The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is 50 years old this year. SETI’s latest scientific discovery was the detection of a human-made satellite in Earth orbit. In a sense, this counts as a success: the detection of a signal of intelligent origin from an extra-terrestrial source (i.e., beyond terra firma). The false alarm helped calibrate the instrumentation, but did little to garner support for the effort to find aliens. The SETI Institute was all SETI-ready to party hardy at the 50th anniversary of Frank Drake’s first search, but instead, found itself struggling to keep its doors open after a severe shortfall of private funds, highlighting questions about the scientific status of the long-shot project.
A group of SETI astronomers at UC Berkeley thought they might cut to the chase in the needle-in-a-haystack search by focusing on potentially Earth-like planets detected by the Kepler spacecraft, code-named “Kepler Objects of Interest” (KOI). Using the Green Bank Radio Telescope, they pointed to some of these objects and generated graphs of time vs. radio frequency. Two of the objects, KOI-812 and KOI-817, showed traits predicted for intelligent signals: narrow bands that oscillated in intensity, so they published the graphs as “first candidates” (available here). The news generated a very brief flutter of interest (see PhysOrg and Universe Today), even though the announcement was qualified with the statement, “it is most likely to be interference” from artificial satellites. And it was; leading to a hasty “sorry” from the Berkeley team for the false alarm (Huntsville Times).
Jason Palmer at the BBC News paid a visit to the Allen Telescope Array of the SETI Institute, its facilities closed due to lack of funds. He published two stories and video clips. In the first on the BBC News he called it “array of hope.” Because a successful detection of alien life is such a long shot, hope is needed in the best of times; but “it’s never been this bad,” SETI Institute principal astronomer Seth Shostak lamented. With the Allen Array out of operations pending fund-raising efforts, hope is focused on other efforts like SETI@Home or signals other than radio. For instance, Paul Davies thinks aliens may have left their imprint on our DNA.
The video clip gave Seth Shostak, Frank Drake, Paul Vakoch and Jill Tarter a moment to state some SETI selling points:
- Signals might be coming through our bodies right now, if we were only detecting them (Shostak).
- We might be on the verge of the biggest discovery in human history, and one that might be able to help humanity solve some of its largest problems (Palmer).
- With the right technology, we could be within 20 years of detection (Vakoch).
- Knowledge that an alien civilization has survived its own problems would assure us there are solutions to global warming and pollution (Tarter).
- Alien detection is not just a curiosity, but would tell us we are “not a miracle, not so special, but another duck in the row,” Shostak said. Catching himself on why anybody would want to know that, he added, “It’s very important to find that you’re not the center of the universe. Ask Copernicus or Galileo.”
At the end of the article, Tarter found an alternative energy source to keep “array of hope” alive. If electrical power costs more than funds permit, SETI “hasn’t lost any of its impact and its emotive power,” she said.
In his second installment on the BBC News, Palmer focused on the “What if?” part of SETI. What if we detected an alien civilization? Shostak, Davies, and Vakoch opined on that question. Short answer is: no, Earth would not panic. The other half of the “What if?” coin is whether we should respond back. Vakoch thinks we should let them know how nice we are. We should send evidence of our altruism and love for beauty. He even prepared a simple powerpoint-like series of images to show a human figure helping another off a cliff. A message showing a nautilus shell with its design based on the Fibonacci Series might help aliens realize our love for mathematical elegance. Asking “What if?” is not utterly worthless, Vakoch argued, even if no aliens are ever detected. “Perhaps more important than even communicating with extraterrestrials, this whole enterprise of composing messages is a chance to reflect on ourselves and what we care about and how we express what’s important.” Anyone can do that without millions of dollars running 42 linked radio telescopes, so it’s not clear how helpful that idea will be raising the money they need.
In the accompanying video clip in the BBC article, Drake admitted that a radio pulse from aliens would tell us nothing about the nature of the creatures that sent it, unless we can listen in on their TV. Eavesdropping on their programs might reveal all kinds of interesting things, like whether their quarterbacks pray after touchdowns. Shostak isn’t worried about a detection sending a wave of panic through the human race; “Don’t cry wolf,” he says, just verify the signal and leave the reply to the governments. Palmer adds that detection couldn’t be hidden for long, anyway. News would probably go from backroom chatter to Twitter in no time.
