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Messaging Aliens

A number of scientists have expressed concern about an action taken recently by another group of scientists.

"Ninety-eight percent of astronomers and SETI researchers, including myself, think that METI is potentially dangerous, and not a good idea," says Dan Werthimer, a SETI researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. "It’s like shouting in a forest before you know if there are tigers, lions, and bears or other dangerous animals there."

SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has been an ongoing project for more than a century. Nikola Tesla realized, after inventing a system for transmitting electric waves wirelessly, that the same technology could be used to communicate with Martians, if they existed. In August of 1924, U.S. officials attempted to silence all terrestrial radio communication in order to listen for incoming signals from Mars, which was approaching its closest opposition in more than a century.

No signals were received from Mars that day, or any other day. But on August 7, 1977, the Big Ear observatory at Ohio State University picked up a signal that looked exactly like what we would expect to see in a radio communication from an extraterrestrial civilization. Dubbed the Wow! Signal, its origin remains unexplained to this day, but the chance that it is an actual signal from an alien civilization is low. No further radio signals have been received from that region. Or from any other.

But hope abounds among astronomers. There's a lot of space out there, and even the largest telescopes—like the 305-meter Aricebo in Puerto Rico or the collection of telescopes making up the VLA in New Mexico—are capable of monitoring only a small slice of the galaxy at a time. It's theoretically possible we are receiving signals all the time and just haven't tuned in to the right place, or at the right time.

That's why some SETI researchers have turned to a different approach: sending our own signals. This tactic, known as METI (for Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence), aims to make contact first, in case any other intelligent lifeforms are listening just as we are. Douglas Vakoch, president of METI, explains, "This project tests the Zoo Hypothesis, which says that perhaps extraterrestrial civilizations are much closer than we’d imagined, perhaps even around the nearest stars, but they’re watching us like we watch animals in the zoo."

And it's this Zoo Hypothesis which has other scientists worried. If other civilizations are out there, and they are as far advanced beyond us as we are beyond zoo creatures, we might not want to alert them to our presence. If they have mastered space flight, they could come destroy our planet before we can prepare an adequate defense.

And that's something we can do without their help.

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