The Silent Heavens
by Marc Barasch
(Acting Plenipotentiary of Gaia)
Marc Barasch is one of the best, and most renowned, writers we’ve had the pleasure to publish, both back when we were a magazine and now that we’re online. He’s always staying busy, keeping out of trouble (mostly), and starting worldwide projects for the betterment of humanity. Our kind of gentleman. ~ ed.
For decades, the organization known as SETI, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has cocked a listening ear (in this case, a 1,000-foot dish antenna in Arrecibo, Puerto Rico) for a missives from alien worlds.
But after tuning into 166 candidate stars, 5 extra-solar planetary systems, and 15 nearby galaxies—and outsourcing the enormous data stream to the computers of 4 million volunteers in 200 countries—the heavens haven’t yielded up a peep.
Now, from its outpost in Mountain View, California, the fertile crescent of dot-com civilization, the institute has announced a contest called “Earth Speaks.”
Any Earthling is invited to craft a response—some snippet of E.T.-friendly repartee—for the day Somebody Out There decides to talk to us.
The scientists have spent years trying to hone their own message. They’ve decided we should not just assert we’re big-brains (the cosmic equivalent of cocktail party bores), but convey that idea humankind is, well…kind.
“Maybe we’d first talk about relationships between creatures in the language of biology,” says Douglas Vakoch , SETI’s “Interstellar Message Group Leader,” a calm, alert man with a trim beard and modified pageboy. “We’d try to convey reciprocal altruism, as in, “I’ll be nice to you if you’re nice to me’.”
But, I point out to him, this is little more than a primitive quid pro quo. Wouldn’t E.T. be more impressed if we showed we could be magnanimous to people who are not so nice to us; or that we can forgive when we’ve been wronged? Vakoch takes another sip of Darjeeling and tells me that yes, they are devising some computer algorithms and visual images to get across that very point.
Then he says something that brings me up short. “If we hear from another civilization tomorrow or next week, there’s nothing to stop anybody on Earth from transmitting back. And that first response could set the tone of the dialogue for millennia.”
Oh, great. So the Earth’s first celestial shout-out could be the Grand Cuckoo of the Aryan Brotherhood, the Exalted Poohbah of Islamic Jihad, the East Rutherford Rotarians?
This won’t do. I’ve decided to send my own bulletin, just to, you know…set the right tone. (Besides, I have to admit: “Acting Plenipotentiary of Gaia” has a nice ring.)
I can’t tell you how I transmitted the following message (it might be new Google stealth technology, it might not—there’s an NDA). By the time you read this, it will be caroming off the constellations:
Dear Alpha Centauri,
May I call you Alpha?
So, Alpha, we know we’re the new kid on the block. The Hubble might as well be called the Humble for what it’s shown us about where we fit in the big picture: a miniscule pin stuck in a map of infinity. It’s been a corrective lens for human astigmatism.
Our scientists tell us that we’re just one of hundreds of millions of habitable planets. And that 75 percent of the stars in our galaxy’s temperate zone are much older than our sun, meaning you could be our big brother 10 million years ahead in birth order. (I’ll bet we remind you of yourselves back when you were young and full of mischief.)
If we can nearly see you now, then you’ve already spotted us, maybe even homed in our planet’s most visible artificial landmark, the Great Wall of China, leaving no doubt there’s belligerent…I mean, intelligent!…life down here. Maybe you’ve seen our biggest man-made features:
the clouds of smoke from burning rainforests, the bone-white of dying coral reefs, the tan sand of encroaching deserts.
If you’ve snagged our old Pioneer space-probe, that one with the golden tablet with the etching of two naked people making the we-come-in-peace sign, you even know what we look like.
But we forgot to put our best foot forward. We sent you Solomon Island panpipe music and solar calibration charts, but we left out some vital stuff: something called the Sermon on the Mount (“Do good to those that hate you”—how’s that?); and the Buddhist Dhammapada, the Jewish Mishnah, the Islamic Mathnawi of Rumi, the Hindu Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, The Little Prince, some soulful wisdom that never mentions any god at all.
That is, the stuff that says, We get it. We get that each of us is a thread, woven by universal affinity into the tapestry of some Great Whole we’ll never comprehend. Oh, I’m sure we’d ace the written portion of the galactic entrance exam; it’s the practicum I’m worried we’d flunk. It’s dawning on us that there comes a point when an intelligent species gets so smart it’s too clever by half, and it’s time to walk the talk.
These days, we’re all abuzz that the Web is creating some kind of planetary nervous system, a collective intelligence, a global brain. But you’re probably waiting for an even bigger development—a global heart. Maybe you’re already using your intergalactic stethoscopes to listen for a pulse, however weak, of universal sympathy. Or maybe you’re just picking up the arrythmias of hatred, grievance, and mistrust from a planetary cardiac case.
The point is, dear Alpha, dear cipher in the inky void, we’re in a kind of awkward phase right now—but we’ll get there. We’re a last-minute, dog-ate-my-homework kind of creature—impulsive, short-sighted, just down from the trees. But we’ll make it, and not a moment too soon.
See, for so long, we’ve been like the frog at the bottom of the well, believing our little round patch of sky was the cosmos. Now we’ve seen the nurseries where suns are spawned in searing light. We’ve trembled at the roiling black hole at our galactic core that gobbles up stars like Tic Tacs. Now we know: Entropy has all the help it needs. A lot of us are finally heeding the advice of an Earthling named Einstein (heard of him?). He told us to see through the “optical delusion of consciousness” that makes us believe we’re separate from each other; to “widen our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.”
By the time this reaches you, a few hundred years may have passed. But if we’re still around to get your reply, we’ll be home free. Heck, if we’ve found some dilithium crystal, we may land on your doorstep to accept it in person—all spruced up, hair slicked back, nice smile (not too many teeth), with a little gift for the Missus or Mister and the Little Spores.
In the meantime, I’ve attached an MP3 that was left out of that first golden emissary’s goody-bag. It’s the penultimate finding of our cognitive scientists and of our ancient seers, translated into a language of universal harmony by Earth’s greatest goodwill ambassadors. I hope you have something to play it on, but the title pretty much says it: “All You Need Is Love.”
P.S. Please send asap a formula for neutralizing spent plutonium, the schematics for superluminal drive, and the design for a cellophane-free CD case. Thx!
Marc is the author of the newly released paperback, The Compassionate Life. Find it on Amazon or at your favorite local bookstore. He is also the founder of the Green World Campaign. Follow Marc at http://twitter.com/MarcBarasch