Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the November, 2019 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
Who hasn’t looked up at the night sky and wondered ‘are we the only ones?’ It’s possible that even cavemen were awed by the possibilities.
“Hey Og, get out here!” The noise echoed through the cave. Og cleared his eyes and slowly staggered to the cave opening. “Wasup Backtoot?” (Yes, cave parents had a sense of humor). “I think there’s someone over that mountain over there Og. And I think they’re watching us.” Og was incredulous. How could they watch us from so far away? How could they talk with each other at that distance? He saw no smoke signals; he heard no tom tom beats. (OK, I’m guilty of historical misappropriation here. But stay with me – there’s a point.)
Neither Og nor Backtoot could imagine the existence of binoculars or radio telescopes. So, Og said, “Backtoot, if they’re there watching us, we’d know it. We would have seen or heard something to alert us.” I’m a big fan of SETI, and I really enjoyed our colleague Paul Shuch’s SETI presentation at the Winter Solstice Regional Gathering a few years back. SETI’s big question is “is there intelligent life beyond Earth?” And that’s a legitimate question. But then others, like Enrico Fermi go beyond and ask, ‘if there are so many intelligent civilizations out there, why haven’t we heard from any of them?’ And that question is only partly legitimate. Given the enormous time spans involved (and the potential for huge technological advances), isn’t it more likely that we wouldn’t have the tools to perceive communications from a more advanced civilization?
Consider the fact that the time interval between cave dwellers and modern society is less than 100,000 years. And look at the enormous advances in technology that have occurred over that span. Now consider a million; or a billion years for technology to evolve. What audacity for us to think that we’d be able to pick-up and understand messages from other civilizations.
Just like Og and Backtoot couldn’t imagine cell phones; radio telescopes; LIGO gravity wave detectors; etc. isn’t it likely that we can’t even imagine the communications technology of civilizations who might be eons in advance of ours?
There’s another useful comparison to help us contemplate our situation in time and space. Does an ant have any idea of our existence? Sure, it might have some comprehension of the sole of a shoe descending; or the intense beam of light from a young boy with a magnifying glass. But we can assume that real awareness of what we are and how we communicate is just not there.
The universe might very well be teeming with intelligent civilizations, many so far ahead of us in technology that we would have no idea how to look for signs of their existence. In addition to expecting that these civilizations would greet us by signaling prime numbers in sequence and that they would be receivable by our current state of technology, we need to ask ourselves:
I know the people involved in SETI science are very intelligent, so there’s no doubt they’ve considered this dilemma. But all I read seems to suggest that radio telescopes are all we need to intercept alien signals – if they exist. Hmmmm. In fairness, perhaps this is due to the fact that radio telescopes are the best tool we have at this time.
I do believe this search is essential for many reasons. In the immortal words of Carl Sagan, “In the deepest sense the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves.”
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this page last updated 2 November 2019
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