Should We Reach

Hollywood has done a pretty fair job of reflecting the range of opinion on extraterrestrials. The 1950s and even 1960s saw a number of movies about malevolent alien invaders; but then Steven Spielberg's 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.—the Extraterrestrial (1982) suggested that contact with emissaries from other worlds might be thrilling, beneficial, and even heartwarming. The close of the 1990s pitted

Independence Day—in which aliens attempt to take over the earth—against Contact, in which communion with extraterrestrials is portrayed as a profoundly spiritual (if rather teary-eyed) experience. And then X-Files: Fight the Future proposed that our entire planet is being prepared for massive colonization by extraterrestrials.

The point is this: Not everyone is persuaded that reaching out is such a hot idea. After all, even the most sociable among us lock up our houses at night.

But, some argue, the point is moot. For the radio cat has been out of the bag for more than six decades. There is an ever-expanding sphere of our radio broadcasts moving out at the speed of light in all directions from the earth. The earliest television broadcast (which, unfortunately, includes images of Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics) is now some 65 light-years from the earth. It's a bit too late to get shy now.

Astro Byte

The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft (which have now left the solar system) each have on board a golden plaque and phonograph record. The plaque shows a man and woman, the trajectory of the spacecraft in the solar system, and a representation of the hydrogen atom, among other vital information. The phonograph record contains recordings of human voices and music.

Astro Byte

The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft (which have now left the solar system) each have on board a golden plaque and phonograph record. The plaque shows a man and woman, the trajectory of the spacecraft in the solar system, and a representation of the hydrogen atom, among other vital information. The phonograph record contains recordings of human voices and music.

The Arecibo message was broadcast from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974. The message is 1679 bits long, the product of two prime numbers, 23 and 73. When the zeros and ones are arranged in a rectangle with sides 23 and 73 units long, they make this picture, which shows among other things a human form, our number system, and the double helix of DNA.

(Image from NASA)

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On November 16, 1974, the giant radio dish of the Arecibo Observatory (see Chapter 8, "Seeing in the Dark") was used as a transmitter to broadcast a binary-coded message containing a compact treasure trove of information about humans. Reassembled, the message generates an image that shows the numbers 1 through 10, the atomic numbers for hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorous, a representation of the double-helix of DNA, an iconic image of a human being, the population of the earth, the position of the earth in the solar system, and a schematic representation of the Arecibo telescope itself. No reply has yet been received. That should come as no surprise. Traveling at the speed of light, the message will take 25,000 years to reach its intended target, a globular cluster in the constellation Hercules.

Some may view the Arecibo Message as the work of latter-day Quixotes jousting with cosmic windmills. Others may view it as an interstellar message cast adrift in a digital bottle, containing the very human hope of contact. Let's just hope as well that we haven't told them too much.

The Least You Need to Know

V The chemicals and conditions on the earth that support life are probably not unique or even exceptional, but common throughout the Galaxy and the universe.

V The Harold-Urey Experiment gave experimental support to the theory that the basic chemicals of life can be readily transformed into the building blocks of DNA and proteins (nucleotide bases and amino acids).

V While the possibility of life beyond the earth within our solar system is very small, the existence of simple life, elsewhere in our Galaxy (let alone the entire universe) is highly likely.

V The Drake Equation is a rough way to calculate in a reasoned manner the number of civilizations that might exist in the Milky Way. It includes a number of factors, some scientific, and others highly speculative.

V Small but dedicated groups of researchers (including those of the SETI project) monitor the heavens for artificial radio signals of extraterrestrial origin. The SETI project is now on a very firm financial footing and is planning to build a dedicated SETI telescope.

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