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Marco Werman: NASA boasted this week that its spacecraft, Voyager One, has definitively left our solar system. Voyager One, which was launched in September 1977, has now set sail in the cosmic seas between the stars. On board is a gold-plated phonograph disc containing multicultural greetings, music, as well as images. And maybe someday somewhere, there will be an extra-terrestrial life form intelligent enough to make sense of all that stuff. Which got us thinking, what would happen if Voyager One actually made contact with aliens? Paul Davies has been thinking about this very issue for most of his life. Davies is head of the Post-Detection Task Group with SETI, that's the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. He's also a professor at Arizona State University and he joins us now from Phoenix. So, Paul Davies, what's the top of your to-do list once contact is made, assuming that happens?
Paul Davies: I think it's most unlikely to happen via this Voyager phonograph, I might say, and heaven knows what E.T. would make of it.
Werman: Or even if it has a record player.
Davies: Right, if E.T. could get his hands on it. So mostly attempts to determine whether or not we're alone in the universe have been done by scouring the skies with radio telescopes in the hope of stumbling across a message, but this has been going on over 50 years and of course nothing yet, otherwise you would know about it. So what we really need to think about is not so much contact in the sense of a little green man stepping out of a flying saucer, or even a two-way radio exchange. It's much more, supposing we stumbled across evidence that we are not alone, that is evidence of alien technology, what next? What would happen to our society? How would we take that new information on board, how would it change our science, our religion, our sense of our place in the universe?
Werman: A very profound question, isn't it?
Davies: Right, you see, so most of us, people like me, I'm a theoretical physicist, and so naturally I think that they would want to know about theoretical physics. Now there is some justification for that because we'd have no common language, and the language of theoretical physics is the language of the universe. It's the way that nature speaks to us through our, not just radio communications, but light and our understanding of stars and the universe. So if E.T. has any sort of technology capable of picking these things up, then they're going to understand the same fundamental principles of physics and mathematics. So there are certain things that we could send which would disclose our level of understanding of fundamental science in that way. That would be a start and so in my view that's the thing that makes the most sense to send. The phonograph on Voyager sadly is full of things like folk music and I think there's even a message from the United Nations, none of which would mean anything, as I'm sure E.T. would understand nothing of our sport, our politics, or our music, but probably we would share mathematics and fundamental physics.
Werman: Well, it kind of leaves us in the realm of fantasy, so indulge me. What is the best humans-meet-aliens movie you've ever seen?
Davies: Well, the one that moved me most at the time, although it's ridiculous in retrospect, was "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." And I had a sort of soft spot for that in advance because I knew Allen Hynek. Allen was the, he was the one who coined the term "close encounters of the third kind," and he was the scientific advisor to the Us Air Force Project Blue Book, which was a 20-year UFO study back in the '60s and '70s. And he wrote a book called "The UFO Experience," in which he has a chapter on close encounters of the third kind. And so I watched that movie with a great deal of interest. What I thought was new and good about it was, having been brought up in the '50s and '60s on a diet of scary alien stories, it was wonderful to see an upbeat movie about E.T. not as a threat, but in some sense as a cosmic salvation
Werman: Paul Davies, head of the Post-Detection Task Group with SETI, that's the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Thank you so much.
Davies: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.
Werman: And before we go, here's a mash-up of some of the music that aliens will be able to hear if they ever come across Voyager One and activate that golden disc.
Werman: And whether you think it's a good idea or not, what music from our planet do you think E.T. should hear first? Share your song at TheWorld.org. This is PRI.