SETI Gets New Toys!

Quest to find life beyond Earth gets technological boosts

By Andrea Pitzer, Special for USA TODAY 8/19/09
The search for intelligent life in the universe is still on.

Despite the absence of interstellar tourists to date, astronomers at the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) are hoping that we are not alone.

And with new spacecraft to locate planets circling nearby stars, as well as more effective listening devices here at home, scientists have more tools at their disposal to find Earth-like planets or signs of other life forms.

But the possibility of intelligent life is what interests scientists at SETI. Using SETI’s 42-antenna Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, they can listen in many directions for unusual radio signals coming from space.

According to institute astronomer Seth Shostak, Carl Sagan posited that more than a million civilizations might be capable of broadcasting signals. Scientist and author Isaac Asimov hypothesized that the number might be half that. SETI astronomer Frank Drake has estimated the number might be closer to 10,000.

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17 Responses to SETI Gets New Toys!

  1. Carl Sagan posited that more than a million civilizations might be capable of broadcasting signals. Scientist and author Isaac Asimov hypothesized that the number might be half that. SETI astronomer Frank Drake has estimated the number might be closer to 10,000.

    In other words they don’t have a clue.

  2. Borne:

    In other words they don’t have a clue.

    A little harsh, no? However, I guess you could say that two of them “don’t have a clue” due to their being dead (Asimov died well before the discovery of the first exoplanet, Sagan not long after). Drake’s equation at least took us from a position of really having no clues, to establishing the variables that we can work on to refine the estimate of possible broadcasting civilizations (other than ours, of course).

    I’m sorry, but it irritates me to see three great scientific minds of science impugned so casually. And besides, if these men “don’t have a clue”, what is your estimate, and the reasoning behind it?

  3. Hey, why cannot one of these millions or ten thousands of civilizations be the intelligent designers. After all Sir Richard fancies the possibility.

  4. 4

    Borne: “In other words they don’t have a clue.”

    PaulT: “A little harsh, no?”

    Not really. I was thinking the same thing.

    To think that we can even hypothesize the number of planets that might contain life seems a little presumptuous. Sagan and Asimov can perhaps be excused, since they weren’t so much as hypothesizing, as making a wild guess. Drake’s estimate on the other hand seems closer to the mark, but that’s not saying much.

    If it seems preposterous that we might be the only habitable planet in the entire universe (which I’m not about to claim as even remotely certain), does it not seem rather more preposterous that those who believe in evolution (and thus the evolution of intelligence) would not expect evidence for the current presence of extraterrestrial beings on our planet? After all, if evolution occurs so readily, one would expect the evolution of a superior intelligent race elsewhere, who had the wherewithal to develop the technology necessary to pay us a visit.

    That absence must seem rather strange to the die-hard evolutionist.

  5. That absence must seem rather strange to the die-hard evolutionist.

    You would probably consider me be one of those, but I don’t find the absence strange at all. The Drake equation makes a large number of assumptions that are totally disconnected from known facts. I don’t believe that we can accurately peg the odds of life developing, or of it subsequently becoming sapient. Leaving that aside, and we cannot know whether intelligent life would find it cost-effective to visit or attempt to communicate with other stars, as we cannot know the costs or benefits of such efforts. We can guess, and I enjoy the intellectual exercise of it, but I’ve never seen it as anything more than idle speculation.

    At the same time, it occurs to me that the absence of any present-day direct communication from an intelligent designer must seem rather strange to the design theorist.

  6. Learned Hand-”it occurs to me that the absence of any present-day direct communication from an intelligent designer must seem rather strange to the design theorist.”

    I can’t speak for those of other faiths, but it’s too be, and has been an expected feature of the Christian faith.

    Paraphrase, ‘no man has seen the father, but the Son.

  7. Edit: Bugger, ‘to be’.

  8. CannuckianYankee:

    To think that we can even hypothesize the number of planets that might contain life seems a little presumptuous.

    Why would this be presumptuous?

    Sagan and Asimov can perhaps be excused, since they weren’t so much as hypothesizing, as making a wild guess.

    There you go, like Borne, impugning the reputations of well respected scientific minds. Sagan and Asimov were not making wild guesses; each was quite aware of Drake’s equation, and based their estimates on its variables.

    Drake’s estimate on the other hand seems closer to the mark, but that’s not saying much.

    Like Borne you seem to have an inside track on this one. What is your estimate, and the reasoning behind it?

    After all, if evolution occurs so readily, one would expect the evolution of a superior intelligent race elsewhere, who had the wherewithal to develop the technology necessary to pay us a visit.

    That absence must seem rather strange to the die-hard evolutionist.

    You refer to the Fermi paradox, which has exercised many minds over the years. My far from expert take on this is that, like you, I think the Drake number is probably in the lower bounds, but even if it were moderately large communication would not be possible because of the scale of distances (and time) between civilizations. So to this “die-hard evolutionist” (that is, I believe mainstream science is likely correct on the subject) I don’t find this strange.

  9. Here’s another, You have seen and believed, but Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.

  10. Mr Yankee,

    If you are discussing the Drake Equation, then you are only talking about how many of these technological civilizations are alive in t our galaxy at one time. As the Wikipedia page points out, modern estimates (guesstimates) are under 10.

    Even if we do share the galaxy with 10 other technilogical civilizations, they are obviously not in our back yard. The galaxy is a big place. We can only expect them to be tens of thousands of light years away. Couple that with an expected lifetime of 10,000 years and we are effectively alone in the galaxy.

