Nestled in southwest China lies the largest radio dish in the world, and Ross Andersen reveals in the Atlantic the dish's purpose: to serve as "Earth's first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence." Andersen journeyed into the remote countryside to visit the ultra-sensitive dish, which Liu Cixin, a prominent Chinese science-fiction writer, describes as resembling something out of a book he'd write. The structure that's as long as "five football fields" and "deep enough to hold two bowls of rice for every human being on the planet" doesn't disappoint: Anderson depicts it as looking like "God had pressed a perfect round fingertip into the planet’s outer crust and left behind a smooth, silver print." And it's "sensitive enough to hear a civilization's fainter radio whispers, the ones that aren't meant to be overheard."
Andersen pegs the reason China, not the US, is now at the forefront of searching for ETs (Congress long ago yanked funding for our own Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, program), delves into the similarities between religion and alien-hunting, and notes that SETI initiatives are experiencing a "global renaissance." Leading the pack is China, which for centuries had lagged behind other countries when it came to investing in science. It has only recently realized that "spectacular scientific achievements confer prestige upon nations," and that its radio dish could be key. Liu doesn't seem excited at the prospect of making contact—he deems it a dangerous game that could lead to our extinction—but Andersen is more hopeful, predicting possible innovations in art and science. "We'll emerge from our existential shock feeling newly alive to our shared humanity," he says. Andersen's full report here. (Read more Longform stories.)