Just last week, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientists picked up a strong signal from a planet (HD164595 for all you cognoscenti out there) in the vicinity of a sun-like star only 94 light years from Earth. The signal was sufficiently strong to indicate that it would have to have been made by a civilization with capabilities well beyond those we Earthlings currently possess. Well, duh!
Just kidding. I’m sure there is plenty of intelligent life here on Earth; it’s just taken a temporary leave of absence until after the election. But the possibility of “contact” is breathtaking. Although it’s not likely to make the 6 o’clock news any time soon—mayhem and murder are so much sexier than science—this possible message from the beyond leaves me to ponder about what it will be like if and when we finally do meet our interstellar neighbors.
For those of you old enough to remember The Twilight Zone, let’s hope that encounter isn’t like the one in “How To Serve Man.” In that episode, thousands of curious Earthlings lined up in droves to board a spaceship that would take them to a planet inhabited by polite creatures bent on bringing lots of us back to their far-away home. It was only after the transport blasted off that someone back on Earth discovered that their manifesto called “How To Serve Man” was really a cookbook. I had nightmares about that for years.
But this time, maybe the signal is different—I sure hope so! Just think about it: fellow beings from a Type II civilization on the Kardashev Scale (down here on Earth, we haven’t quite reached Type I yet), perhaps possessing the ability to cure cancer, eliminate war, end homelessness and poverty, or just promote civil discourse—what a concept! We might even learn a thing or two from such a civilization. No more junk food, rap music videos, or plastic water bottles floating forever in the ocean; no more dependence on polluting fossil fuels; no need for Viagra commercials or negative campaign ads; not even a hint of racism, sexism, or any other polarizing “ism.” What would we do with all that freed up time and energy? Read? Sleep ’til noon? Take up yoga? We might even get promoted to a full-fledged Type I designation by Professor Kardashev!
I’ll be the first to admit that astrophysics leaves me speechless. Take light years, for example: when our friends on HD164595 hit the send button 94 years ago, James Joyce had just published “Ulysses,” the Supreme Court had unanimously upheld the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, and the Eskimo Pie had just been patented not by an Eskimo, but a man from Iowa. (Why weren’t they called Iowa Pies?) Oh, and by the way, 94 light years is not even an astrophysical blink!
Clearly, it’s time to think about how we should respond to the message from our new buddies in space, if that’s what it is. We don’t want them to know we’re way behind on the Intelligent Civilization scale so let’s not text them, tweet them, or send them something as simple as E=MC2. They figured that one out a million years before the dinosaurs disappeared. Let’s be enigmatic instead. How about replying with a copy of Renee Magritte’s “Son of Man” or one of Salvador Dali’s “Clocks?” That should get their little ET attention!
I, for one, want to know my neighbors. The thought of living all alone in the vastness of space leaves me feeling blue. Then again, if our new-found friends turn out to be green, maybe that’s not so bad.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”