SETI Has a Long History
Astrobiology Magazine provided a historical look at attempts to communicate with aliens. Like the weather, people talked about life in outer space, but nobody did anything about it – at least till technology made such talk a little less crazy. Michael Schirber’s survey includes some interesting characters – Kepler, Gauss, Tesla and Einstein – along with quite a few other lesser-known thinkers and experimenters.
Mars and Venus, Earth’s nearest neighbors, were long the focus of attention. Scientists pondering communication with aliens tended to think in terms of the technology available. They considered possibilities like lighting fires, building huge patterns out of farms, or putting reflectors on the Eiffel Tower – things that could be seen. Once the telegraph had been invented, some thought of sending coded messages with some kind of “sky telegraph.” It wasn’t till the radio age that they began thinking seriously about beaming radio messages – or receiving them. Around that time it became obvious there was no life on Mars or Venus, and the stars were considered too far away for communication to be practical.
Since 1959 some began thinking that the vast distances between the stars could be bridged by radio, and SETI was born. “And then in 1974 – a century and half after Gauss – [Frank] Drake transmitted the first actual SETI message using the Arecibo radio telescope,” Schirber ended. “Scientists are still waiting for a response.”
Speculations about life in outer space have not been limited to materialists. It’s a basic human curiosity. Two lessons from Schirber’s historical survey are worth noting. One is the effect of worldview on speculation. As long as scholars believed the Aristotelian view that the stars circled the earth on crystalline spheres, and abode in celestial realms unlike our planet, it was not a question people would ask. After the Copernican revolution, it was not uncommon for religious people, deists and skeptics to ponder the question.
Another lesson is that everyone wanted to find intelligent life. They understood that communication required a mind with intelligence, purpose, and motivation. The concept of mind arising from particles in motion is a new and bizarre idea. It took hold among Darwinists and has become in our time a matter of dogma. Even more bizarre is that the SETI Institute would use intelligent-design assumptions in their efforts, while criticizing intelligent design as unscientific (revisit the 12/03/2005 entry).