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Lifespan Docs: Doug Vakoch of METI

If we are not alone in the universe, we have to live long enough to be able to find anyone else.

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Created by Tim Maupin and sponsored by Lifespan.io, this Lifespan Docs documentary features Doug Vakoch of METI, who wishes to live longer to have any hope of receiving responses to interstellar messages.

Script

Imagine what it might be like when we transmit a message to the nearest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri, just over four light years away. That means a little over eight years later, we could get a reply back, and we would have a timestamp in that saying, “Send us a reply on this date and this time, so we’ll have our telescopes pointing.”

If a signal comes in then, it will be, “My God, there is life everywhere. If the nearest star has intelligent life, then the entire galaxy is populated, and it’s not just we are not alone, but we’re part of this whole.” I guess I would be speechless.

My name is Doug Vakoch. I’m president of METI, an organization dedicated to messaging extraterrestrial intelligence. When I was a kid, in my teens, I heard about SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and the thing that really crystallized it was, I did a science fair project where I designed messages to life on other planets. I was very interested as a teenager in science, I wanted to understand more about the world around me.

The problem was, I like all the sciences. I like biology. I like geology. I like chemistry, physics, astronomy. The nice thing about searching for life beyond Earth is you need all of the sciences. In those days, it was called exobiology. I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be an exobiologist. In the early days, I was hooked because this was a great way to understand everything about the world out there.

The thing that keeps me coming back to it is that, as I moved from my teens and my 20s, my 30s, I realized, the world’s a lot more than the stuff that’s out there. It’s the stuff that’s in here, too. I thought I would go on and become a physicist or a biologist. I ended up becoming a psychologist. I realized I like understanding people more than stars.

When you’re searching for intelligence out there, you need to know a little about both of them. When SETI started out in the 1960s, everyone was looking for radio signals. At METI, we’re taking the next step and looking at the possible motivations of aliens who aren’t sending us signals but who may be waiting for getting a message of their own.

It is virtually inconceivable to me that there isn’t intelligence somewhere in the universe. To me, it’s just numbers. There are over 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and we know that stars have at least one planet on average, maybe one out of five of those star systems has a potentially habitable Earthlike planet.

Billions of planets that could be inhabited in our galaxy, and then billions of other galaxies. I don’t believe in miracles, and it would really be a miracle if out of all of those stars, ours was the only one that had planets that bear life and that becomes intelligent.

When we look for targets for our METI transmissions, we’re looking for stars that have planets that could support life. The good news is, virtually all stars have planets around them. What we’re interested in is not just any old planet that goes around a star but a planet that is at just the right distance that it could support liquid water. It’s called the Goldilocks zone, where it’s not too hot and not too cold but just right to support liquid water.

When we look at an interesting target for us, called TRAPPIST-1, we see that there are seven planets roughly Earth sized, and three of them are in the habitable zone. There are some that are closer in where it’s going to be too hot, water is going to boil away. Some of the ones that are very far out are going to just be frozen. There’s not going to be any way that it could support life, but in that intermediate zone, the Goldilocks zone, that’s where there could be habitable planets.

When I was a kid, and I wanted to find aliens, I thought, “Oh, how cool might they be? How different can they be from us?” Now, yes, I want to know about life on other planets, but I’m actually much more interested about what we learned about ourselves in the process of searching. Because right now we have only one civilization that we know of that can create the kind of technology that can reach out into space.

If we come to know that there is someone else, now we’re going to have the ultimate mirror to look at ourselves in, in another civilization, and to see whether these things that we think are so central to ourselves and our humanity are very common characteristics or whether they’re very unique. I think the good news is, the more we come to learn about those other civilizations, the more we’re going to recognize, they may be wiser than we are, they may be more powerful. They’re never going to be more human though. We’ve got the lock on being human.

When we send radio signals to TRAPPIST-1, our message will focus directly on habitability. Specifically, the ways that we are threatening the habitability of our own world, Earth. We’ll use an incredibly powerful transmitter at the Goonhilly Earth station located in southern England. This is a transmitter that’s typically reserved for communicating with distant spacecraft orbiting Mars. This time, though, in connection with the electronic music festival Stihia, we’ll point the same transmitter at TRAPPIST-1.

When I look at TRAPPIST-1 and imagine 40 years from now they get our message and then send a reply, it’s kind of poignant to imagine it, because in all likelihood, I will be dead. I would have to be 140 years old. I mean, if there is a new technology that would let me live that long, that would be a game changer.

I imagined death is just the end of things for me. It’s not something I like, because I really like the stuff that I’m doing. It seems sad that someday, I’m not going to be around doing these things. From my perspective, I just think I won’t exist after that.

If the natural process of aging could be reversed, if I could be even restored when I felt like I when I was 20, that would be fantastic, I’d have even more energy for doing it. I would embrace it wholeheartedly, both for just the enjoyment of life, but honestly, I don’t expect I’m ever going to retire. I’m doing what I do because I love it.

Sometimes people act as if, without death, life has no meaning because everything is defined by this endpoint, but we have chapters in our lives, we have events that will break our lives apart and give meaning to different stages of our life.

Right now, we may look at death and try to justify why it’s a good thing by saying, this gives us meaning in life, and it makes us accelerate our activities and do the things that are most important to us. Maybe we’ll be able to do even more important things, we’ll be able to take on even greater challenges if we have confidence that we’re going to be around much longer than we are right now. If there is a civilization that is stable enough to have been doing SETI for a million years, it’s a bit difficult to conceive of them still having such limited lifespans as us.

There is still nothing like going out far away from a city where there are no lights, and you can look up and it’s just stars. Now, I look up there and I say, almost all of those stars are orbited by planets, and then I know something else but I could never have imagined, which is the stars with the planets that are closest to us, I can’t even see. The darkness in between is just chock full of billions of stars, with billions of planets, that my eyes can’t even see.

To me, when we can connect that visceral sense of being here with a rational understanding of how it all works, that’s where the connection really comes. This is where you want a half a dozen lifetimes to really delve into this and try and understand and then start planning: “Oh my god. This is now a two way conversation. What do we say next?”

This is a pretty exotic environment out here. I would not mind this on an alien planet. This is one hell of a Class M planet.

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