SUNDAY NOVEMBER 23, 2014
 
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LIFE ON MARS?
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“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don´t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”
– Yuri Gagarin

We live centuries after having figured out that the big open sky was not in fact an elusive, heavenly realm, and decades after the first men and women were sent into space. We’ve come to a safe conclusion about the underlying emotional purpose behind it all – the search for intelligent life – and it is bittersweet. Those who have simultaneously studied the universe and the practicalities of interstellar communication conclude that there is a fair chance extraterrestrial life exists. Far less encouraging is the likelihood that said life will not resemble the "little green men" scenario popularized by science fiction. Considering the diversity of life on earth alone, life out in space may exist in some form we have yet to even imagine. Even so, there is a slim possibility that any received messages will lead to a response within the imaginable future.

In 1961, University of California professor Dr. Frank Drake produced his “Drake Equation,” which used speculative data to estimate that the breadth of the universe made life and even civilization on other planets an admissible possibility. Drake perhaps had not meant for his publication to be taken as hard science, and instead as more of an outline for the Green Bank meeting, the organization of thinkers that birthed the modern age of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

The practice of SETI, which mostly involves beaming and reading signals to, and receiving from, outer space, has come under scrutiny as a pseudo-science with little basis in practicality or fact. Aiming up into the stars and firing seems to some like a random, overly optimistic practice. Like much of space exploration, it is more a nationalistic PR event than anything else. For the average American, having someone land on the moon didn’t change much but it was a wondrous sight, and a measure for progress against the Other. Can you imagine the international status of the first country to contact ETs?

In the decades since the birth of SETI, it has not amounted to a full hill of beans. In 1977, observers at the Ohio State University noticed a radio signal of noticeable strength and indeterminate origin, dubbed the “Wow” signal as per a note scribbled into the margins of a computer printout. In subsequent years some have dismissed the finding as a technological phenomenon, while others say there is nothing earthly to account for it. Additional criticisms of SETI from BBC science editor Dr. David Whitehouse expressed the possibility of signals attracting the attention of “malevolent” alien species. Though this was either tongue-in-cheek, or Whitehouse is kind of insane.

With this objection in mind, it should be noted that the search for life is as much a philosophical and romantic quest as it is scientific. Our messages to outer space are not simple, and they reflect how we would like to think of ourselves: a harmonious species capable of extending the olive branch to beings probably much different than us. International social networking site Bebo.com has teamed with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science to beam a collected 500 messages to the planet Gliese 581 c, which is 20 light years away. The messages selected range in content from thoughts on politics to personal family stories. Even if the messages are received, they may not be decipherable for the recipients – but the hope is there, if only to let the universe know we are trying to talk to it.

Jessie Skinner has had his work published in TORO, MONDO, and other magazines that use capital letters excessively.

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