Last July, the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner launched a campaign called the Breakthrough Initiatives, a $100-million dollar donation to be doled out to scientists working on the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). This donation didn’t just provide some much-needed legitimacy to a field that has, since its inception, often struggled to be taken seriously. It also helped to alleviate one of SETI’s largest problems, second only to actually locating aliens: finding the funding to continue the search. Scanning the cosmos for intelligent life isn’t cheap, and there’s a lot of work to be done to prepare for first contact—which some scientists, like Seth Shostak, the director of the non-profit SETI Institute in California, expect to happen within our lifetime.
Milner’s donation will go a long way in footing the bill as SETI scientists work to make this contact a reality, yet there are some SETI problems money alone can’t solve. In this sense, perhaps the most pressing issue faced by SETI researchers is figuring out not only what we would say when ET calls, but more fundamentally, how we would go about saying it.
Astronomers and SETI scientists have been mulling over this particular communication problem for a while and have come up with a few ideas, some more outlandish than others. One of the earliest solutions was suggested in the early 19th century by the Austrian astronomer Joseph Johann Von Littrow, who proposed digging massive trenches in the Sahara desert, filling them with water, pouring kerosene on top, and then setting the kerosene alight in order to send flaming messages to our planetary neighbors.