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The Futility of SETI

February 16th, 2006

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. ykw
    February 16th, 2006 at 06:07 | #1

    We are aware of different frequencies ranging from 0Hz to Light. And we are aware of the background noise of each. For example, if you shine a flash light at a friend 1 mile away, outside in sun light, with a white wall behind you, it might be impossible to see the flash light. The signal to noise ratio, at each frequency, determines what you can see (you need more signal than noise). Two decent possibilities are microwave (e.g. 3GHz to 30GHz) and infarred. We can calculate for each of these how much energy for a given beam width we need to beat the noise with signal, at a given receiver distance, and given receiver beam width. There are definitely problems here. One needs to blast a lot of signal into a specific direction (transmitter) and have the receiver of significant size receiving from that specific direction. Picking up a signal is Very difficult. I think the goal right now is just to pick up one signal, and to study it, and to say this is a signal from another civilization. I once asked two folks who are the top of the seti organization using drake’s equation, how many civilations could we see if the other guy was broadcasting in all directions (not beaming all of a signal’s energy in our direction). They did not seem to give an answer, which means the answer is probably zero.

  2. February 16th, 2006 at 15:15 | #2

    Don’t worry Luis, you aren’t the only who thinks this. I have done over 100 work units with Seti@Home. When my last computer I was doing it on died, I didn’t worry about reinstalling it. Too many other things for my computer to do. You are 100% right though, it is highly unlikely other life is using the same communication system as us.

  3. Brad
    February 20th, 2006 at 17:19 | #3

    I quite agree, and have thought exactly that several times.

  4. Grunchy
    June 13th, 2007 at 17:37 | #4

    Yeah, well, here’s another thing to consider. One fundamental premise of SETI is that evolution’s ultimate “destination”, if you will, is the production of a reasoning intellect; this in concert with another fundamental scientific principle, that whatever happens here and now likely happens everywhere always. So, if evolution that we observe here has created reasoning intellect in the past, why that pretty much proves that reasoning intellect is burgeoning throughout the entire universe, just waiting to converse with us! How positively exciting! Just think of the new holiday destinations that will open up.

    But I think it was Richard Dawkins who made an excellent point about evolution, a real “a-ha” moment for me; which was to compare human intellect with an elephant’s trunk. You see, evolution produced both biological advantages; and both are equally fantastic, complicated, specialized properties of the creatures that possess them; it is their speciality. Perhaps you see the point now: evolution does not lead towards any particular “destination” like a reasoning intellect, any more than it leads towards any other particular destination, such as an elephant’s trunk.

    That is to say, then, that one would be able to argue with equal validity that the universe is slowly but surely propagating towards a state wherein every planet capable of supporting life is developing a lifeform that has as its distinguishing feature, a manipulable nose. Ah, how wonderful: Earth’s elephants will soon be able to shake noses with our extraterrestrial neighbors!

    Well now we can see this is clearly rubbish; and thus, so is the fundamental underlying premise of SETI.

    And now lets think of another thing: perhaps reasoning intellect is not the “be-all, end-all” supreme evolutionary advantage that it seems to be. Sure, we can kill any other particular creature that exists on the planet at any whim; no doubt. But our intellect has extinguished evolutionary progress for mankind. Yes, that’s right; people do not live and die based on their biological merits any more. The old, feeble, weak, handicapped, disease-prone, foolhardy, and otherwise mutated amongst us, whom would die were they members of any other species, live happily along until procreation, protected by man-made law, totally subrogating evolution. Why, you could probably make a strong argument that what exists today is actually an environment of de-evolution (gasp, isn’t that what DEVO actually stands for? Whip it good and so forth?)

    Ladies & gentlemen, I’m afraid that the good times for mankind are probably right now. Man is devolving, slowly (quickly) but surely. Why right now I am wearing glasses and my 4-year old son is probably color blind. David Suzuki made another excellent point, this time about bacteria cultures and their property of doubling within a certain period of time, lets say 1 minute. Introduce a few bacteria into a new hospitable environment and watch them thrive over the generations, doubling in size every single minute. Perhaps it will be a matter of a few days before you can notice the mold growing on the edge of the banana peel, or whatever. The telling question is now: when does the culture begin to notice that it is in trouble? The answer is: exactly 1 minute before it has consumed the banana peel.

    For all the time it had passed growing up to that point, it did so with no need for concern about the future. It is only 1 minute before disaster that the culture “discovers” that it is in trouble.

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