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Recycled BlogD: The Futility of SETI

February 17th, 2013

This is an article from 2006, and I stand by it just as much if not more than I did seven years ago. I feel it is important to reach out and find extraterrestrial life, and the recent discovery of so many exoplanets is an exciting step in this direction. However, for the reasons given below, I don’t think it’ll be accomplished using radio frequencies.

To me, that smacks of assumptions that are almost childlike: we are in our technological infancy, barely just discovered how to use electricity a century or so ago, and we presume that this is the ultimate communications medium that everyone is using. Seen in proper context, we kind of look like a six-year-old working with string tied between tin cans. Not that the technology can’t work, but rather than there are probably several generations of communications technology that are currently beyond our understanding.

A commenter in 2007 added another point: we presume that evolution necessarily leads to intelligence, in particular an inquiring or social intelligence, when that may not be the norm.

I am very much a fan of science, as well as science fiction. I am pretty certain that other life and civilizations exist out there, and am quite keen on the concept of contacting that life.

That said, I don’t think SETI will ever accomplish anything. Here’s why.

Imagine there is a tribe of primitive people on a remote and small archipelago in the south Pacific (where these imaginary tribesmen are usually located), who have never encountered anyone else in the world. They are way off of sea and air traffic lanes, so they have never even seen any evidence of others living on Earth. They do know the Earth is curved (they see boats going to their most distant island disappear over the horizon) and vast, and they wonder: are there any other people, any other tribes out there?

So they send their smartest people off to try to contact others using the most sophisticated communications technology they possess. These big brains climb the tallest mountain in the island chain, start a fire, and begin sending up smoke signals. The communications team figures that if anyone exists out beyond that horizon, surely they will see the signals, and if they do, they will reply in kind. The intrepid team spends weeks up on the mountain, sending signals and keeping a keen and vigilant watch on all horizons for any reply.

Eventually, after receiving no answers to their many signals, they decide to pack it in. Either there is no one else out there, or they aren’t watching for smoke signals, or they aren’t advanced enough to understand or send them, or they just don’t care to reply. Regardless of which is true, they cannot find any evidence of life out there.

And as they walk down the mountain in resignation, they are completely unaware that at that instant, countless radio signals from dozens of highly advanced civilizations on Earth are coursing through the very space they occupy.

In this analogy, we are the tribesmen.

It has always surprised me that this probable truth is never discussed, that I have encountered at least, in public discourse about the search for intelligent life in the universe. No one seems to consider or at least speak aloud the most likely case that alien signals abound around us–but we simply don’t have the technology to pick them up.

Think of the scientific arrogance: we are supposed to assume that the long-range communications technology we possess–electromagnetic radiation signaling–is somehow the ultimate in scientific achievement. Here we are, just beginning our scientific development, still without a unified theory on how the universe works, and yet the technology we developed just a hundred years ago–the blink of an eye by cosmological standards, and just the very beginning of what is likely a long technological evolution–is the end-all-be-all of cosmic telephony. I find the idea highly unlikely. You might say that there is no better conceivable technology than radio to communicate–but I’m sure that what was thought of the last best way to talk before radio technology was developed.

I have little doubt that decades, centuries, or even millennia in the future, we will discover if not one, then many more advanced stages of communications technology, and when that time comes, we’ll discover why things seem so silent in the universe when we listen just with radio telescopes.

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  1. Troy
    February 18th, 2013 at 05:28 | #1

    yeah I share with you the general impression of hubristic (tempocentric?) thinking that 20th century technology is all that’s it.

    Certainly is mysterious out there!

    Relatedly, I get amused by people here thinking that colonizing Mars or the Moon would be a good experience.

    These places are horrificly hostile to humanity. I’d rather be dumped in the middle of the Sahara with a tent than sign up for even a year on Mars.

    Just about the WORST biome on Earth is much more habitable than any known spot in the solar system.

    Back when I had to do “A-level” magazine story write-ups for That Previous Job, I came across an interesting article on the effort to put housing under-ground.

    Wouldn’t a nice house 200′ down a hole in central Tokyo be more livable than anywhere on the Moon or Mars?

    With today’s display technology, you could even have fake windows:


    Looks like a nice window to me!

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