SETI: The Search For Ourselves

Jun 29 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

In April 2011 funding shortfalls in the budget of the State of California resulted in the 'hibernation' of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) north of San Francisco. The ATA was primarily used by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, a not-for-profit scientific organisation that investigates the origin and nature of life in the universe. Scanning the sky for radio signals from distant alien civilisations, the ATA was an integral tool in our quest to uncover some of the mysteries of our astronomical neighbourhood and to answer a fundamental paradox that has puzzled scientists for over 50 years. Where is everyone? Everything we observe about the nature of universe suggests that life, and eventually technologically advanced civilisations, should be prevalent across the cosmos, yet we have no evidence suggesting that life exists anywhere except here on Earth.

What does this apparent isolation say about us and our planet? Are we the product of an extremely fortunate evolutionary accident resulting from the interplay between our astronomical and planetary environment? On some distinguishable level, the search for other intelligent species is a thinly veiled search for our own place, both physically and philosophically and convincing proof of a co-existent alien civilisation would most likely have significant social, political and religious ramifications as well as the potential to cause deep psychological distress at the level of the individual. I have no doubt however, that  religious and philosophical doctrines will be reinterpreted by scholars and priests to incorporate these monumental findings in an effort to remain pragmatic and to provide guidance for their respective followers and adherents

We have nothing to fear when we listen. Could there be a more relevant or important allocation of public money than to attempt to answer some of the most fundamental questions of our time? Who are we, where did we come from and are we alone? Are we the only extant advanced civilisation in the universe? Are we the only species capable of uncovering the meaning behind their very existence at a level otherwise completely out of the reach of most organisms?

Or, like a moth alone in the dark are we seeking the comforting light of ignorance; is it better not to know at all rather than to uncover the true scale of our isolation? The burden of the knowledge that help will not come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves may be, for some, too much to bear. The weight of our responsibility to ourselves, our children and our planet will put strain on our collective psyches; mired by loneliness on an unprecedented, truly universal the scale we have only ourselves to blame for our significant shortcomings and failures.

But with this knowledge also comes perspective. Perhaps this will be the perspective required to finally rid ourselves of our incessant propensity to view different races, genders or ethnic groups of our species with contempt, mistrust and hostility. As the only species able to discover and preserve the secrets of the universe for future generations, or future civilisations, we owe it to ourselves and our children to unite as a single species with a truly global heritage.


One response so far

  • John Bayko says:

    The best explanation I've heard for the Fermi Paradox is a combination of increasing speed of interaction, and efficiency of technology. It's explored a bit in the novel Accelerando, by Charles Stross.

    The first television transmissions could probably be detected from nearby stars, but after a certain point people started switching to either cable, or narrow satellite transmissions. Now, increasingly it's through the Internet. That means that even though transmission volumes have grown, detectable emissions have shrunk. This is also true for phone technology (pre-cellular, vs. analog, vs. digital each using a fraction of the power), and others. As technology grows more efficient, less bandwidth is wasted, leaving less noise to be detected elsewhere.

    People have been getting used to more immediate interaction. Once a it was normal to carry on a conversation over several days, months, or years through letters (delivered twice a day at its peak). Travel over long distances took months. People would have long, leisurely visits to catch up on the long intervening time. But technologies from the telegraph, telephone, email, texting, web sites, video chat and others make communication so quick that delays of days are intolerable in general, to say nothing of weeks or years. That puts an upper limit on the distance that people would be comfortable being from each other, and the speed of light might put a limit on the distance people would be willing to disperse. Especially if computer augmented (or replacement) intelligence makes people think even faster (not limited to biology, perhaps living at ten or a hundred times faster might be feasible or desirable).

    Combined, these might mean that any sufficiently advanced society would become so increasingly insular that detection would be nearly impossible. Except possibly special projects to search for other life - those might be so rare, divided by the number of candidates that they would be statistically almost nonexistent. If aliens had sent transmissions to Earth a thousand times over the past billion years, we still might have to wait another million years before we see another one.