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Is there anybody out there? – ‘The Contact Paradox’

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Are we alone in the universe?

Simple math would seem to indicate that we are not; what are the odds that Earth is alone among an infinite number of planets in producing intelligent life? And yet, we have yet to encounter these other intelligences in any verifiable way.

So … where is everyone?

That’s part of the question being tackled by Keith Cooper’s new book “The Contact Paradox: Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” (Bloomsbury Sigma, $28). It’s a look at the decades-long history of SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Life – and a deep dive into some of the presuppositions that we as humans have placed on that search. Through conversations with leading experts and long digressions into not just hard science, but fields such as sociology, anthropology and psychology, Cooper considers what it means to want to talk to the stars – and what it might mean were they ever to talk back.

Back in 1974, the giant Arecibo radio telescope beamed a signal out into the void, a brief explosion of radio waves intended to announce humanity’s presence to any extraterrestrial civilizations that might be out there listening. As of yet, we haven’t heard from anyone – but does that mean they aren’t there.

For decades now, a small but dedicated group of researchers has devoted their research efforts to SETI, seeking to make some sort of contact with any alien beings that might be out there somewhere. And yes, they haven’t found anything yet, but the realities of the universe’s vastness – more than a hundred billion stars in just the Milky Way, to say nothing of the other galaxies beyond it – mean that the likelihood of quick success is, well … infinitesimal.

But that doesn’t stop them from trying. There are scientists who seek to transmit even more messages out into the beyond in hopes of capturing the attention of those who have thus far remained quiet.

Cooper’s book addresses both sides of this particular quest. Yes, there’s a chance that we could make contact with a highly advanced civilization whose knowledge could lead to a quantum leap forward in our own society’s development. But who’s to say that those we contact would have out best interest in mind?

Our tendency is to anthropomorphize, to endow these hypothetical ETs with our own characteristics. But the truth is that the odds are stacked against them being, well … anything like us. The assumption of altruism is a big one – one that notables like Stephen Hawking himself have warned us against making. There are huge questions on both sides of the debate, but we’d do well to consider our own history – for instance, what has tended to happen here when two civilizations make contact for the first time? (Hint: It’s rarely good.)

“The Contact Paradox” is a fascinating look at the history of SETI and the possibilities inherent to extraterrestrial contact. What Cooper does that is so engaging is address multiple aspects of the issue. Sure, we’d love to come down on the side of someone like Carl Sagan, who believed that an extraterrestrial broadcast might well contain a sort of Encyclopedia Galactica, a collection of alien knowledge that could serve to elevate humanity. But consider the resources necessary to make and maintain such a broadcast – can we truly expect that sort of pure altruism? And what if we’re doing nothing but announcing ourselves as an easy target for a more predatory type of civilization? Our own history shows plenty of examples of what happens when a more advanced civilization encounters a more primitive one.

Obviously, it’s a moot point until contact is made – we can’t possibly know what is out there until that happens. What’s so intriguing about “The Contact Paradox” is the way Cooper juxtaposes direct conversations about the mechanics of SETI with thoughts about human nature and how that might (or might not) translate into our engagement with aliens should we ever establish communication.

“The Contact Paradox: Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” is the kind of book that anyone intrigued about what (or who) might be out there among the stars needs to read. It’s a smart and concise look at SETI, the people devoted to it and the potential consequences of its success.

Are we alone in the universe? We may never know the answer, but there will always be those committed to asking the question.

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 February 2020 07:03


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