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In the late 1970s, Douglas Vakoch’s science fair project had nothing to do with baking-soda volcanoes, battery life, or any other school kid standards. Instead, it was about aliens—and how humans might talk to them.

For Vakoch, the saying is true: Past is present. He grew up to be the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, whose goal is to understand and explore life on Earth and beyond. And then, just last year, he formed a new organization called METI International, for “Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” Many in his community think that humans aren’t ready to broadcast to whoever’s out there. But his group wants to phone ET anyway.

METI International is the sprout of the seed planted during that long-ago science fair. In his project, teenage Vakoch looked at a message that astronomer and SETI pioneer Frank Drake sent using the Arecibo telescope in 1974. The contents were simple, including a pixelated map of the solar system, information about DNA, and a dot-matrix human. “I wanted to expand that to not just have a static image of a human being, but basically an animated series of images,” he says, zooming in on the face, then the eyes.

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