Sciency Words A to Z: METI

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, M is for:


In a sense, SETI researchers are just sitting by the phone waiting for somebody to call.  Maybe that’s the wrong way to go about it.  Maybe it’s time to pick up the phone, start dialing numbers, and see who picks up.

This idea is sometimes called active SETI, but it’s more common (and according to this paper, more appropriate) to use the term METI: the messaging of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Earth has been broadcasting TV and radio signals for over a century.  This has led to a common misconception that even now, aliens on some far off planet might be gathering around their equivalent of a television set, watching old episodes of Howdy Doody  or The Honeymooners.  Or perhaps, if the aliens live nearby, they’re currently listening to our more recent music.

But Humanity is only a Type 0 or Type I civilization, depending on which version of the Kardashev scale you’re using. Either way, our broadcasts are not actually that strong.  As David Grinspoon explains in his book Earth in Human Hands:

Our television signals are diffuse and not targeted at any star system.  It would take a huge antenna, much larger than anything we’ve built or planned, to pick up on them.  From a radio point of view our planet is not completely hidden, but it is hardly conspicuous.  This could easily change.  Targeted messages sent directly toward nearby stars would cause Earth suddenly to turn on like a spotlight, becoming an obvious beacon announcing, for better or worse, “We are here!”

Of course we’ve already done this.  Several times, in fact.  But not with enough consistency to truly make our presence known.

The first attempt was in 1974, when Frank Drake and Carl Sagan transmitted a message from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, aimed at the M13 globular cluster.  But according to Grinspoon, if aliens ever do pick up that signal, “[…] they might dismiss it as a momentary fluke.  We would.”  That’s because the Arecibo message was a quick, one-time thing.  By itself, it’s hardly proof beyond a reasonable doubt that life exists on Earth.

If we really want to get somebody’s attention, we have to send a sustained, repetitive signal, kind of like those repetitive radio pulses Jocelyn Bell detected in the 60’s.  We have the technology.  We can make METI a reality.  But should we?  Some say yes, others no.  After all, we have no idea who might hear our signal, or what form their response might take, and there is no guarantee that the aliens will be friendly.

METI is a discussion and a debate that maybe we all, as a species, should be part of.  Perhaps we should take a vote, because in the end, we all have a stake in what might happen.  And while we’re at it, there are some other issues we all, as a species, should vote on.  Or at least that’s what Grinspoon says we should do in his book.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, we’ll go back in time and check out the oceans of Mars.

14 thoughts on “Sciency Words A to Z: METI

  1. The Brexit vote is an example of an ill informed general populace making important policy decisions with major consequences. I would rather a community of recognized scientists, sociologists, historians and science fiction writers debate this and come to an informed decision. Not that the public should be silent or uninformed of the issues considered. The debate should be available to the public and the voice of the general populace should be recognized and considered. The long term consequences of being noticed by unknown intelligences cannot be trivialized and any decision to broadcast our existence to the rest of the galaxy should be made by an informed community.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I kind of agree. I think Grinspoon’s idea of putting METI to a public vote would be cool, and I like the idea that a vote on METI could serve as a prototype for votes on other important global issues. But at the same time the general public is so ill-informed about science I’m not sure how productive that process would be.


  2. I am impressed with the choice of your topic. It is one of my favorite topics. Really appreciate the amount of research done. Would definitely love to collaborate on something in the same space. Keep the great work going.
    #ContemplationOfaJoker #Jokerophilia

    Liked by 1 person

  3. METI is an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, due to the Fermi paradox, I doubt there’s anyone listening within any feasible range. On the other hand, announcing our technological intelligence may not be wise. A civilization millions of billions of years more advanced than us might think we’re cute, or an annoying bug to be crushed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hopefully they’ll think we’re cute, though that could still turn out poorly for us if they decide to make us pets. I think it’s interesting to think about it in risk assessment terms. The chances of anybody picking up our messages are very low, but the consequences of some hostile species picking up our transmissions could be very high.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The good news is that any response would likely take centuries or millenia, so we ourselves or any our immediate family wouldn’t be affected. But humanity long term might. Of course, that could happen if we spread out into the galaxy and eventually run into the space gods.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m thinking if they’ve figured FTL out, then their communications are probably FTL too, and they’re likely not paying attention to electromagnetic smoke signals. The real danger would begin when we figured out how to do METI with FTL.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. One side effect of concentrating more and more wealth in the hands of a few people is… some billionaire could do this without talking to anyone. Though as SelfAwarePatterns says, the person sending the message is unlikely to suffer the consequences

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Makes sense to me. I only mentioned the Arecibo message in this post, but there have been a few others since then. Supposedly at some point, somebody blasted David Bowie’s Starman at several nearby stars.

      Liked by 1 person

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