SETI at 50: Onward with Style
51; It’s been fifty years since the first scientific paper suggested listening in on the stellar radio dial for signs of intelligence.1 Nature celebrated the occasion with two articles and an Editorial that said,2 “Despite the long odds against success, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has come a long way.”
SETI sure has come a long way in hardware and software. The new Allen Telescope Array, described in another Nature article,3 can sweep hundreds of millions of radio frequencies simultaneously – a huge advance over the first eavesdropping attempt in 1960 that listened to only one radio channel. But hardware alone cannot justify a scientific endeavor. Alchemists used the best techniques and equipment available for centuries. Surprisingly, Nature noted that SETI is “arguably not a falsifiable experiment,” and has long been “on the edge of mainstream astronomy,” because “no matter how scientifically rigorous its practitioners try to be, SETI can’t escape an association with UFO believers and other such crackpots.” The justification for continuing the search, Nature’s editors suggested, lies elsewhere – in “the enormous implications if it did succeed.” The implications of SETI are greater than those of astrobiology (which would be content to find unicellular life). A SETI success would bring to us all the implications of “finding other thinking creatures like ourselves.” (Presumably, evidence for thinking beings like God or angels, no matter how well founded, is automatically excluded.)
In another Nature op-ed piece, Fred Kaplan recounted the history of SETI.4 (He used the unfortunate word “cohabitants” for the other sentient beings we might discover.) The glorious 50 years of technical advances are told against the seemingly-futile ambitions of the early searches – with snippets of the Drake equation, famous science fiction novels, and the founding of the SETI Institute – but a callout quote keeps the reader near reality: “In the 50 years since the search began, nothing has been heard.” Could he justify the search as science, then? He passed that hot potato to Jill Tarter: “She likens the nay-sayers to someone who dips an eight-ounce glass into the ocean, brings it up empty, and concludes that the oceans have no fish.”
Understandable as that logic sounds, it still does not offer a basis for calling SETI a scientific quest. There needs to be some foundation for expecting success, and a metric for falsification. How many eight-ounce glass dips into the ocean would be sufficient? A well-chosen sample might answer the question about fish in one attempt. With hundreds of millions of samples collected from space already, is a final answer within reach, or will continued attempts amount to trying to explain away the negatives endlessly?
1. Giuseppe Cocconi and Phillip Morrison, “Searching for Interstellar Communications,” Nature 19 Sept. 1959.
2. Editorial, “SETI at 50,” Nature 461, 316 (17 September 2009) | doi:10.1038/461316a.
3. Eric Hand, “Ear to the universe starts listening,” Nature 461, 324 (Sept 16, 2009) | doi:10.1038/461324a.
4. Fred Kaplan, “An alien concept,” Nature 461, 345-346 (17 September 2009) | doi:10.1038/461345a.
Alchemists eventually had to give up, partly because of centuries of failure, and partly because new discoveries about chemistry redirected their energies in more productive paths. We suggest that astrobiologists and SETI researchers channel their intelligence and energy into more productive paths, too. They can begin by reading Signature in the Cell and getting excited about the amazing possibilities available by working out the implications of intelligent design at the very core of life. Maybe they’ll realize that their approach has been using intelligent design concepts anyway (12/03/2005). Perhaps they will also find that what they have been looking for – a signature of cosmic intelligence – is nearer than they currently imagine.