The “appearance of this Other” might be imminent, warns China’s preeminent science-fiction author of The Three-Body Problem, and that it might result in our extinction. “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent,” he writes in the postscript to one of his books. “But perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit.”
With no clues of extraterrestrial life over the past five decades, questions are constantly asked as whether the search methods are appropriate. “Some strange signals have been found, but it’s hard to confirm their origins, because these signals do not repeat,” says Li Di, chief scientist of FAST, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the world’s largest and most powerful new radio telescope.
“We look for not only television signals, but also atomic bomb signals. We’ll give full play to our imaginations when processing the signals,” Li says. “It’s a complete exploration, as we don’t know what an alien is like.”
With a dish the size of 30 football fields, China’s new FAST radio telescope, which measures 500 meters in diameter, nicknamed Tianyan, or the Eye of Heaven, can accurately image twice as much the sky as the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which had previously been the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, with double sensitivity and five to 10 times the surveying speed.
The dish has a perimeter of about 1.6 kilometers, and there are no towns within five kilometers, giving it ideal surroundings to listen for signals from space. Scientists have depicted it as a super-sensitive “ear”, capable of spotting very weak messages – if there are any – from “cousins” of human beings.
However, no civilization, Liu Cixin, China’s foremost philosopher of first contact, told The Atlantic’s Ross Anderson, should ever announce its presence to the cosmos, he says. Any other civilization that learns of its existence will perceive it as a threat to expand—as all civilizations do, eliminating their competitors until they encounter one with superior technology and are themselves eliminated. This grim cosmic outlook, Liu says, is called “dark-forest theory,” because it conceives of every civilization in the universe as a hunter hiding in a moonless woodland, listening for the first rustlings of a rival.
Liu told Ross that “he doubts the dish will find one. In a dark-forest cosmos like the one he imagines, no civilization would ever send a beacon unless it were a ‘death monument,’ a powerful broadcast announcing the sender’s impending extinction. If a civilization were about to be invaded by another, or incinerated by a gamma-ray burst, or killed off by some other natural cause, it might use the last of its energy reserves to beam out a dying cry to the most life-friendly planets in its vicinity.”
Liu told Ross that he’s hesitant to make connections between his books and the real world, but said that his work is influenced by the history of Earth’s civilizations, “especially the encounters between more technologically advanced civilizations and the original settlers of a place.” One such encounter occurred during the 19th century, Liu observed, “when the ‘Middle Kingdom’ of China, around which all of Asia had once revolved, looked out to sea and saw the ships of Europe’s seafaring empires, whose ensuing invasion triggered a loss in status for China comparable to the fall of Rome.”
The Daily Galaxy via The Atlantic, China News and Xinhuanet