If intelligent aliens are out there, we don’t want them to think we’re a bunch of backward fleshy bigots. A competition organised by a project called Breakthrough Initiative is offering a million dollar prize to whoever can come up with the best new message to broadcast across the cosmos.
This week, the Guardian reports that a UK SETI group is going to enter the competition — a decision which sparked discussion at a British Science Festival in Bradford about how we need to revamp our portrayal of humankind:
Jill Stuart, an expert in space policy at the London School of Economics, pointed to the plaque that was placed on the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, launched in 1972. Intended to convey the origin of the craft and to impart information about the inhabitants of Earth, Stuart observed that to modern eyes the pictorial message presents some issues. .
“The plaque shows a man raising his hand in a very manly fashion while a woman stands behind him, appearing all meek and submissive,” she said. “We really need to rethink that with any messages we are sending out now. Attitudes have changed so much in just 40 years.”
The plaque also clearly portrays the human figures as white, and Stuart added: “I would be uncomfortable with sending out any images or messages that include Western-dominated material.”
As I learned in speaking with astronomers and SETI researchers earlier this week, the most promising regions for intelligent life to emerge in the galaxy are likely to be thousands of light years away. So any message we do send out might not be heard for a long, long time. It’s definitely worth taking a long moment to ponder the content of that message carefully.
Top: Artist’s concept of the Square Kilometer Array, via Wikimedia