Astronomers have detected mysterious radio bursts from a galaxy 1.5 billion light-years away. So could this be an alien signal?
Before we talk about an alien signal, let’s mention that the universe is an overwhelming vast and silent space. This is because sound waves cannot travel through a vacuum. But we can hear electromagnetic or radio waves.
For example, the magnetic waves from the poles of Saturn, or the deep hum of a black hole. These waves typically sound pretty chaotic. But recently the CHIME observatory in Canada picked up 13 fast radio bursts known as FRBs from a galaxy over 1.5 billion light years away. Also detected amongst these bursts was an extremely rare repeating signal.
So, have we detected an alien signal or is it just background noise from the universe?
The alien signal and why we should be wary
There are two trains of thought when it comes to detecting an alien signal. SETI is the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and METI is messaging extra-terrestrial life. Experts are divided as to whether we should take the passive SETI approach and merely listen for an alien signal.
Or we should be making more of a noise and sending messages out to potential galaxies where we think there is likely to be extra-terrestrial life? Perhaps the universe is silent for a reason. Do we really want to draw attention to ourselves when we have no idea of what awaits us?
Our own human history can help us understand First Contact
To understand how the first contact with an alien species might play out we can look back at our own human civilisation. What happens when two civilisations meet for the first time? What are the consequences for both civilisations when one is deemed to be more intelligent?
Unfortunately, we have many examples in our own history to show what typically happens.
Let’s take Christopher Columbus as an example. In 1492, he found himself on the shores of the New World. Thinking he had reached the Indies he named the indigenous people ‘Indians’. Initially friendly, Columbus began his reign of colonisation in the area and this lead to unspeakable acts of brutality and exploitation of the indigenous people.
Once revered as one of the world’s greatest explorers, even today, Columbus Day has been replaced with Indigenous People’s Day.
There cannot be many people that haven’t heard of the Incas and their incredible empire. But few know about their actual conquests, including a little known cultural race called the Chachapoyas.
The Incas predated Columbus and ruled in Peru from around 1400 to 1533. The Chachapoyas lived high in the tropical mountains in Northern Peru, amongst the clouds. The Incas gave them their name which means ‘cloud forest’.
Fierce warriors, these indigenous people fought hard against their Incan conquerors. Historical sources state they were forced out from their dwellings and dispersed across Southern America.
Should we send out an alien signal?
SETI believe not. They have been patiently listening to space for 50 years. Seth Shostak works as an astronomer at the SETI Institute in California. He thinks it is an extremely controversial subject:
“There are some people who think it’s dangerous, because you don’t know who’s out there. Maybe the aliens are just into yoga and poetry. But it could be that one percent of them are aggressive Klingons.”
However, at METI, they are actively beaming out messages to the exoplanet GJ 273b. This is a massive planet, three times the size of the Earth. It could potentially have the capability to sustain life. The planet orbits a star in the constellation of Canis Minor and is well within the habitable zone. The signal will take 12 years to get there and another 12 to get back to us.
“The signals are designed to be detectable,” says Douglas Vakoch, president of San Francisco-based METI. “We want to make contact.”
METI scientists are sending a signal in what they call the “universal language”, which is mathematics. The theory behind this is that if there is life on another planet, and this life can pick up radio waves, it must at least have the capability to understand the basics of maths.
“You’re not going to be a very good engineer, on Earth or GJ 273b, if you don’t know that one plus one equals two,” says Vakoch.
But even the scientists at METI are wary of giving too much away with their first alien signal and first contact.
“There’s a lot of wisdom in not trying to communicate everything at once. If you had a first date, and told your prospective mate everything about yourself, I don’t think you would have a second date.” Vakoch
Besides, how would you encompass the whole of humanity in a single radio message? And one that less intelligent or more intelligent alien life might understand?
Of the billions of stars in the universe, surely we cannot be the only intelligent life to exist in space? There are many variables, however, when we look at the possibility we might actually be alone.
Yes, there are billions of stars, but how many have planets orbiting them? And of those planets, how many can sustain life? And in the billions of years our universe has been in existence, how many of those civilisations have died out?
Whether you believe we should listen for an alien signal or actively message the universe to make first contact, the thought that we are alone in the universe is pretty frightening.
“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” French mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal.