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The Eerie Laughter

Chris McKay, an astrobiologist with NASA and therefore keenly interested in the search for extraterrestrial life (ET), reviewed Paul Davies recent livre de l’annee, The Eerie Silence. Why is it in this 50th anniversary of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), we haven’t heard a thing? Chris thinks that Davies’ answer might be that ET has come and gone, leaving us a farewell note in the genome of some otherwise undistinguished critter.

My problem with SETI, and apparently Davies as well, is its completely parochial view of communication. As an example, I suggest that we should imagine SETI beginning in 1900. What would it look like?

Well, the state-of-the-art in communication technology at the time was telegraph. So it would look like a telescope search for telegraph wires on planets or between planets.

When SETI began in 1960, what was SOTA in communication? Radio. FM. So we build big radio dishes. But what is SOTA today? Lasers. Back to those optical telescopes you trashed in 1960 for those radio dishes.

What will be SOTA of the future? I’d venture a guess that it is quantum cryptography, and exploitation of the collapse of the wave function. What would that look like? Maybe encoded cosmic rays, or brain-waves, or heaven-forbid, paranormal apparatus that look for marginally stable circuits.

So why haven’t we heard from ET? Maybe because we are in the Stone Age of communication, or perhaps even more likely, because we already have. Perhaps “The Eerie Silence” is not for lack of interest on the part of scientists, but for lack of imagination.

Maybe what we should ask is “By what marks would a communication by an ET be identified in human history?” Here’s what Davies says on his self-promo:

It is therefore crucial that we expand our thinking about alien technology from mere extrapolations of human technology and begin looking for any system or process that displays the hallmark of intelligent manipulation. After 50 years of traditional SETI, the time has come to widen the search from radio signals. Using the full array of scientific methods, from genomics to neutrino astrophysics, we should begin to scrutinize the solar system and our region of the galaxy for any hint of past or present cosmic company.

Why do I get the sense that he’s struggling for a synonym?

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7 Responses to The Eerie Laughter

  1. “According to the standard theory, our universe sprang into existence as “singularity” around 13.7 billion years ago. What is a “singularity” and where does it come from? Well, to be honest, we don’t know for sure. Singularities are zones which defy our current understanding of physics.”
    From http://www.big-bang-theory.com/

    I’m no expert but if this is true? (and I’m assuming the SETI folks believe it is) Then they would have to understand the physics from the other side of the singularity if the message came from another universe because the physics that created the message would be changed when emerging from one side of the singularity to the other. And it doing so possibly destoying or changing the message that would unrecognizable because all of our technology is based on how we understand the physical properties of our universe.

    If sound/message came from our universe, then they would have to accomidate for the change in the massege as it travels through atmospheres of planets either slowing it down, speeding it up or changing the messages direction which again may change it into something unrecognizable as we do not fully understand what may or may not happen on the outer edges within our universe.

    Like I said, I’m no expert but I don’t like seeing my tax dollars go to a program that hasn’t produced in 50 years. If SETI was a football player it would have been traded to the Buffalo Bills along time ago. :) (PS I’m a Bills fan by marriage)

  2. My own view is that more advanced aliens are unlikely to use radio if there is something better. It is way too slow. You’re talking about saying “Hi!” and waiting nine years to see if someone answers from the nearest star system. It’s not exactly going to make for scintillating conversation.

    I’d hope for something like the network of wormholes that underpins the plots of movies like Contact or TV shows like the Stargate franchise. But it could be something we haven’t even imagined yet.

  3. Why do we always imagine that the “method” of communication will be exotic or extreme? Perhaps it is so commonplace we don’t even get surprised. Suppose, for example, that the alien race uses “brain waves” and communicates with us via “dreams”. How would we know it was aliens?

    Perhaps by testing the “content” of the message. If we are getting information that cannot have been collected by any known human method (say, specific info about the future), then this is a candidate for “alien messages”.

    Once you start thinking along those lines, I believe you will begin to conclude that there are lots of candidate messages…

  4. If for some reasons the aliens are actually interested in us, I think they are probably already here, and given a certain level of technology, if would probably be easy to hide from us, even on a daily basis.

  5. I wonder if SETI would accept this message:

    Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence – SETI receives message from God,,,,, Almost – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/.....od_almost/

    This following “message” from “out there” was a little more direct, and had a whole lot more CSI.

    One Easter Sunday Sunrise Service – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/.....y_morning/

    I laughed when I read this:

    “the time has come to widen the search from radio signals. Using the full array of scientific methods, from genomics”

    I think the message we receive from our fantastically complex genome is very clear, it is a message telling us we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God.

  6. Some possibilities, just in case Davie’s ETs have existed at some time in the past.

    1. They might have already discovered we earthlings and decided that we are not interesting enough to establish communications with. Yep, that’s right. We might appear quite boring to them.

    2. Intelligent ETs may consider direct evidence of their existence to be harmful to our historically problematic existence. A truly caring ET would prevent ET detection, for our benefit.

    3. Intelligent ETs might be more likely to be discovered accidentally. I mean, they would be discovered not because of our research, but because of a mistake, a slip-up on their part.

    4. Given the miraculous number and degree of fine-tuned parameters that must be met for intelligent life to even exist, maybe intelligent ETs just don’t exist.

  7. SETI = ID’s publicist.

    SETI related articles like this one are always full of PR for ID:

    message = evidence

    footprint = intelligence

    artifacts = telltale signs

    traces of technology = intelligence

    watch for: anomalous presence of something that should not be there

    look for: artifact

    look for: terrestrial microbiology tampering

    self-replicating and self-repairing biological nanosystems that conserve information for millions of years

    All eyes converging on information found in observing molecular machines. Not just traces of it…

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