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So Nice to Meet You

If you could talk to an extraterrestrial, what would you say?

By John Cadley


Toastmasters John Cadley

Like all of you, I believe in the Toastmasters mission of strong, clear, effective communication. I know how hard you work to achieve this estimable goal. That’s why I feel morally compelled to warn my readers of the biggest communication challenge you will ever face: talking to an alien.

I don’t mean someone like your IT person who only looks like an alien. I mean a real one. From a galaxy far, far away. Unthinkable as it may sound, serious scientists have been thinking about it for many years now, sending structured radio waves into deep space with the hopes that someone or something might respond. There is a great debate about this within the scientific community—i.e., what should the message say? And since any response would affect the entire human race, why leave that decision to a few scientists—especially when everyone knows scientists can’t spell? Why shouldn’t ordinary earthlings have a say? If it comes to that, I’m recommending Toastmasters. If anyone can figure out how to address a group with green tentacles and laser-beam eyes intent on annihilating our planet with extreme-ultra-super-mega-death rays, it’s a Toastmaster. You’ve probably faced worse audiences already.

I’m sure you think this is absurd. Trying to communicate with something you can’t even conceive of, located in a place you can never get to, hoping for a response that would take 25 trillion years to come back? Really? Really? Really.

Despite many failed attempts, hope springs eternal, and the latest group to give it a shot is called METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), headed by a man named Doug Vakoch, who, with his colleagues, is planning the most ambitious series of messages ever transmitted into the solar system. And not everyone is pleased. No less a cosmic luminary than Stephen Hawking thinks it’s a really bad idea. His reasoning: Why let them know we’re here? It could be like when the Aztecs were “visited” by Cortés. Not a great day for the Aztecs. Another august personage, Martin Ryle, Royal Astronomer of England, argued as early as 1974 that “any creatures out there [might be] malevolent or hungry.” Well, yes—after traveling 14 light years I imagine they would be hungry. Yet another skeptical scientist, John Gertz, believes that any aliens who could reach us would by definition be more advanced and could destroy Earth with, in his exact words, “a small projectile filled with a self-replicating toxin, or nano gray goo … or weaponry beyond our imagination.” Nano gray goo? I wouldn’t worry about your imagination, Mr. Gertz. It’s doing just fine.

If anyone can figure out how to address a group with green tentacles and laser-beam eyes, it’s a Toastmaster.

Despite these concerns, Dr. Vakoch and his proponents remain undaunted. For one thing, our televisions and radios have been leaking radio waves into space for years, so not only do extraterrestrials already know we’re here; they’re probably watching a 1956 episode of The Howdy Doody Show right now. Also, given the distances of trillions of miles, if aliens could travel at the speed of light, they would have been here by now. Only communication can travel that fast, so the worst they could do is send us hate mail.

What’s more, METI plans to use a different form of communication than in previous attempts. The first transmission in 1974 used rhythmic pulses with a repetitive structure that its creator, astrophysicist Frank Drake, believed would strongly suggest intelligent life. There was no response, possibly because the aliens have no rhythm. My Uncle Edward can’t even dance the box step. In contrast, Dr. Vakoch’s method involves a series of prime numbers, which he believes might be a more effective way to communicate. But again, one has to wonder—what if the aliens stink at math? I stink at math.

So here we stand—with a group of genius minds spending huge sums of money on mind-boggling technologies to conduct an experiment based on the premise: “Hey, you never know.” Talk about a shot in the dark. On the other hand, as I mentioned before, the good news is that METI may very well consult ordinary citizens—like Toastmasters!—as to what the message should be. So start thinking. If they ask me, I’m going to play it safe: Hi, this is Earth, Solar System, Orion Spiral Arm, Milky Way Galaxy, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, Universe. We’re not home right now but leave a message and we’ll get back to you.