Last January, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, China’s preeminent science-fiction writer, to visit its new state-of-the-art radio dish in the country’s southwest. Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle, the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.
In some ways, it’s no surprise that Liu was invited to see the dish. He has an outsize voice on cosmic affairs in China, 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. Other Chinese writers I met attached the honorific Da, meaning “Big,” to his surname. In years past, the academy’s engineers sent Liu illustrated updates on the dish’s construction, along with notes saying how he’d inspired their work.
But in other ways Liu is a strange choice to visit the dish. He has written a great deal about the risks of first contact. He has warned that the “appearance of this Other” might be imminent, and that it might result in our extinction. “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent,” he writes in the postscript to one of his books. “But perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit.”In recent years, Liu has joined the ranks of the global 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 prize. Barack Obama told The New York Times that the book—the first in a trilogy—gave him 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 lays out the trilogy’s animating philosophy. No civilization should ever 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 themselves eliminated. This grim cosmic outlook is called “dark-forest theory,” because it conceives of every civilization in the universe as a hunter hiding in a moonless woodland, listening for the first rustlings 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 she doesn’t care; the Red Guard’s grisly excesses have convinced her that humans no longer deserve to survive. En route to our planet, the extraterrestrial civilization disrupts our particle accelerators to prevent us from making advancements in the physics of warfare, such as the one that brought the atomic bomb into being less than a century after the invention of the repeating rifle.
Science fiction is sometimes described as a 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 plot points from the past of the Bedouin Arabs. Liu is reluctant to make connections between his books and the real world, but he did tell me that 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.” One such encounter occurred during 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 Europe’s seafaring empires, whose ensuing invasion triggered a loss in status for China comparable to the fall of Rome.
This past summer, I traveled to China to visit its new observatory, but first I met up with Liu in Beijing. By way of small talk, I asked him about the film adaptation of TheThree-Body Problem. “People here want it to be China’s Star Wars,” he said, looking pained. The pricey shoot ended in mid-2015, but the film is still in postproduction. At one point, the entire special-effects team was replaced. “When it comes to making science-fiction movies, our system is not mature,” Liu said.
I had come to interview Liu in his capacity as China’s foremost philosopher of first contact, but I also wanted to know what to expect when I visited the new dish. After a translator relayed my question, Liu stopped smoking and smiled.“It looks like something out of science fiction,” he said.
A week later, I rode a bullet train out of Shanghai, leaving behind its purple Blade Runner glow, its hip cafés and craft-beer bars. Rocketing along an elevated track, I watched high-rises blur by, each a tiny honeycomb piece of the rail-linked urban megastructure that has recently erupted out of China’s landscape. China poured more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century. The country has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea.
The skyscrapers and cranes dwindled as the train moved farther inland. Out in the emerald rice fields, among the low-hanging mists, it was easy to imagine ancient China—the China whose written language was adopted across much of Asia; the China that introduced metal coins, paper money, and gunpowder into human life; the China that built the river-taming system that still irrigates the country’s terraced hills. Those hills grew steeper as we went west, stair-stepping higher and higher, until I had to lean up against the window to see their peaks. Every so often, a Hans Zimmer bass note would sound, and the glass pane would fill up with the smooth, spaceship-white side of another train, whooshing by in the opposite direction at almost 200 miles an hour.
It was mid-afternoon when we glided into a sparkling, cavernous terminal in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, one of China’s poorest, most remote provinces. A government-imposed social transformation appeared to be under way. Signs implored people not to spit indoors. Loudspeakers nagged passengers to “keep an atmosphere of good manners.” When an older man cut in the cab line, a security guard dressed him down in front of a crowd of hundreds.The next morning, I went down to my hotel lobby to meet the driver I’d hired to take me to the observatory. Two hours into what was supposed to be a four-hour drive, he pulled over in the rain and waded 30 yards into a field where an older woman was harvesting rice, to ask for directions to a radio observatory more than 100 miles away. After much frustrated gesturing by both parties, she pointed the way with her scythe.We set off again, making our way through a string of small villages, beep-beeping motorbike riders and pedestrians out of our way. Some of the buildings along the road were centuries old, with upturned eaves; others were freshly built, their residents having been relocated by the state to clear ground for the new observatory. A group of the displaced villagers had complained about their new housing, attracting bad press—a rarity for a government project in China. Western reporters took notice. “China Telescope to Displace 9,000 Villagers in Hunt for Extraterrestrials,” 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 century ago, the United States Congress defunded America’s seti program with a budget amendment proposed by Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada, who said he hoped it would “be the end of Martian-hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense.” That’s one reason it is China, and not the United States, that has built the first world-class radio observatory with seti as a core scientific goal.
seti does share some traits with religion. It is motivated by deep human desires for connection and transcendence. It concerns itself with questions about human origins, about the raw creative power of nature, and about our future in this universe—and it does all this at a time when traditional religions have become unpersuasive to many. Why these aspects of seti should count against it is unclear. Nor is it clear why Congress should find seti unworthy of funding, given that the government has previously been 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 found black holes and gravitational waves both commenced when their targets were mere speculative possibilities. That intelligent life can evolve on a planet is not a speculative possibility, as Darwin demonstrated. Indeed, seti 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 the distant stars nearer, and in their orbits we can see planets. The next generation of observatories is now clicking on, and with them we will zoom into these planets’ atmospheres. seti researchers have been preparing for this moment. In their exile, they have become philosophers of the future. They have tried to imagine what technologies an advanced civilization might use, and what imprints those technologies would make on the observable universe. They have figured out how to spot the chemical traces of artificial pollutants from afar. They know how to scan dense star fields for giant structures designed to shield planets from a supernova’s shock waves.In 2015, the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner poured $100 million of his own cash into a new seti program led by scientists at UC Berkeley. The team performs more seti observations in a single day than took place during entire years just a decade ago. In 2016, Milner sank another $100 million into an interstellar-probe mission. A beam from a giant laser array, to be built in the Chilean high desert, will wallop dozens of wafer-thin probes more than four light-years to the Alpha Centauri system, to get a closer look at its planets. Milner told me the probes’ cameras might be able to make out individual continents. The Alpha Centauri team modeled the radiation that such a beam would send out into space, and noticed striking similarities to the mysterious “fast radio bursts” that Earth’s astronomers keep detecting, which suggests the possibility that they are caused by similar giant beams, powering similar probes elsewhere in the cosmos.Andrew Siemion, the leader of Milner’s seti team, is actively looking into this possibility. He visited the Chinese dish while it was still under construction, to lay the groundwork for joint observations and to help welcome the Chinese team into a growing network of radio observatories that will cooperate on seti research, including new facilities in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. When I joined Siemion for overnight seti observations at a radio observatory in West Virginia last fall, he gushed about the Chinese dish. He said it was the world’s most sensitive telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter.”More on: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/12/what-happens-if-china-makes-first-contact/544131/