There’s a “small outfit in Vienna” called the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), presumably tasked with speaking for the Earth. But it hasn’t been too helpful letting the American SETI advocates provide input for their “notional red binder” of what our reply should be, Palmer noted. Vakoch once again suggested his powerpoint-slide idea for showing the aliens how altruistic humans are. Shostak just wants to get on with the search. “You can think of lots of ways that this experiment wouldn’t work,” he admitted; “So what do you do? Sit around on your hands? No, you say, let’s try the experiment anyway, because if you succeed, you’ve really learned something interesting.”
For now, though, the SETI Institute has to content itself with running its Array of Hope on “emotive power,” which is cheap and universally available.
Exercise. Think of an experiment that would be very expensive, with a very low probability of success that might take decades or centuries, but, if successful, would reveal something interesting. Create a list of selling points on why private foundations or governments should fund your experiment, but be honest: tell them “You can think of lots of ways that this experiment wouldn’t work.” Practice your spiel with all the emotive power you can muster, and see if you can convince a friend.
SETI advocates are a strange bunch. They advertise themselves as scientists, but after 50 years of searching, have zero observations to support their claims. Aren’t observations critical for qualifying as science? (Ask the astrobiologists that one, too, and the proponents of the multiverse.) Their comeback argument is that they’ve only scratched the surface; so many stars and so many radio frequencies need to be searched before we can answer the question, it’s no wonder we haven’t found the aliens yet. Sounds reasonable, right?
Try that line on any other experiment. Say you own a purple marble, and in front of you are a hundred billion urns filled with marbles. Every marble you have sampled for 50 years is white. Tell your funding source that sampling requires $100 per marble, but now you can sample them faster than ever. You have now sampled millions of marbles from all over the field, and they are all white. How do you convince your funding source to keep the search going? All you have is a hunch that if there is one purple marble, there must be others. Honestly, though, based on a sample of one, anything is possible; without a testable theory of how the purple marble got into your pocket, you could never know the answer without looking at every marble in every urn. How many searches do you get before your funding source cuts the flow? Threatened with the cutoff, you turn up the emotive power. “But finding just one more purple marble would be interesting,” you say. “It would show that my purple marble is not special, just another duck in the row.” Good luck. “But just knowing another purple marble exists would give the world hope that purple marbles have survived, giving us hope we can solve global human problems.” Desperation has set in. This begs the question that humans could generate hope of solving problems without alien help.
It would be a far more credible experiment to conduct SETA: The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Angels. At least there is a long history of eyewitness accounts of angels. Running the SETA experiment would require separating the credible accounts from the bogus ones, but consider that none other than Jesus Christ affirmed their existence, and eyewitnesses include Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon’s parents, Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, Peter, Paul, and many other reputable characters, their accounts documented in the Bible. So even if you are a materialist, and believe every one of these historical characters must have been misguided by their imaginations, you would have to admit that SETA has a lot more evidence going for it than SETI. But you say, “Yes, but even if angels exist, they are capricious; I cannot call one up on demand to prove its existence scientifically.” And your point is?
SETI advocates are a strange crowd for another reason: they are almost to a person Darwin lovers and vocal critics of intelligent design. But they use intelligent design principles in their search; in fact, their whole reason for being is predicated on the validity of segregating intelligently-caused signals from natural ones. (See 12/03/2005.) SETI provides a classic illustration of Finagle’s Rule #6 for Scientists: “Don’t believe in miracles. Rely on them.”
It’s kind of sad to see the SETI advocates down on their luck, struggling to find money to carry on their search for intelligent causes. We have a suggestion. Since they are already keen on design detection techniques, let them come and join the intelligent design movement. Then they can pursue Paul Davies’ suggestion, with a high probability of success, that evidence of intelligence can be found in DNA and in the natural world. Intelligent design theory would not even require them to specify the identity of the designer. They could even believe, like Francis Crick and Fred Hoyle, that it was seeded here by aliens. All they would have to agree to is dropping methodological naturalism as a cover for philosophical naturalism, a willingness to question the consensus (including the ideas of Charles Darwin), courage to risk losing some friends, and an honest desire to follow the evidence where it leads, evidence being the operative word. No problems, right? It’s that good old scientific tradition of critical thinking. Come on over.