In 1974 a message was beamed towards the stars by the giant Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, a brief blast of radio waves designed to alert extraterrestrial civilizations to our existence. Of course, we don't know if such civilizations really exist. But for the past six decades a small cadre of researchers have been on a quest to find out, as part of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
However, the act of transmitting raises troubling questions about the process of contact. We look for qualities such as altruism and intelligence in extraterrestrial life, but what do these mean to humankind? Can we learn something about our own history when we explore what happens when two civilizations come into contact? Finally, do the answers tell us that it is safe to transmit, even though we know nothing about extraterrestrial life, or as Stephen Hawking argued, are we placing humanity in jeopardy by doing so?
In The Contact Paradox, author Keith Cooper looks at how far SETI has come since its modest beginnings, and where it is going, by speaking to the leading names in the field and beyond. SETI forces us to confront our nature in a way that we seldom have before-where did we come from, where are we going, and who are we in the cosmic context of things?
Nearly 60 years ago, Nobel Prize-winners Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson stumbled across a mysterious hiss of faint radio static that was interfering with their observations. They had found the key to unravelling the story of the Big Bang and the origin of our universe. That signal was the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the earliest light in the universe, released 379,000 years after the Big Bang. It contains secrets about what happened during the very first tiny increments of time, which had consequences that have rippled throughout cosmic history, leading to the universe of stars and galaxies that we live in today. This is the enthralling story of the quest to understand the CMB radiation and what it can tell us of the origins of time and space, from bubble universes to a cyclical cosmos - and possibly leading to the elusive theory of quantum gravity itself.