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2012, the Interstellar Dating Service

2012 has only just begun, and already we have a contender for the stupidest press release of the year. A dating site has declared that it's planning on launching the "world's first intergalactic dating app".
Before we get into the meat of the release, I'm a bit hesitant as to whether I should mention the name of the company or not.

On the one hand, I know that this is a publicity attempt, and I don't want to give them the satisfaction. On the other hand, it seems only right to name and shame. As a compromise, I'll let you decide. This link goes to their site, and this is the PR agency that sent us the release. It's up to you as to whether you want to hover over, or even click, those links.

It begins with a pun. I have no complaints about that.
"Singletons should be over the moon. A British company yesterday announced plans to launch the world's first intergalactic dating app."
The world's first what?
"The smart phone application will be accessible to 'alien life forms' on planets up to one light year (six trillion miles) from Earth."




Leaving aside the question of why alien life forms is in quotation marks, I'm trying to work out how the company has managed to limit the app's use to planets within a light year's radius of Earth. Has a ring of signal jammers been installed at that distance? Is this some form of intergalactic DRM?
"Extra-terrestrials will be able to download the app, for free, and make contact with humans by a form of 'space-age' email or futuristic type of text message."

The Space Age is widely considered to have begun with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Given that arguably the first email system was MIT's CTSS MAIL, developed in 1965, it's hard to argue that email isn't "space-age" already. In which case, why bother mentioning it in the first place? What a "futuristic type" of text message is, is anyone's guess. Maybe it's in neon.

"A two-way GPS satellite -- armed with "Nasa-inspired" technology -- will transfer the communications between Earth and the far-flung corners of our galaxy, the Milky Way, almost instantly via radio waves."

This is my favourite paragraph of all -- there are so many moments of utter WTF. Let's pick through every single one. They've mysteriously picked out a GPS satellite, which is likely to be rather too busy with the GPS system to be sending love notes to aliens. I also love that the technology is "inspired" by Nasa. Just like the rockets I built from Lego when I was eight.

Then there's the "far flung corners of the galaxy" bit -- which clashes with the aforementioned galactic DRM clause. The Milky Way is about 100,000 light years across, and we're not in the centre, making the farthest flung corner around 75,000 light years away, give or take a few thousand light years. Again, though, there's nothing stopping the radio waves travelling any further, so it's not clear why they pick out the far-flung corners of the Milky Way as a limit here.

Finally, there's the claim that radio waves mean "almost instant" transmission. While it's true that the speed of light is pretty damn quick, it doesn't really seem fair to say it's nearly instant over distances like 75,000 light years. After all, it would take a radio wave 75,000 years to travel that distance. 75,000 years ago, humanity was only just starting to make its way out of Africa and into Asia. By the time your messages get to that cute alien on the Scutum Centaurus arm, humanity could well be extinct.

"Sending messages, and even romantic declarations, into space is nothing new. Professional alien hunters have been sending text messages into space in the hope of receiving a reply from extra-terrestrials for years."

Every message that you have ever sent over a wireless electromagnetic medium (mobile phone, SMS, email, or plain ol' radio or television) has gone into space. Most of them won't have made it much further than a few tens of light years away, because wireless communications haven't been with the mass market for that long, but that still reaches more than 50 other solar systems.

"But according to dating website [redacted], its new app will open up the possibility of communicating with alien life forms to 'normal, broadminded people' - rather than just the scientific community."

I particularly love the implication here that the scientific community aren't "normal, broadminded people". 

"In a statement the American firm, which has offices in London, admits the as yet un-named app is still in its 'conceptual infancy' and that it could take up to five years before it becomes available."

Leaving aside the question of why someone couldn't come up with a name for this thing, the big story here is that within five years, a dating site is not only going to make first contact with an alien species, but also work out how to flirt with them.

"It fails, however, to mention the two obvious pitfalls - that aliens will need a smart phone or computer to download the app, and that the journey to meet the little green man of our dreams could take up to 100 years."

The question of how fast we can go in space isn't an easy one, because there's not much air resistance in space, so you have to look at acceleration instead. The fastest outward-bound spacecraft yet sent, Voyager 1, has covered 1/600th of a light-year in 30 years and is currently moving at 1/18,000th the speed of light. At this rate, a journey to Proxima Centauri -- the nearest other solar system to us -- would take 72,000 years.

From that, you might be thinking that you won't meet your little green man unless he lives in our solar system. But you're forgetting about time dilation. The closer you get to the speed of light, the slower time appears to pass to you, so you won't age as quickly. If we can build a powerful-enough ship, and it doesn't crash into anything, then it's possible to get to anywhere in the galaxy within a human lifespan. You won't be able to come back for him to meet your parents, though -- if you returned to Earth, you'd find that thousands of years had elapsed.

"A spokesman said: 'The intergalactic dating application will be a first in many ways. It will give normal, broadminded people the opportunity to communicate with other life forms, and could open the doors to true universal dating.'

"In 2008, the social networking site Bebo arranged to have more than 500 images and text messages transmitted into deep space. The signal was aimed at a planet known as Gliese 581C, which was selected because scientists believe it is capable of supporting life. The messages sent included one from Radio One DJ Scott Mills."

The idea that an alien's first human contact might be with Scott Mills is a terrifying one.

"A spokesman for [redacted] said the new app would, 'theoretically', be available to life forms on planets even further away from Earth. Possible locations include Jupiter's moon Europa - which, according to a study, could support complex life - and Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons."

While it's true that the app would technically be available to aliens on planets throughout the Universe (that aforementioned DRM notwithstanding), it's depressing that this dating site reckons that Jupiter and Saturn's moons are further away from Earth than Gliese 581C.

There's also the conflation of "complex life" with "a creature you'd actually want to sleep with". While it's possible that the former lies under the ice of Europa or Enceladus, the prospect of the latter being down there is minute. At best, it would be a soggy experience.

"It is unclear who will fund the app -- a satellite alone costs tens of millions of pounds -- or whether the 'dream' will become a reality. But the spokesman confirmed it has hired a team of experts to begin the 'research and exploratory phase of the mission'."

Leaving aside the ethics of press releasing a "dream", I would like to know the name, qualifications and work history of every single member of the team of experts that have been hired to do this. And why the company didn't talk to any of them before writing this press release. And how they've managed to dispense of their sense of shame.

"He added: 'There are tens of thousands of single people who have scoured the Earth looking for love but have been unsuccessful in their quest. This is their chance to boldly go where no one has gone before -- to literally look to the stars for love.'"

All joking aside, I totally get why this dating site has written this catastrophe of a press release. It's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, and no product will ever be released. It's just a vehicle for -- they hope -- a few bits of press coverage.

I don't mind silly press releases, but spouting nonsense as fact just isn't on. Most of this stuff is covered in GCSE Physics, and it's definitely all available with a quick Google search. Either way, it sets the awful-press-release bar extremely high for the rest of the year. Here's hoping something arrives later in the year that can beat it.

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