When I first learned of the existence of METI, ( Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) which formed in 2015 in what seems to be a natural evolution from SETI ( Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence ), I was intrigued. I wanted to learn more about it and decided to dedicate one of my columns to the topic. I have followed the work of SETI for years and the development of an international organization dedicated to messaging extra-terrestrial intelligence ( and the complexities and challenges that go with it ) is, at least in my humble opinion, the next logical step. At the risk of over simplification, it just seems to me that there is no point in searching for ET if you don’t plan on talking to them 🙂 And, as our own history has taught us, ” first contact” communications can have profound historical implications and not always in a good way. Therefore it just seems wise to give careful consideration to what we say and who says it.
METI is doing just that and on January 19th, I had the pleasure of speaking to the very insightful President of the METI organization, Dr, Doug Vakoch, located in San Franciso, California. He generously gave me an hour of his time to answer my questions and I came away, not only better informed of what METI does and hopes to do, but feeling pretty confident that we are in good hands when it comes to communicating with our cosmic neighbours, whoever they may be.
“Take me to your leader” is my 7 year old granddaughter’s ( who has evidently been inspired by pop culture offerings and space cartoons) suggestion of what to say to ET–or perhaps more accurately –what they would say to us when they land on our planet. As silly as that question seems, it is a good one. Who is our “leader” and who does speak for our planet? Who should?
This is one of the questions that METI will be working on resolving and the man at the helm, Doug Vakoch, is uniquely qualified to provide an informed and enlightened perspective on matters that are as much about people as they are about science. When I was doing my initial research and reading his impressive resume ,including 16 years working with SETI in interstellar messaging composition, I assumed that he was a scientist, – probably a radio astronomer, I speculated. Well he is a scientist but not the kind I was expecting ! I openly confess that I was delighted to learn that he is a psychologist and chose that discipline as being the best path to complement his strong interest in science and space. As I have two family members who are psychologists and hold a humble undergraduate degree in that discipline myself, I might be slightly biased but I think that it is an excellent fit. As my oldest daughter , who has a PhD in Social Psychology and specialises in research, observed: ” We do excellent science and impeccable research”. Perhaps –I can interest her in getting involved in METI at some point in time 🙂
Dr. Vakoch ‘s path to deciding to pursue his doctorate in psychology was one of reflection and careful consideration. He told me that when he was a youth and pondering his future career, he believed that science was the best way to understand the world and assumed that he would eventually go into astronomy or biology. But when he went to college, he realised that he ” was more interested in people than stars.” He studied the history of philosophy of science as a way to understand how our understanding of the universe has developed with the nature of science. And, he wondered, is there anything truly universal that would help us determine how to communicate with another civilization ?
What particularly resonated with me was his decision to pursue his doctorate in psychology because of an interest in communicating what it means to be human,
“To me, ” he says, “that is the core of what we are ultimately getting at. We start interstellar messages with something that we and the extraterrestrials have in common.”
Of course, we assume that basic mathematical and physical principals would be at the foundation of communication with another civilization, as without them, they would not have been able to develop the technology to communicate with us. But I especially appreciated the fact that Dr. Vakoch recognized that the real gift in communicating with another species, aside from any science and/or technology that is gained, would be the understanding of their culture and values-areas probably best studied by a social scientist rather than an engineer. Working together, of course 🙂 This is- as it should be – a highly collaborative, multi disciplinary approach where everyone brings something to the table. Dr. Vakoch’s broadly based background and insights into what are sometimes called the “hard ” and “soft ” sciences is the perfect fusion for developing a strategy for an effective and meaningful first contact.
Now for a few words about METI: Dr. Vakoch had been with SETI for 16 years before moving over to METI when it formed in 2015 so it is very much in its nascent stages. I will post a link to their website and it is worth a visit. The opening greeting is compelling:
“hello , universe”
“For centuries we have gazed at the stars and wondered what lies beyond.”
To me, this is a pretty universal message as I am hard pressed to believe that there is any living being on this planet who hasn’t gazed at the stars and wondered what–or who–may be out there. Although, admittedly, there are some of us who spend more time doing this than others. 🙂
The message goes on to say that METI is “passionate about discovery and communication”. When I read those words, I felt like I had finally found a community of kindred spirits 🙂 It’s a good feeling!
Outreach and education is a primary goal of METI –which hopefully means that we will be hearing a lot more from them in the future. But as Dr. Vakoch explains, the “mission” of METI goes beyond the search for ET intelligence that guided SETI. It has taken it beyond the listening stage to the reaching out stage.
” The core of our mission is flipping the direction of making contact to the point of where we are not only listening but we also want to take the initiative. Because, maybe in reality, it is the younger civilizations like ours that are expected to do the heavy lifting. We have the most to gain. If we make contact with another civilization, it is highly likely that they will be longer lived than we are. ”
And if that is true- think what we could learn from them! 🙂
I have always been in favour of reaching out to possible habitable systems with a targeted message rather than just waiting to receive a signal but as you likely know, not everyone agrees. Arguably one of those most well known and respected scientists on our planet, Dr. Stephen Hawking, has famously stated his disagreement with advertising our presence to ET civilizations, lest they come here and strip of our resources–or worse! The METI introductory video “Making Contact” ( there is a link on the website ) also presents a very balanced view of the ethical considerations and SETI scientist, Paul Gertz, goes on record to state that he is opposed to sending out a transmitted message without global consensus, and I suspect that there are many who agree with him. I appreciate his point but am not sure how we would, at this point, gain global consensus on this issue when gaining consistent consensus on any issue seems to be something that continues to elude our human species. But perhaps, and I am putting on my rose coloured glasses here- this might be the one issue that will unite us –finally– as one planet, one people.
My academic and analytical daughter, the eldest of my girls, likes to tease me about my relentless optimism. She recently said to me ” I’d like to know where you get your rose coloured glasses, Mom, because I want to order a pair.” 🙂
There is so much more that I could write about METI and my fascinating discussion with Dr. Vakoch but this post is already getting too long. I strongly recommend a tour around METI’s website to learn more about this international non profit organization and their mission. You can read the profiles of their Board of Directors and be impressed at the diversity and quality of professional scientists and others who are committed to this initiative. The “Making Contact” video is a nice introduction to Dr. Vakoch and the work of the organization that he is obviously passionate about.
There is one last thing that I couldn’t resist asking Dr. Vakoch before we signed off and I’m betting that you are wondering the same thing. Has METI actually sent a message or signal? He told me that, in fact, METI sent its first message in October of 2017 in collaboration with a music festival in Barcelona called Sonar. The message was beamed at a star just over 12 light years from earth and the partnership project was called “ Sonar Calling GJ273b ” ( also known as Luyten’s Star ) . The project was initiated by the Sonar music festival and the target star was selected by the Institute of Space Studies in Catalonia. The folks at Sonar asked METI to design a mathematical tutorial which can be viewed on YouTube ( find the link at the top of this posting) . It explains the project in more detail and you will have the extra bonus of “meeting” Doug as well 🙂
We could apparently receive a response by 2042, which seems like a long time but we know that in terms of the cosmos, it is the mere blink of an eye. I don’t even want to think about how old I will be by then or if I will still be here. But I would really hate to miss out on all of the excitement so I’m going to count on the fact that we will receive a signal before then. And when that first cosmic phone call is patched through—what should we say other than “hello”? Or, as I frequently do when those annoying telemarketing calls come , should we just let the phone ring and pretend that no-one is home? What are your thoughts?
I would love to hear any ideas that you have so please don’t hesitate to join the conversation.
**The links to both the METI website and the ” Making Contact” video are the beginning of the post.