    More telling is that there is no evidence of Life changing the expected composition or distribution of matter across the galaxy, as it has on the surface of the Earth. A civilization like our own would have made some impact as it swept across the galaxy. We would have to assume that an interstellar civilization is treading lightly as an eco-tourist, leaving no evidence of their visit, not strip minig comets, etc.

  11. Eyes Rolling, Humor, Just For Fun, Off Topic, Psychology, Religion

    Why would ID be inimical to SETI? It’s true that the theory of materialistic and atelic evolution is suggestive of abundant extraterrestrial life (although it’s also suggestive of rare or nonexistent extraterrestrial life, heigh ho). It’s also clear that many materialists see a kind of ersatz spiritual elevation in contact with alien races. But these are reasons why some materialists (and to a lesser extent their hard deist cohorts) like SETI, not why IDists should reject it.

    On the other side of the coin, ID stands Drake’s equation on its head by arguing that the probability of life arising on Earth though blind physical law alone is so low that something else must have been involved. But if so then something else could also have brought about life on other planets, defying Drake’s equation out there just as it is defied here.

    (This is true of privileged-planet arguments just as much as biological ID arguments. The Darwin-compatible argument that planets hospitable to life would only rarely occur by chance suggests that life is rare-to-unique in the universe. But the argument that Earth is so improbably friendly to intelligent life that its existence can’t be attributed to chance suggests the possibility that some or many other “Earths” may have arisen in the universe, also not by chance.)

    There are certainly ID-compatible arguments that extraterrestrial life (or ET intelligent life) is not to be expected, but they involve the kind of speculation about the motivations and abilities of the designer (or designers, or whatever mindful or telic influences might be directly involved in shaping life on Earth) that seems to go beyond what the current scientific evidence will bear, or at least goes beyond the basic ID thesis. The most obvious appeals to the fact that intelligent alien life is awkward to square with Christian revelation. But ID makes no appeal to any revelation (right?) And in any case a large number of Christians have argued that ETI is actually compatible with or even suggested by Christianity. (And well before Giordano Bruno, too, apparently, though I don’t have the link at the moment.) Another argument, not dependent on revelation, is that human life on Earth is so noble and precious that it would be inappropriate and degrading for it not to have the honour of being unique in the universe. But this is the kind of weak-sauce rhetorical spin that works just as well in reverse: maybe humanity is so precious that lo, it would be degrading for it to be abandoned alone in a cold and empty universe. In any case, take it to its logical conclusion and it becomes an argument in favour of solipsism.

    So accepting ID doesn’t seem to be a strong grounds to doubt ETI. Likewise, accepting ID’s not a strong reason to believe in ETI, but the question seems open enough from an ID perspective to be worthy of some investigation. The question would also seem to be interesting enough to be worthy of investigation. You don’t have to be seeking a surrogate for human salvation or communion with the divine to agree that hearing traces of intelligence on another planet would be an important and indeed profound thing, like seeing a man walk on the moon or having a child.

  12. “As the Wikipedia page points out, modern estimates (guesstimates) are under 10.”

    This must be based on a different form of life than ours. An honest assessment of the probabilities of our life forms is so remote that to expect it to have happened here by chance is absurd let alone more than once. So if we find other life forms like us, it is even more indicative of a designer.

    It could not have happened once, so how could it have happened more than once. Only one way.

  13. “The Privileged Planet” told the world what to look for to find a planet capable of haboring intelligent life.

    But anyway I say ID makes it dang likely that other intelligent beings exist.

  14. Joseph (#10) wrote: “…I say ID makes it dang likely that other intelligent beings exist.

    But are they all made in God’s image? Is it dang likely they look just like us?

    Doesn’t “The Privileged Planet” propose that the physical constants of the universe – of stars and galaxies billions of light years from earth – were intelligently designed to favor life on earth?

  15. Learned Hand,

    Yes, it would be strange if it were true that there is no communication.

    It could be you’ve been to stingy with your scanning of the coomunication frequencies. Widen the search space, my man.

    As well, to decrease search time, you need to transmit a signal to make your presence and desire known. FYI, a signal with a meek and humble frequency has the best chance of being detected.

    When unsettling ‘coincidences’ start appearing more often, then you will know you have narrowed the search space.

    Then, you simply need to increase the amps in your signal power generator. That will help secure the frequency you have homed in on for your exclusive use.

    Let me know if you have any questions.

    At the same time, it occurs to me that the absence of any present-day direct communication from an intelligent designer must seem rather strange to the design theorist.

  16. Learned Hand,

    At the same time, it occurs to me that the absence of any present-day direct communication from an intelligent designer must seem rather strange to the design theorist.

    I was going to suggest Walter ReMine’s Biotic Message Theory, but I’m not sure if that counts as present day communication.

  17. I say ID makes it dang likely that other intelligent beings exist.”

    But are they all made in God’s image?

    Don’t know about “God” or what “God’s” image is.

    Nor do I care.

    Is it dang likely they look just like us?

    According to science they just may be:

    “Constructal theory” application may aid understanding animal evolution on earth and even on other planets.

    Doesn’t “The Privileged Planet” propose that the physical constants of the universe – of stars and galaxies billions of light years from earth – were intelligently designed to favor life on earth?

    Not that I am aware of.

    Do you have a reference?

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