Even the most adamant enthusiasts for METI — Messaging to Extraterrestrial Civilizations — haven’t come up with anything as audacious as what virtual reality guru Jaron Lanier is now talking about. Writing for Discover Magazine, Lanier has the notion of rearranging basic material objects to make them not just noticeable by aliens but blindingly obvious. Nothing new there, as the concept of such messaging goes back to the 19th Century. Mathematician Karl Gauss considered geometric plantings of trees and wheat to create shapes that might be visible from space, while Joseph von Littrow (perhaps basing the idea on Gauss’ work) talked about digging huge ditches and setting kerosene within them on fire at night, for the edification of beings on other worlds.
But Lanier isn’t talking about anything quite so mundane. This is a guy who thinks big — he wants to arrange stars. If you can find a way to create stable patterns of stars that are obviously artificial, then you have a celestial feature that shouts out your presence. Lanier calls such formations graphstellations, the idea being that we are creating an artificial constellation that is also a form of communication or writing. And perhaps other cultures, more advanced than ours, might have already chosen this path to tell us they’re out there.
As to why we might want to do this, Lanier simply accepts that making ourselves known is a good idea:
“Why move stars around? Because then they could be guided into orbital formations that almost certainly would not have occurred naturally. An imaginable set-up period of tens of thousands of years could therefore be leveraged into a much longer period—billions of years, perhaps—during which aliens could observe the fruits of our efforts.”
Judging from the reaction to NASA’s recent stunt — the transmission of a Beatles tune to Polaris — the idea of broadcasting the human presence seems to be settling in as a cultural trope. No one behind the NASA message seemed aware that there might be any controversy over the idea of beaming signals to the stars, and in the popular press the sending of the signal was handled more or less as a trendy cultural happening. Tau Zero journalist Larry Klaes has made the point here and elsewhere that we are soon to arrive at the juncture where individuals will have such powerful computing and transmission resources at their disposal that governmental or societal constraints on broadcasting will simply become moot. NASA’s latest has me wondering if he’s right. Like it or not, we may be moving into the era of METI as fait accompli.
Whatever the case, you have to admire the audacity of Lanier’s concept of star-moving. He imagines huge fleets of gravitational tractors gradually adjusting the trajectories of Kuiper Belt objects over thousands and thousands of years, eventually altering the Solar System’s trajectory through the Milky Way. In perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, our Sun can join up with other nearby stars similarly manipulated into the new graphstellation, a form of self-advertisement unrivaled by any other civilizational accomplishment in or out of Hollywood.
When Lanier took the idea to Piet Hut at the Institute for Advanced Study, the latter suggested a ‘multiply nested binary star graphstellation’ — a pair of a pair of a pair of double stars, sixteen stars in all. “An alien observer,” writes Lanier, “wouldn’t have to be able to discern all the individual stars in order to notice that something funny was going on; the alien would only have to note subtle changes in the qualities of the light, wobbles in the position, and other clues.”
So there you are. The long-term thinker’s brand of METI, played out over hundreds of thousands of years, and perhaps easier to construct than a Dyson sphere. Keeping our eyes open for such obviously artificial configurations would give SETI scientists yet another challenge, though whether any civilization would devote such time and energy into making itself into a cosmic beacon is questionable. Lanier makes me think of Olaf Stapledon, and engineering on cosmic scales of the sort that enlivened early science fiction. It’s a concept that plays against the apparently inexhaustible need of some humans to make our species known.