Should We Sweat Gliese “Contest” Submissions?

With the discovery of Gliese 581g being in the Goldilocks zone, we have yet another powerful indicator that the world may be soon discovering or making contact with alien life.  And as the world gathers to ask about the next course of action in reaction to the discovery, it is a good time to recall that in 2008, Gliese 581 has already had a high powered message sent to it.  The message?  The selection process involved winning a contest or being a celebrity in the year 2008.

The Voyager space probe, which launched in 1977 contained messages of peace and prosperity.  On-board the vessel, acclaimed science fiction author Carl Sagan had included a selection of material that provided some of the best and brightest mankind had to offer, engraving it on a phonograph record that could be played, and images that gave indications of what the human form was.  It also included selections of music from Mozart, Bach, and Stravinsky.  Along with the images of human culture, a carefully selected representation of mankind’s scientific knowledge was painstakingly studied and put on the disk.  The ship in a bottle was then sent adrift in space as a symbol of mankind’s pioneering spirit and its unwavering courage as it sought contact with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

In 2008, a message shot far past the silently drifting Voyager space probe out toward Gliese 581 (considered currently one of the most likely star systems to contain alien life).  The broadcast caused much controversy as it was directed purposefully at a potentially historically significant planet and as the UK’s register quotes, contained messages such as, “Our bodies are made of bones … We have senses. Smell, Taste, Sight and Touch. Without any of these things, we wouldn’t live.”  Scientists worldwide voiced their complaint that the messages had not been properly screened to avoid an interstellar incident (as the Voyager probe had been) if the messages were intercepted by an intelligent alien race, or for that matter even proofread.

Still, it’s hard to imagine those involved in the contest meant anything but the best as they did provide an opportunity for at least 500 contest winners to have their voices immortalized as they shot through the void of space.  But if these transmissions are analyzed by alien civilizations, will we be judged by a random selection of 500 people from decades prior?  Imagine the worst pop star fads of the 1980’s and having the entire human race be wholly summarily judged according to a selection of soundbytes from The Dukes of Hazard, The Love Boat, and a chance quote from Night Court.  While this may be entertaining or preferable representation from some, it by no means includes the vast array of culture and history of the human race.

So will an alien race judge us based on a simple message sent out in a contest in 20 years?  It’s nail biting to think about the weight of any single message being interpreted out of context, but hardly in itself cause for alarm.  After all, Gleise 581c is 20 lightyears away.  Remember those episodes of Night Court just mentioned?  Television signals have been radiating outward from Earth since 1930.  This means the planet is currently being bombarded with episodes of Three’s Company and Dallas.  Just wait till they see the 90’s.