In my experimental newsletter Cyber Rebel, I’ve been trying out different ways of presenting news stories. (You can download Issue #0 from the Free Stuff section to decide how successful I’ve been.) One of the late-breaking items was the detection of a radio signal from Proxima Centauri. I’ll hopefully be following it up for Issue #1. If there’s ever an issue one.
New Scientist describes it as unlikely to be artificial, but the best candidate for an alien signal yet. This seems fair. The likelihood of an alien intelligence being situated at the very next star over is extremely low. It would imply that space is utterly teeming with technological intelligence. In Scots — I’m Scottish, Hi! — the local neighbourhood would be hoaching.
But my Sci Fi brain is already thinking something else. I stress that I’m just throwing ideas around here, I don’t believe what I’m about to write. But… just suppose there’s a non-zero chance a conspiracy exists, not to suppress the existence of aliens, but to manufacture fake evidence of it. (And again, I’m just Sci Fi spitballing here, I don’t wish to impune the motives of the discovering team.)
The thought came to me when reading about all the various cataclysms our planet is facing. No-one could seriously claim we were living in a worry-free golden age right now. Of all the possibilities to stave off, say global warming, by geoengineering or rejigging the economy or what have you, by far the cheapest would be to beam messages off into space simply saying “HELP!” and hoping someone responds.
Also the least likely to succeed if there’s no-one out there. But what if this notional scientific conspiracy could pretend that there was?
But there’s precedent for it.
Saviours from Outer Space have long been a feature of flying saucer lore. (Regardless of the question of their existence, we can agree that the stories certainly exist. So with that out the way…)
In those cases, peaking in the 1950s and 1960s, Contactees claimed to be in regular communication with beings from space. Messages tended towards the spiritual kind, reflecting the anxieties of nuclear warfare and cosmic harmony. Venus was a jungle, and we must live in peace. Potatoes grew on the Moon, and we must live in peace. A counter-Earth was on the far side of the Sun, and we must live in peace. None of it was scientific in the slightest, but that wasn’t the point. We were being told, via the chosen ones, to get our act together or face destruction.
In an era before even extremely low-res images of the Lunar far side, or Mars, the stories felt plausible to a great many.
But scientists work with science. Live in harmony might be great advice, but there’s not exactly a lot to work with.
The Silpho Moor case was different. Here was a physically existing flying saucer which crashed in Yorkshire in December 1957. Different because it undeniably real, even if it rapidly proved to be a hoax. Different because contained within the object was a 2000-word message written in unfamiliar hieroglyphics. Someone had taken a lot of care to invent a new language and to include a small booklet made from metal foil. The — decoded — sentiment was the same; warning us about atomic warfare and our peril in ignoring it, even if the artistry was a level up. Someone had spent a considerable amount of money making the metallic saucer and allowing it to be discovered.
It showed that The Message could have the trappings of science.
And then there was Ummo.
Ummo never had much attention in the English-speaking world, but for decades it remained controversial in UFO circles in France and Spain. The alien civilisation Ummo had a language, consisting of 18 symbols but unlike Silpho Moor’s handful of pages, the forces behind it generated thousands of documents, each supposedly from our would-be benefactors. Again, the ultimate conclusion was that Ummo was a hoax, but one that lasted throughout the 60s and 70s. And one for which there’s some evidence that scientists, at least in part, fed into it.
Much of the documents described real science. Whatever individual, or group, wrote them, was highly knowledgeable compared to the messages of the past. However, it was science as it was known at the time. None of it was information yet to be discovered, or theorised. A lot of it was flaky, and from the modern perspective obviously wrong. And so the ultimate source of the Ummo intelligence, though never finally revealed1, was very much terrestrial. Again, though, it was a step up.
Which leaves any future efforts.
Inventing languages is something of a cottage industry. It’s even a niche job for big-budget SF movies. Think of Arrival, for one. There’s a thriving online community who create conlangs: constructed languages. Sophistication has even reached the point of where it’s possible to have LincOS, an operating system designed to be beamed to aliens and teach our logic, maths, and language by being run.
It’s not inconceivable that a collection of specialised individuals, top-flight scientists, working in secret could pull off something like an apparently real message from Proxima. The astronomers who detected it need not even be in on scheme. Better if they’re not, in fact. Launching a cubesat is easily within crowdfunding costs, transmitting on a frequency and faking a doppler shift in just the right patch of sky. Well, perhaps.
But the motive would likely remain the same; a warning to humanity, though this time backed by apparently solid data.
Is that any more likely than aliens? Maybe. Maybe not.
But a warning to get our act together would, as they say on Twitter, be an evergreen one.
There are claims to have been responsible, of course. ↩
I use British English spelling and idioms, if you tend to worry about that sort of thing.
Additionally I'm Scottish, so 'outwith' is unquestionably a real word. As is 'drookit', 'puggled' and 'numpty'. I am occasionally all three of those.
I created this site using a combination of W3 CSS, Jekyll, Emacs and my inability to enjoy web development IDEs.
My name is in the very first paragraph of the first page of the first GTA design document*. (Excluding cover and table of contents. I mean, right?)
I directed Britain's first ever Star Trek fan film, which we started production of in 2003 and released in 2007. We're still making episodes: Starship Intrepid