As America gave up on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, China built the world’s largest radio antenna for just that purpose.
In January 2016, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, China’s pre-eminent science fiction writer, to visit the new state-of-the-art radio antenna observatory in the southwest of the country. Almost twice as wide as the antenna at the American Observatory Arecibo, in the jungle of Puerto Rica, is the largest in the world, if not in the universe.
Although it’s sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not emitting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The antenna is the first flagship Earth observatory, custom-built to listen for a message from extraterrestrial intelligence. If such a sign descends from the heavens in the next decade, China may hear it first.
In some ways, it is not surprising that Liu was invited to see the observatory. He has a huge voice in China’s space affairs, and the government’s aerospace agency sometimes asks him to consult on science missions. Liu is the patriarch of the country’s science fiction scene. In years past, the academy’s engineers sent Liu illustrated updates on the antenna’s construction, along with notes saying how the work inspired them.
He has written extensively about the risks of first contact. He warned that “the coming of this Other” could be imminent and could lead to our demise. “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky to which mankind gazes will remain empty and silent,” he writes in the postscript of one of his books. “But maybe tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien ship the size of the moon parked in orbit.”
In recent years, Liu has joined the ranks of the world’s literati. In 2015, his novel The Three-Body Problem became the first work in translation to win the Hugo Award, science fiction’s most prestigious award. Barack Obama told The New York Times the book — the first in a trilogy — gave him a cosmic perspective during the frenzy of his presidency. Liu told me that Obama’s staff asked him for an advance copy of the third volume.
At the end of the second volume, one of the main characters presents the philosophy of this trilogy. No civilization should 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 eliminated themselves. This bleak cosmic outlook is called the “dark forest theory” because it envisions every civilization in the universe as a hunter hiding in a moonless forest, listening for the first rustle of a rival.
Liu’s trilogy begins in the late 1960s, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution when a young Chinese woman sends a message to a nearby star system. The civilization that receives it embarks on a centuries-long mission to invade Earth, but it doesn’t care; the horrific excesses of the Red Guard convinced her that humans no longer deserved to survive.
En route to our planet, the alien civilization disrupts our particle accelerators to prevent us from making advances in the physics of warfare, such as that which created the atomic bomb less than a century after the invention of the repeating rifle.
Science fiction is sometimes described as the literature of the future, but historical allegory is one of its dominant modes. Isaac Asimov based his Foundation series on classical Rome, and Frank Herbert’s Dune borrows points from the Bedouin Arab past. Liu is reluctant to draw connections between his books and the real world, but said 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.” Such an encounter took place in the 19th century, when the “Middle Kingdom” of China, around which all of Asia had once revolved, looked out to sea and saw the ships of the maritime empires of Europe, whose subsequent invasion triggered a great loss of China’s status, comparable to the fall of Rome.
China poured more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did in the entire 20th century. The country has already built railway lines in Africa and hopes to run bullet trains to Europe and North America, the latter through a tunnel under the Bering Sea.
The skyscrapers and cranes diminished as the train moved further inland. Outside, in the emerald rice fields, among the mists below, it was easy to imagine ancient China — the China whose written language was largely adopted from Asia; China which introduced metal coins, paper money, and gunpowder into human life; China that built the river taming system that still irrigates the country’s terraced hills.
US reporters headlined “China Telescope to Displace 9,000 Villagers in Alien Hunt,” read a headline in The New York Times.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is often derided as a kind of religious mysticism, even within the scientific community.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the US Congress defunded America’s SETI program with a budget amendment proposed by Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada, who said he hoped it would “be the end of the season for hunting Martians at taxpayer expense.” This is one of the reasons why China, and not the United States, built the first world-class radio observatory with satellites as its core science objective.
Seti shares some features with religion. It is motivated by deep human desires for connection and transcendence. It deals with questions about human origins, the raw creative power of nature, and our future in this universe — and it does all this at a time when traditional religions have become unconvincing for many.
