The eternal search for life outside of Earth

What would happen if, in a few years, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk go for a spin in space with a ship already more sophisticated than the ones they are using now and come across aliens? What do they do? What do they say to them? Do they try to communicate? In what language and in whose name?

The possibility that the tycoons at the helm of Virgin, Amazon and Tesla – or whatever in the future – meet a little green man or other extraterrestrial life form on an off-planet outing is extremely unlikely and even humorous. But it hides behind an issue that has revealed many scientists, for quite some time: what are the potential dangers of a possible contact with intelligent life outside the Earth?

And, on the other hand: is it a good idea to go into space, send messages to distant stars or maintain programs with powerful instruments to try to receive them?

Business. These are quite pertinent questions, even for the most skeptical, considering that the civil space flight business is already a reality and is part of an industry that is here to stay, including suppliers ranging from computer systems to fuel and oxygen, which They are not in this for the love of humanity but for the money.

In addition, recent reports, such as a report that the US government’s Office of National Intelligence presented in June of this year to Congress in Washington, show that, on the other hand, human curiosity about the chances that we are not alone in the universe is renewing itself.

Coinciding with that parliamentary session, the New York Times noted that “unidentified flying objects, or unidentified aerial phenomena, as the government calls them, have been taken more seriously by US officials in recent years, beginning in the 2007 with a small secretly funded program to investigate reports of military encounters ”of that type.

The program is called the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force) and was officially unveiled in August 2020 by the Pentagon, without blushing.

In a statement, the US Department of Defense explained that the UAPTF’s mission is to “detect, analyze and catalog unidentified aerial phenomena that could represent a threat to the national security of the United States.” And that created the organism to “improve understanding and obtain information about the nature and origins” of these flying objects.

A former CIA director, John Brennan, claimed in a podcast late last year that some of those “unexplained sightings” that the UAPTF will study include phenomena that are “the result of something we don’t yet understand and that could involve some kind of of activity that some might say constitutes a different way of life ”.

The report declassified in June, meanwhile, “marked a turning point for the United States government after the military spent decades diverting, disavowing and discrediting observations of unidentified flying objects and ‘flying saucers’ dating back to the 1940s ”, synthesized the Reuters agency when giving that news.

Communication. So, after years of laughing at movies ranging from “Plan 9 from Outer Space” to “Independence Day,” it seems that governments really believe that aliens exist, or at least the possibility has to be considered.

Faced with this, questions that were in fashion at the end of the last century are renewed, and that were also assumed more tenderly than with scientific interest, such as those that revolved around the attempts to “communicate” with forms of life outside our planet.

The examples are already part of global popular culture, such as the gold and aluminum plates mounted on board the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 space probes in 1972 and 1973, respectively, the first of them with the famous “visual message” of the two naked humans (drawn in a style reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci) and a diagram with the location of our planet in the Solar System.

Some years later, in 1977, and also with the patronage of the American astronomer Carl Sagan, two gold-plated copper discs, each 30 centimeters in diameter, containing images and sounds of the Earth, were dispatched with the Voyager probes, launched bound for Jupiter and Saturn and beyond, still sending data to NASA computers.

A few days before the presentation of the National Intelligence report to Congress, the Washington Post published an article in which it takes up the old misgivings caused by gestures such as the records that travel in the Pioneer and the Voyagers, under the title: “Put yourself in Contact with aliens could kill all life on Earth. Let’s stop trying ”.

“It is time to establish some rules to speak” with eventual intelligent beings outside our planet, said the note of the American physicist Mark Buchanan, who assured that “some scientific circles have already debated whether or not trying to contact other civilizations is a good idea. ”. The search for aliens, Buchanan noted, “reached a stage of technological sophistication” and the associated risks require “strict regulation at the national and international level.”

“Without supervision, even a single person, with access to powerful transmission technology, could take actions that affect the future of the entire planet,” he warned.

Buchanan summed up what he described as the sixty years during which “scientists have been searching with radio telescopes” and heard “possible signals from other civilizations on planets orbiting distant stars.”

