March 17, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

How to Address an Alien

How would you like this job: your assignment is to be the speechwriter for planet earth.  You are to figure out what our first message is to the aliens – to give them a good first impression as we introduce the human species to the galactic community.  “No kidding? What does it pay?”
    Believe it or not, there is someone who has the title of “Director of Interstellar Message Composition.”  His name is Douglas Vakoch, and he is with the SETI Institute (his day job is Chair of the Faculty, California Institute of Integral Studies).  You can read what he thinks about making a good first impression in his article at Space.com, “How we present ourselves to aliens.”
    Vakoch seems convinced that if contact is ever made, we will find the aliens to be much more intelligent than ourselves.  That’s because they would have sent their signal long ago, and would have had time to evolve far beyond us.  That being the case, we would have to approach them with humility instead of hubris.  But even sharing tidbits of what little we know might be a good approach.  To support this, he used an analogy from the Bible:

What might surprise ET is how well humans get by, even when we are a bit inaccurate.  Though we now know that the value of p[i] is 3.14159 …  (and on it goes into infinity), earlier mathematicians used much cruder estimates of p [sic, pi].  For example, when wise King Solomon was planning a bathing area in the great temple he was constructing, its specifications indicated that the pool would have a radius of 5 units and a circumference of 30 units.  If you plug these numbers into the equation for calculating the circumference of a circle, you’ll see that the value of p[i] was estimated to be 3.  While this number underestimates p[i] by about 5%, by all accounts, the temple turned out to be quite spectacular.  Perhaps the most important message that ET could gain from this example is that in spite of our imperfections and miscalculations, we humans are capable of moving forward, sometimes with a fair amount of style.

It was not a bathing area, like a swimming pool, as Vakoch intimated.  It was the bronze laver for the priests to use when offering sacrifices.  Bible scholars have answered this apparent inaccuracy of pi in several ways (see Creation on the Web and article by Russell Grigg).  Incidentally, speaking of the period of Solomon’s Temple, the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced discovery of seals and pottery from the First Temple Period in digs nearby the Temple Mount.  At least there is some hard evidence for it, unlike for SETI.
    Regardless of the mathematical acumen of Solomon’s engineers, the point Vakoch is making is that humans need to embrace their imperfections and not let our galactic adolescence deter us from trying to make a good impression.  “Who knows? They might be surprised, perhaps even pleasantly so, to discover a young civilization that would initiate a conversation in which each exchange could take hundreds or thousands of years,” he ended.  “Wise old extraterrestrials might even admire our audacity for believing that, in spite of our shortcomings, humans may continue to exist in the coming centuries – perhaps even long enough to receive a reply from ET.”

If anyone needs proof that SETI believers are just as nutty as any cultist, look no further.  We haven’t seen a blip on our antennas for 40 years, and this guy is already wanting to grovel in front of the feet of the Wise Old Extraterrestrials.  W.O.E.
    Look; all you have to tell them is, “Kiss me; I’m Irish.”  That’s no blarney.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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