Nor is it clear why Congress should find the kits unworthy of funding, given that the previous administration was happy to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on ambitious searches for phenomena whose existence was still in question. The expensive, decades-long missions that discovered black holes and gravitational waves began when their targets were mere speculative possibilities.
That intelligent life can evolve on a planet is not a speculative possibility, as Darwin demonstrated. Indeed, thirst might be the most intriguing scientific project suggested by Darwinism.
Even without federal funding in the United States, Seti is now in the midst of a global renaissance. Today’s telescopes have brought distant stars closer, and we can see planets in their orbits. The next generation of observatories is just a click away, and with them, we will zoom in on the atmospheres of these planets, and Seti researchers are ready for this moment. In their exile, they became the philosophers of the future.
They tried to imagine what technologies an advanced civilization might use and what imprints those technologies would have on the observable universe. They figured out how to remotely detect the chemical traces of man-made pollutants. They know how to scan dense star fields for giant structures designed to protect planets from the shock waves of a supernova.
In 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner poured $100 million of his own money into a new set program led by UC Berkeley scientists. The team is making more observations of setae in a single day than they did in entire years just a decade ago.
In 2016, Milner contributed another $100 million to an interstellar mission. A beam from a giant laser array to be built in the Chilean high desert will shine dozens of wafer-thin probes more than four light-years into the Alpha Centauri system for a closer look at its planets. Milner said of the probes’ cameras that they might be able to distinguish individual continents. The Alpha Centauri team modeled the radiation sent into space by such a beam and noticed striking similarities to mysterious “fast radio bursts” that astronomers on Earth continue to detect, suggesting the possibility that they could be caused by giant beams similar, which feed similar probes elsewhere in the cosmos.
Andrew Siemion, the leader of Milner’s site team, is actively looking into this possibility. While it was still under construction, he visited the Chinese antenna to lay the groundwork for joint observations and help welcome the Chinese team to a growing network of radio observatories that will cooperate in SETI research, including new facilities in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Liu said that first contact with aliens will lead to human conflict, if not world war. This is a very popular variant of science fiction.
In the Oscar-nominated film Arrival, the sudden appearance of an extraterrestrial intelligence inspires the formation of apocalyptic cults and nearly sparks a war between world powers eager to gain an edge in the race to understand alien messages. There is also real-world evidence for Liu’s pessimism: When Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio show simulating an alien invasion was broadcast in Ecuador in 1949, a riot broke out, resulting in the deaths of six people. “We fell into conflict over things that are much easier to resolve,” Liu said.
There is a debate in contemporary Christian theology as to whether Christ’s salvation extends to every soul that exists in the wider universe, or whether the inhabitants of sin on distant planets require their divine interventions. The Vatican is particularly keen to introduce extraterrestrial life into its doctrine, perhaps sensing that another scientific revolution may be imminent. Galileo’s shameful persecution is still fresh in his long institutional memory.
Secular humanists will not be spared a serious intellectual reckoning upon first contact. Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the universe, and Darwin plucked humans from the mire of the animal kingdom. But even in this setting, human beings continued to position themselves at the top of nature.
They continued to treat the “lower” creatures with great cruelty.
They marveled that existence itself was created in such a way as to generate, from the simplest materials and axioms, beings like us. We have flattered ourselves that we are, in Carl Sagan’s words, “the universe’s way of knowing itself.” These are secular ways of saying that we are made in the image of God.
We may be humbled to one day find ourselves side by side, across the distance of the stars, with an older network of minds, fellow travelers on the long journey of time. We can receive from them an education in the real history of civilizations, young, old, and extinct. We may be familiar with works of art on a galactic scale, born of traditions spanning millions of years. We may be asked to participate in scientific observations that can only be made by multiple civilizations hundreds of light years apart.
Observations in this field may reveal aspects of nature that we cannot now understand. We may come to know a new metaphysics. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to know a new ethic. We will emerge from our existential shock feeling freshly alive to our common humanity. The first light that reaches us in this dark forest can also illuminate our home world.