Posts. Among the programs the physicist pointed out are the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project, which had, curiously, an active and serious Argentine chapter between the late 1980s and mid-1990s, and the more current METI (Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence), “who would not only listen, but actually send powerful messages to other stars, seeking to establish contact.”

Another very active intellectual on this front is the anthropologist, also American, John Traphagan, known for books like “Should We Lie to Extraterrestrials?” where he affirms that messages such as those that travel on Voyager and Pioneer are “sexist”, “racist” and present a “utopian” vision of human civilization.

“More messages like that, or even like the mathematical codes that are sometimes sent into space, could make the Earth look like easy prey” or, “just as bad, they could make it seem utopian,” the anthropologist speculated in an interview. with Forbes magazine last July.

Traphagan added that, “if an alien civilization decided to visit Earth based on the evidence of happy images and beautiful sounds” embedded in the gold discs and, “instead of paradise, it found a world of belligerence, would it be angry? I think that by lying about ourselves in those messages, we run that risk, “completed this professor at the University of Texas.

Humans. But there is a problem with the arguments of the American anthropologist and physicist: they believe that eventual aliens can react like human beings, with behaviors such as aggression and anger.

These are “very anthropomorphic views of what extraterrestrial intelligences can be”, says Gustavo Romero, director of the Argentine Radio Astronomy Institute (IAR) and PROFILE.

The researcher pointed out that the experience that we accumulate on “clashes of civilizations” obviously refers to human history, on this planet, and they are stories of peoples that succumbed to other more technologically developed ones.

“That is why I think – affirmed Romero – that these terms cannot be applied to possible extraterrestrial intelligences that, surely, are completely different from human intelligence and with behavior patterns or motivations that are very difficult to classify within our conceptual schemes.”

“It is difficult for me to imagine that extraterrestrial intelligences can have interests remotely similar to those that we can have human beings,” he summarized.

What the IAR director does agree on is that “there should be certain protocols” in the event that a ship from another planet presents itself to humans. “For now there are no universal rules, but there are attempts to generate some of them so that, if at some point there is a contact, it has a controlled impact on the terrestrial culture and environment.”

Argentina. Romero, for his part, remembers with admiration the work of the researchers who participated in the SETI program from Argentina, the only country in the hemisphere that began to “listen” to the space together with their North American counterparts.

These activities began in 1986 using one of the institute’s radio telescopes, which depends on CONICET and is located near the Pereyra Park ecological reserve, a few kilometers from La Plata, in the province of Buenos Aires.

Promoted by the then director of the IAR, Raúl Colomb, and the student Guillermo Lemarchand, these tasks were basically concentrated in scanning space in search of possible signals from stars near the Earth.

After the publication of the first reports – which, in fact, did not present findings – the program managers contacted the Planetary Society of the United States and Sagan himself. As a result, from Argentina, engineers Juan Carlos Olalde and Eduardo Hurrell were sent to Harvard University for a year, who worked there together with physicist Paul Horowitz in the construction of an 8.4 million channel spectral analyzer known as GOAL II.

The development of this instrument, Romero recalls, was financed by the Planetary Society with funds provided by Steven Spielberg, who for this purpose set aside part of the income he obtained with his film “ET, the extraterrestrial.”

Most of the precious devices used by Argentine researchers ended up becoming obsolete over the years and some rest “in the small museum that we have at the institute,” Romero reports. Colomb, for his part, passed away in 2008, Olalde and Hurrell retired and Lemarchand – according to his LinkedIn profile – works as a scientific advisor to UNESCO in Europe.

“Today, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence from the northern hemisphere is financed more than anything with private funds,” says Romero. “In the southern hemisphere, as far as I know, there are no such activities,” he completes.

So we will have to wait for some radio telescopic miracle to reveal the presence of life outside the Earth. Or just keep dreaming while we rewatch movies like “Contact,” with Jodie Foster, or “Arrival,” with Amy Adams, and imagine what a close encounter of the third kind might be like.

Or settle for just continuing to laugh at the antics of Alf, the furry alien from the planet Melmac.

*Journalist. Former ANSA Agency correspondent in Washington.

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