END TIMES

Maybe Let’s Not Try to Talk to Aliens

In an effort to speed up the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, some researchers are sending messages into the cosmos. We may not like the answer.

Bryan Walsh
OneZero
Published in
7 min readAug 26, 2019

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Illustration: Jon Han

Asteroids, supervolcanoes, nuclear war, climate change, engineered viruses, artificial intelligence, and even aliens — the end may be closer than you think. For the next two weeks, OneZero will be featuring essays drawn from editor Bryan Walsh’s forthcoming book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, which hits shelves on August 27 and is available for pre-order now, as well as pieces by other experts in the burgeoning field of existential risk. But we’re not helpless. It’s up to us to postpone the apocalypse.

SSETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — is passive by nature, a human ear cocked towards space. The hope is that there are extraterrestrial intelligences out there trying to message us, and we just need to be ready with our radio telescopes to hear, ready for that moment of contact.

But listening isn’t just a search method — it’s a philosophy. Early SETI advocates like the astronomer and author Carl Sagan took it for granted that any alien civilization we might come into contact with would be more advanced than us, likely far more advanced, technologically and even ethically. (The universe, after all, had been around for nearly 14 billion years before human beings showed up, which means plenty of time for older life forms to arise.) Given our assumed place as a young species in the cosmic hierarchy — and given all that we might hope to learn from our alien betters — a core SETI belief is that we should listen before we speak. Shouting into the cosmos, Sagan said, was “deeply unwise and immature,” the act of a toddler calling attention to themselves.

Proponents of what is known as Active SETI, however, believe it’s a mistake to assume that any technologically mature alien civilization will automatically take the first step to establish contact with us. If we’re not making an effort to signal them, after all, maybe they won’t signal first. It’s possible that extraterrestrials are no longer using radio, and that sifting through radio waves while searching for…

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Bryan Walsh
OneZero
Writer for

Journalist, author, dad. Former TIME magazine editor and foreign correspondent. Author of END TIMES, a book about existential risk and the end of the world.