ASU launches "Dear Aliens" contest for kids

Monday, February 28, 2011

Photo of Lucy Hawking, right, by D. Mancer/ASU

What would you say to an extraterrestrial intelligent life form if you were contacted from outer space? Would you tell it about mountains, deserts, rain forests and oceans? Would you attempt to explain our efforts to create a greener planet? Or would you focus on who we are as the human race and what we have done?

This is the question Lucy Hawking is asking students throughout Maricopa County – from kindergarten through high school – to answer in a “Dear Aliens” essay competition that is hosted by the Arizona State University Origins Project. Winning entries will be broadcast into space by scientists at a special event on the ASU Tempe campus April 9 as part of a science and culture festival.

Hawking is co-author of a popular young-adult book series with her father, Stephen Hawking. She is also the Origins writer-in-residence at ASU. She hopes students will think about alien life forms, outer space, the recent discoveries of planets and humanity’s advancements in space. But, she advises, there are other questions students should ask themselves as they consider their messages.

“Our essay writers should also consider life on Earth,” she says. “Who are we? What have we done? What would be interesting about Earth to an extraterrestrial? How can you possibly explain human society to a life form from another star system? This is an opportunity to be both creative and scientific in the approach.”

All students, from public school to home school, private school to charter school, are eligible to enter. The length of the entries is based on grade level:

  • K-2: up to 50 words
  • Grades 3-5: up to 100 words
  • Grades 6-8: up to 200 words
  • Grades 9-12: up to 250 words

“We want the students to think simply and directly,” she says. “This is an enjoyable exercise that will include creative thinking, possibly some research on the part of our entrants, and the ability to organize thoughts. If you had to speak for humanity, what would you say?

“This isn’t an empty exercise; the essays we receive will be read by the scientists who will actually communicate with extraterrestrial life forms, when, and if, they make contact,” she says.

Hawking credits Paul Davies, a renowned physicist and astrobiologist, with the inspiration for “Dear Aliens.” Davies is a professor in the Department of Physics at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He also chairs the International Academy of Astronautics SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Post-Detection Task Group. If aliens from space make contact with Earth, Davies will be the one to respond.

“I heard Paul one night on the BBC being interviewed, and he confirmed that he would be the person to reply to alien contact,” says Hawking. “I thought how extraordinary this is. I wondered what Paul might say, and then thought about ways we might be able to get students involved in such a challenge. This is how I came up with the concept of the ‘Dear Aliens’ competition. It seemed such a great way to get young people involved in thinking about these issues and writing creatively and scientifically.

Hawking, a British author and journalist, has written a children’s trilogy with her father about a character called George and his cosmic adventures. The books aim to explain physics and astronomy to young readers through the story of George’s sometimes terrifying journeys into space. The first two books, “George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt” and “George’s Secret Key to the Universe,” have been translated into 38 languages. “Secret Key” made number six in the New York Times Children's Bestseller list. The third will be published in 2012 in the U.S.

A scene from “George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt,” co-authored by Lucy Hawking and her father, Stephen Hawking. (Image courtesy of Garry Parsons and Random House)

How would Hawking respond to contact from outer space?

“I think you have to view it from the perspective of what kinds of questions might they have for us,” she says. “We are one race with many divisions—how would you explain that? We have 6,700 different languages. We have different belief systems and different political systems. But, biologically, we are the same species. An extraterrestrial intelligent life form might struggle to understand why there are so many divisions. It might look at our planet as beautiful and well endowed with natural resources and wonder why we are treating it in such a short-term fashion.”

She adds, “We should think in terms of what we have done on Earth that an outside life form might understand; what might be universal.”

There is no time like the present to consider a response, Hawking notes.

“We don’t know when the signal from ET might arrive,” she says. “It could be tomorrow or it could be decades or centuries in the future. But at ASU we believe we should start thinking about who we are, and do so before we are asked to explain ourselves to a group of interstellar radio hams.”

Hawking is looking forward to reading student entries.

“Young people are the very people who may, in the future, find themselves communicating with beings from another planet,” she notes. “I’m so excited to read how the students believe we should respond to contact from outer space. I can’t wait to read the entries and find out what school students think aliens need to know about humanity and planet Earth.”

“Dear Aliens” gives students a chance “to write the intergalactic tourist guide for extraterrestrial visitors,” Hawking says.

Student submissions will be reviewed by a panel of alien experts made up of writers, scientists and scholars. The deadline for entries is April 1. Only written entries by mail will be accepted. They should be sent to: Dear Aliens, ASU Origins Project, Arizona State University, P.O. Box 871902, Tempe, Ariz., 85287-1902.

Read the winning letter and other entries here.