SETI Gets Good Press
For an enterprise that has failed for 50 years, SETI gets good press. There are many worthy enterprises on the planet; what is it about SETI that gets honorable mention with nary a critical word?
Galaxy Quest: The second SETICon is underway in Santa Clara, with not only scientists, but artists, entertainers and “people from all walks of life whose area of interest intersects on the topic of the search for intelligent life somewhere other than here on planet Earth,” reported PhysOrg. All the SETI bigwigs are there: Frank Drake, Seth Shostak, Tim Allen (not sure about that one). It’s a bit of a send-off for Jill Tarter, reported Live Science. Tarter is retiring from the SETI Institute after spending 35 years looking at nothing. Even though the event is “much more upbeat than the last” SETICon in 2010 because of the Kepler spacecraft’s discovery of over a thousand planets, SETI is not about planets; it’s about intelligent signals from beings like us. There haven’t been any yet, except…
The Wow, and how: Figuring large in SETI lore is the “Wow!” signal, “a mysterious radio transmission detected in 1977 that may or may not have come from extraterrestrials,” said Space.com. Its signal strength was so strong that SETI researcher Jerry Ehrman wrote “Wow!” by it. Even though “No one knows whether the seemingly unnatural signal really was beamed toward us by aliens, and despite great effort, scientists have never managed to detect a repeat transmission from the same spot in the sky,” Space.com reported that a reply is being planned. It’s a bit of a publicity stunt by the National Geographic Channel to promote their new series, “Chasing UFOs,” even though most SETI researchers discount UFOs as scientifically unsupported. Interested parties can use Twitter to contribute to a crowdsourced message that will be beamed toward the signal source by the Arecibo radio telescope, in a publicity stunt reminiscent of the first Arecibo message of 1974. This may concern some SETI researchers who worry that aliens may use the information to attack us 30,000 years from now (see last paragraphs of report from Astrobiology Magazine), but like Keynes said, by then we’ll all be dead.
SETI 3.0: Just when the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is shutting down for lack of funds, visionaries are planning a granddaddy SETI project reminiscent of NASA-Ames’ 1971 pipe dream, “Project Cyclops.” That was to be a monster array of 1,000 radio telescopes, each 100 meters across, linked as a giant interferometer to listen in on alien TV shows. The ridiculously unaffordable proposal was never taken seriously, but the next best thing is coming: SKA, the Square Kilometer Array, to be based in South Africa and Australia. Astrobiology Magazine described how this ambitious project, to be completed in 2024, will make the ATA look like a stick horse at the Kentucky Derby. Even so, new worries have come up. If aliens repeat human history, leakage of their TV transmissions to space will be temporary, dramatically decreasing the detection window for each planet. Furthermore, Astrobiology Magazine did not say who’s paying for all the hardware, software and personnel. “Assuming funding is in place, construction on phase one is set to begin in 2016,” it said, which is like the philosopher’s solution to opening a lone can of tuna among survivors on a desert island: “Assume a can opener.” Presumably, the SETI faithful can hitchhike on the array that will be used for serious astronomical research.
As SETI researchers continue to hope for signals, they have plenty of time to ask philosophical and even theological questions. On Live Science, in an article adorned by a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the suggestive but discredited microphoto inside Martian Meteorite ALH 84001 that launched the contentless science of Astrobiology, Mike Wall speculated, “Would Finding Aliens Shatter Religious Beliefs?” The short answer is, No, because religion thrived after Copernicus, who (according to popular myth) removed man from the center of the universe (watch The Privileged Planet documentary for needed correctives). SETI Institute talking heads Seth Shostak and Doug Vakoch were given the typical softball questions for granting Live Science readers authoritative opinions about a field – theology – for which they are unqualified.
Wall did not consider the inverse question, “Would not finding aliens shatter naturalistic beliefs?” Nick Lane did, though. On New Scientist, he asked an either-or fallacy question, “Life: is it inevitable or just a fluke?” Most inhabitants of Earth believe an unstated third option, that it was designed, but to humor Mr. Lane for awhile, we watch as he puzzles over the Fermi Paradox (the “Where are they?” conundrum). He was clearly astonished by the complexity of Earth life’s energy transport systems. He even included a link to an animation of ATP synthase in his article. For relief of headache caused by contemplation of irreducible complexity, he practiced transcendental meditation repeating Michael Russell’s mantra that life could have started in hydrothermal vents (see 2/15/2008 and its embedded links). “Such vents, Russell realised, provide everything needed to incubate life,” Lane comforted himself as he prepared to recline back to his naturalistic slumbers; “Or rather they did, four billion years ago.” Drifting off, the thought generated a nightmare: if life is a fluke, intelligent life might indeed be rare. Maybe that’s why SETI hasn’t heard anybody yet.
Update 06/28/2012: New Scientist interviewed Jill Tarter, who excused the lack of success by comparing it to scooping a glass of water out of the ocean and finding no fish. “Does this mean there are no fish in the ocean, or does that mean we haven’t sampled it very well yet? I certainly think it’s the latter,” she said. Pursuing this analogy, though, raises other questions. How many glasses of ocean water would one need to sample to have a reasonable chance of finding a fish? How many samples of glasses should a fisherperson be permitted to take, and at whose expense? What if each sample cost thousands of dollars? On Earth, we know about fish (and plankton and microbes any typical glass of ocean water would contain), but nobody has any objective evidence of life beyond our planet. There are profound differences, therefore, between SETI and STF (search for terrestrial fish).
The acronym that is being ignored here is TESI: Theology of Evolutionary Scientist Imagination. Anyone see science here? (Note: antenna engineering is not derivative of SETI, but ancillary to it; same for Kepler’s planet hunting). There is no science in SETI, because there have been no observations supporting its reason for being. SETI, nevertheless, is replete with imagination based on theological assumptions. The answer, therefore, to the question “Would not finding aliens shatter naturalistic beliefs?” is, No, because evolutionary imagination is boundless and creative. Hollywood would never let their imagineers lose hope. In TESI’s favorite scripture, I Vulcans 13, thus saith Shostak, “But now abide funds, hope, and imagination: but the greatest of these is imagination, with the other two close behind.”
Late Breaking News: PhysOrg reported on a poll that asked which presidential candidate would be better suited to protect earth from an alien invasion. Nearly 2/3 voted for Obama. National Geographic also stated that a third of Americans believe in UFOs. Readers can draw their own conclusions.