The Guardian's Jon Ronson profiles Paul Davies, the Arizona State Univerity scientist who chairs the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Post-Detection Task Force. SETI, the brainchild of Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, has been active for almost 50 years. So far, nothing.
This hasn't stopped Davies from wondering what he would do if an alien civilization contacted humanity, however:
"We're talking about two civilisations communicating their finest achievements and their deepest beliefs and attitudes. I feel we should send something about our level of scientific attainment and understanding of how the world works. Some fundamental physics. Maybe some biology. But primarily physics and astronomy."
"And some classical music?" I suggest.
"Well, we could, but it's not going to mean anything to them," Paul says.
"Yes, yes, of course." I pause. "Why won't it mean anything to them?"
"There's nothing certain in this game," Paul says, "but our appreciation of art and music is very much tied to our cognitive architecture. There's no particular reason why some other intelligent species will share these aesthetic values. The general theory of relativity is impressive and will surely be understood by them. But if we send a Picasso or a Mona Lisa? They wouldn't care." He pauses. "I mean the phonograph disc that went off on Voyager had speeches by Kurt Waldheim and Jimmy Carter. That's a world away from what we should be doing."
"Yeah, and Beagle 2 had Blur songs!"
"Quite," Paul says.
Yes, the thought that an advanced extraterrestrial species' first contact with humanity may involve Jimmah and Brit-Rock depresses me, too. Still, it says something about how rich and wondrous our society is that it can bankroll scientists' static-listening habits for decades.
I wrote about Carl Sagan, a longtime hero of mine, and E.T. some years ago here. The utterly speculative Contact is one of Sagan's best books. (Readers will note, however, that the lefty Sagan, writing about the world at the turn of the millennium, assumed the Soviet Union would still be alive and kicking.)
There is absolutely no evidence that extraterrestrials exist. The absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, of course. But if they do happen to be out there, as Tyler Cowen argues provocatively in Create Your Own Economy, would they really want to talk to us?
(A tip of the homburg to The Browser, which is always worth reading.)