Little Risk

Are we alone in the Universe? Humans have been asking that question for centuries, but only in the past few decades have we achieved the ability to begin to try and find the answer.

With SETI — the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence — we use radio telescopes to search for signals from alien civilizations. This is a relatively passive system, where we sit back and listen for what signals might be out there. As of yet, the search has come up empty handed.

By contrast, “Active SETI” or what is now called Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or METI, is a proactive system of sending a message to a specific place to say “hello” to let potential alien astronomers know we’re here.

But the METI concept is a little controversial. Some scientists have warned the strategy could be dangerous, and famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has said that alerting aliens to our existence might be asking for trouble. Hawking suggests that advanced aliens might only see us as annoying bacteria, or aliens stepping foot on Earth might be akin to when Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, which “didn’t turn out so well” for the native people.

However, claims of the dangers of METI are overstated, says Douglas Vakoch, a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute for Integral Studies in California and president of METI International, an organization that looks to organize the efforts to send messages out into the cosmos.

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