After searching for aliens for decades, we haven’t yet found definitive prove that they exist. While noted Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researchers urge scientists to keep looking, San Francisco-based experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats suggests that perhaps we need to rethink our calls for contact.
Keats says that aliens may not be welcome enough. He has designed a set of “cosmic welcome mats” in consultation with space archaeologist Alice Gorman, of Flinders University in Australia. The mats are being tested during the 68th International Astronautical Congress taking place in Adelaide this week and at Flinders University nearby. Keats and Gorman hope to see versions of these mats deployed at welcome centers worldwide, or even on the International Space Station.
If the idea seems quirky on its face, it is. Keats has pursued several projects combining science, philosophy, and art, such as opening a “photosynthetic restaurant” for plants, and creating canvas paintings based on space-based signals detected by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
While most of humanity’s messages to aliens have been in radio form or in time capsules deposited on spacecraft — the Voyager spacecraft’s Golden Record being a notable example — this latest messaging to extraterrestrials comes literally in the form of welcome mats, such as what you would see at a human household’s front door. (Each are 60 by 90 centimeters, or 24 by 35 inches.)
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“Developing a language to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence is by no means straightforward,” Keats told Seeker via email. “That’s where creativity was most important.”
“I came to realize,” he added, “that my greatest chance of success would be to look at creative expression as a human phenomenon: When the communicative chasm is especially extreme — such as the communication of one person’s innermost emotions to strangers — humans tend to express themselves through art.”
The slow pace of SETI discovery isn’t a new problem. The Fermi paradox, named after physicist Enrico Fermi, was proposed in the 1950s to explain why there has been no contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. (Fermi wasn’t the first to propose this, but the theory is named after him.)
Fermi and his colleague Michael Hart suggested that the Milky Way galaxy could be explored in just a few million years, provided that a certain percentage of inhabitants of Earth-like planets discovered interstellar travel. So Earth, they concluded, should have already been in contact with extraterrestrials, prompting them to ask, “Where is everybody?”
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Scientists have since generated many answers — perhaps the aliens are dead or don’t exist, or maybe they don’t want to talk to Earth, or it could be that SETI researchers aren’t searching in the right areas.
Keats argues that extraterrestrial life coming to Earth is at least as possible as an alien encountering the Arecibo radio message of 1974 sent to globular star cluster M13, or aliens encountering the time capsules aboard the Pioneer 10/11 or Voyager 1/2 probes that NASA launched in the 1970s. These spacecraft are hurtling out of the solar system, with the exception of Voyager 2, which passed the boundary of interstellar space in 2012.
“I sought to determine what assumptions could be made, at least tentatively, in order to have a reasonable likelihood of being understood,” Keats explained. “Fundamentally these assumptions all derive from what might be called the Alien Anthropic Principle: In order for the aliens to encounter the mats, they must be here in the first place, and that can potentially tell us something about them. In other words, there is a degree of self-selection inherent in being on this planet.”