from fear of an alien invasion. He said it wouldn't make sense for a civilization advanced enough to go through the bother of hurtling across the interstellar vastness in some sort of advanced tin can just to eat us or harvest our resources. A civilization wouldn't have survived that long without overcoming its worst aggressive impulses.

More likely, it would be an exchange of data — like beaming our respective Wikipedias — in transmissions that could take perhaps 500 years to arrive, he said.

But Professor Horowitz feels it's more appropriate to just keep listening for now, until we have something engaging to contribute. Although he points out that signals from radio and television broadcasts have been leaking into space for the better part of a century — well before a 1974 blast from the giant dish in Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, an event that opens Steven Johnson's article.

The professor's view is to listen longer until we get our footing on what's out there, and have more to offer. And we agree.

~ The Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.


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