Sending Messages: A Chat with METI’S Doug Vakoch

There’s an enthusiastic debate about how to search for life beyond our planet. Should we send messages trying to communicate with alien lifeforms? What happens if someone else really is out there? Should we talk back? The scientists at Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), led by its president Douglas Vakoch, Ph.D., land firmly on the side of sending messages out into the cosmos.

Dr. Vakoch shared with Recursor a look at METI’s mission and why it pays to take a long-term view when thinking about the search for extraterrestrial life.

RECURSOR: How did you become interested in the search for extraterrestrial life? 

DR. VAKOCH: I grew up in the 1960s, so as early as I can remember, humans were going into space. We were ramping up to land on the moon for the first time. The possibility of exploring the universe was really real for me.

Early on, I took a real interest in science. In my high school years, I assumed I would probably be a biologist or an astronomer. Ultimately, what I decided is that I’m even more interested in people than in stars, so I became a psychologist — but always with the goal of trying to understand the psychology of any extra-terrestrials who might be out there and using that to think of new ways we might try to make contact.

How would you define METI’s mission?

Our hallmark activity, the thing that sets us apart from other projects trying to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, is that we’re actively transmitting. We send powerful, intentional signals to other stars in the hope of getting a response.

Why send messages out into the cosmos?

Sometimes people talk about SETI as an attempt to join the galactic club. What I find so strange is that no one ever talks about paying our dues or even sending in an application. That’s what we’re doing with active SETI. And maybe it’s the approach that leads to first contact.

What happens if there are civilizations out there but they’re doing exactly what we are, simply listening but not transmitting? It could be an incredibly quiet universe. By actively transmitting, we open up the possibility of making contact with some groups of civilizations that may even know we’re here, but they’re waiting for us to take the initiative.

There’s a game theory notion called Tit for Tat, where you do something for me, and I respond in turn. But someone’s got to make the first move. The premise of active SETI is, maybe that first move burden is on us.

What is the process like for creating intelligible messages?

You think about what we have in common with the extraterrestrials we make contact with. If they receive our signal, that means they have been able to create a radio receiver or an optical telescope that can pick up our very brief laser pulses.

So, what do you need to know to build that technology? If you don’t know 2 + 2 = 4, you’re not going to be good at doing the fundamentals required to simply build the telescope and then be simply enough of an astronomer to understand the universe around us and pick up the signals that we’re sending. That’s where we historically have started — basics of mathematics, physics and chemistry.

What is the likelihood that when we get a message, we’ll understand what it is?

It’s not going to be as easy as Hollywood (makes it).

That said, I think the movie ARRIVAL actually captures some of the complexity, where we understand someone with a radically different experience with the world by back and forth exchanges. That’s how we learn language here on Earth.

The big difference, though, is that the aliens have come to Earth, so we can reduce that time between each exchange and get instantaneous feedback. We don’t have that luxury when a round-trip exchange takes a thousand years.

Time and distance pose a challenge, don’t they?

The tremendous challenge we face is that we’re separated by these vast distances of interstellar space. In the best case scenario, if the nearest star to earth is populated, it takes over 8 years for a round-trip exchange. More realistically, it could decades or centuries, maybe even millennia, depending on how far we have to go out to get a populated world.

If one of our SETI projects picks up a signal tonight and even if it can pull the message out of that signal, it could take decades or centuries to decode what they have to say.

We haven’t seen evidence of aliens yet. What about Fermi’s Paradox?

I just saw AD ASTRA. One of the characters (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is a SETI researcher who goes out to Neptune and conducts a survey of the entire universe (according to them; it’s a bit of a stretch, I think). At some point, they decide there’s no one out there.

I think it’ll never be that clear cut because maybe there’s no one out there and maybe they are but we’re not looking for them in the right way or they’re waiting for something on our part.

I think sometimes people get fixated on this notion that we’ll do the most extensive search possible, and ultimately we’ll be ready to transmit. But it’s arbitrary. There’s never an end to the search.

What movies do you think get first contact “right,” if there is such a thing?

I think the key is, no movie gets it perfectly right, but each movie gets something.

When I was a teenager, the transformative movie was CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, because it emphasized maybe there actually is a way to communicate. Maybe this shared understanding of numbers can lead to communicating music. Maybe there’s a way we can send an interstellar symphony. I think that’s the intriguing part of that movie. We could actually send music to extraterrestrials, which may help them unpack it. That’s what CLOSE ENCOUNTERS gets right — the plausibility of finding common ground.

CONTACT was good because it captured the greatest challenge of making contact — the human dimension of making a commitment to search when there’s no guarantee of finding anything. We need to be willing to commit to something for which the long-term payoff may happen long after we’re dead.

Maybe the most important part of ARRIVAL is that it provides a metaphor of how transformative it will be to really understand another civilization. In ARRIVAL, if you really have made contact, you have to reexamine something as fundamental as your sense of time. Now, I don’t think we’re going to learn that time runs backwards. But if you think about it, we humans have a very specific notion of what we conceive of often as fundamental concepts of time and space, but they’re tied into how we perceive the world.

In order to make contact at all, we need to continually reexamine our presuppositions and be willing as much as we can to get out of our habitual mindset and move into something else.

So, how do we get past how we think and perceive the world?

That’s the big question. Can we “de-anthropocize” our vision of the world? We’ve got some opportunities to do that because there’s a lot of other life on our planet that doesn’t encounter the world the same way we do. We can learn from those examples to try to identify broader principles. The process itself makes us re-envision our assumptions. We hold mirror up to ourselves and have to see ourselves a new way.

Douglas Vakoch, Ph.D., is President of METI, a nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to transmitting intentional signals to nearby stars, as well as fostering sustainability of human civilization on multigenerational timescales—a prerequisite for a project that could take centuries or millennia to succeed. He is an elected member of the International Institute for Space Law, and he serves as chair of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Study Group on Active SETI: Scientific, Technical, Societal, and Legal Dimensions. His work has been featured in such publications as the New York Times, Nature, Science, and Der Spiegel, and he has been interviewed on radio and television shows on the BBC, NPR, ABC, The Science Channel, The Discovery Channel, and many others.

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