Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dummies search for intelligent life

Sometimes it's hard enough finding intelligent life right here on earth, let alone somewhere in the vast expanse of the universe.

Despite early hopes, we've pretty much come to the conclusion that earth is the only inhabited planet in our own solar system, so now we have to look even further afield to seek out aliens who might want a chat.

While programmes like SETI quietly turn an ear to the skies and churn through almost unimaginable amounts of data for signs of intelligence, most of us just sit and wait.

Well now you don't have to wait.

If you've got a few spare moments you can redirect your web-browser to and send an interplanetary SMS to Gliese 581d, a "super-earth" planet orbiting the low-mass red dwarf star Gliese 581, from which it clearly gets its name.

This planet is some 194 trillion km from earth so if you get annoyed with the fact that Vodafone and Telecom sometimes don't deliver your SMS messages until hours after you send them, perhaps this isn't for you. The delay between when you send your message and it finally arrives at its destination will be a rather significant 20 years.

This is of course, little more than a publicity stunt, but a good one.

The odds that this distant planet is home to intelligent life would seem remarkably slim and even if it were, how do we know they'd be listening.

Even if they were listening, how do we know they'd understand us?

Even if they did understand us, would you even remember what you'd originally said when the reply finally came back, another 20 years later?

Never the less, those who have organised this little communications exercise seem to think that only messages in English (and suitably vetted for offensive language) should qualify for transmission.

Of course there are those who are strongly opposed to the trivialisation of the search for alien life. There are also those who fear that this kind of exercise may be the equivalent of ringing a dinner-bell, inviting malevolent hungry aliens to descend and devour earth's inhabitants.

Alas, the reality is almost certainly that, long before your SMS reaches any distant planet, it will have withered and faded until it is no longer discernable above the hiss that is the background noise of the universe itself.

You some how have to wonder whether there might be a better and more immediate use for this technology, don't you?

I also wonder why it is that I can send an SMS to a planet 20 light-years away for free but I still have to pay Vodafone or Telecom 20 cents to send one across the room to my other mobile. What's more, some of those terrestrial TXTs simply vanish, never actually making it across the shagpile at all. Who knows, perhaps they've been abducted by aliens.

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