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SETI for the masses

SETI @ Home / UC-Berkeley
Ten years after the SETI @ Home screensaver

program made a splash, the Internet is being

enlisted once again to help alien-hunting scientists.

It's been 10 years since the SETI @ Home online project sparked a revolution in the search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Over the past decade, more than 5 million people around the world have signed up to look for aliens, and now astronomers are enlisting the Internet masses for a new task: deciding what we should tell them.

The "Earth Speaks" project was organized by Douglas Vakoch, the SETI Institute's director of interstellar message composition, to spark suggestions for messages that could be transmitted to extraterrestrial civilizations.

You can browse through the suggestions others have left, and add your own to the list. But feel free to take your time: Vakoch is in no rush to send the aliens an alert.

"It's just the opposite," Vakoch told me today. "If there's a virtue behind this project, it's the virtue of patience."

Broadcasters have tried transmitting coded messages many times before - ranging from the famous 1974 Arecibo message, to the Cosmic Calls beamed out from a powerful radio dish in Ukraine, to the whale songs and Craigslist postings sent by a not-so-powerful TV dish at Cape Canaveral. But Vakoch said it's not likely that any single message will connect with alien listeners. It would take an organized, sustained campaign to get a message across (that is, assuming that E.T. could understand it).

Vakoch and most of his colleagues involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, say it's best to refrain from a signal-transmission campaign until there's a consensus on what should be said, and how it should be said (and if anything should be said in the first place). But that can lead to a catch-22: If you're not planning to transmit a message, how do you get people interested in discussing what to say - and eventually coming to a consensus?

That's where Earth Speaks can play a role. "We're not intending to send these messages," Vakoch said, "but I think it's very likely that these messages will have some impact if we decide to undertake transmission."

In the 10 days that Earth Speaks has been open for business, about 140 messages have been posted to the project's Web site. Anyone can browse through the messages, and if you register with the site, you can add to the list or rate the appropriateness of the messages posted by others.

Vakoch and his team block any messages that identify individuals, or sound too commercial, or link to other Web sites, or are obscene or pornographic. But the approved messages still cover a wide gamut, with a fair number expressing sentiments like this:  "Do not land!!!! No intelligent life."

That's the kind of warning Vakoch hopes will spark a discussion: "If there's a message saying, 'Stay away, because we are a civilization that doesn't get along with strangers,' would that be an appropriate message to send?"

Most of the messages for E.T. have been tagged as touching on kinder, gentler themes. "Right now, what we're seeing are a lot of tags emphasizing peace and hope and friendship," Vakoch said.

He plans to analyze the message themes in time to present an initial report at October's International Astronautical Congress in South Korea, and he'll be following up as the months and years unwind. If astronomers ever pick up a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence - or if they decide the time is right to take a more proactive stance toward alien contact - Vakoch wants to be ready.

"As we start thinking about what we want to say, we may also want to ask how the extraterrestrials benefit," he said. "Typically, one of the standard arguments for why we should emphasize passive SETI, listening only, is that it's a greater burden to transmit, and as a young civilization we don't even have the confidence that we'll be around to receive a reply. The problem with that is that any civilization could make that argument. Maybe it's the young, audacious civilizations such as ours who need to take the initiative to make contact."

What should we say to the aliens? Should we say anything, or is keeping our mouth shut actually the best way to serve man? While you chew on those questions, here are some additional Web resources on the SETI search:

Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. If you really want to be friendly, ask me about my upcoming book, "The Case for Pluto." It might take a while to get a reply, though. To make up for all the extra time I've spent following the shuttle Atlantis' mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, I'll be away from the office for the rest of the week.