27.5.11

TALKING TO THE ALIENS

Douglas A. Vakoch (ed.). Communicating with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, State University of New York Press, 2011

The idea of communicating with extraterrestrial intelligences through radio, optic or other processes continues to fascinate both sections of the scientific community and the general public, despite 50 years of failure to detect an unambiguous extraterrestrial signal. This is evident from the collection of papers published here which "arose from" the April 2010 astrobiology science conference organised by NASA.

Centred on three broad themes: latest advances in SETI; should we transmit; and if we received a message could we actually understand it. Many of the papers are of a technical nature aimed mainly at the professionals, but others do include broader themes. The essentially religious nature of the SETI for many people is still apparent in some of the papers, both in the direct sense that the gods who rule the sky will give us boons in answer to our petitions, and in the more subtle sense that somehow knowledge of other intelligences will lead to some sort of spiritual transformation in humankind, making us turn swords into ploughshares and become very nice to each other.

One has to be doubtful about all of this, it is equally likely that the publication of a signal, which may take generations to decipher would inspire all sorts of new religious cults, or violent disputes about whether to reply or not. It is clear that several scientists, most recently Stephen Hawking, have expressed considerable reservations as to transmitting, and one can point out that in the course of at least 50,000 years in which humans have had some form of sea travel there has been little diminution in our capacity for war and general violence, and there is little reason to assume that millennia of space travel will make us – or others - any wiser.

Of course, even if we did receive "the message" there is the difficulty that we may not actually ever make any sense of it. Several of the writers in the third section question whether the general assumption that "they" will share our perception of the universe, science or even mathematics is really true. Real aliens, unlike those encountered in Star Trek and the like will not be just North Atlantics with slightly different shape, but truly, perhaps unimaginably alien. Of course, if aliens are, as is likely, going to be very alien indeed, then the chances that they will be engaged in the sort of projects that we can imagine at this time are very remote indeed. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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