April 22, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

SETI, Said He, Isn't Ready, Said She

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is like a detective story without a body.  All those new planets, but no signal—at least not one that most scientists will accept.

SETI has fallen on hard times.  News reports seem to waver between optimism and pessimism, with the pessimists gaining ground.  Space.com said no signals have come from the trove of new earthlike exoplanets (cf. 2/08/13).  Another Space.com article suggested that scientists might have to conclude we are alone, or that life is rare in the universe.  “When it comes to life across the cosmos, the universe might just be an ‘awful waste of space’ after all,” Miriam Kramer wrote.

But this month, more earthlike planets were found by the Kepler space telescope.  Optimists are optimizing at Astrobiology Magazine, asking “Are the Newly Discovered Planets Ideal SETI Targets?”  All they can do is think about it and speculate, because technology to detect life optically is not far enough along.  Both optimists and pessimists exchanged ideas in a meeting reported by Astrobiology Magazine, part of its “Great Exoplanet Debate” series.  A candidate planet must not only be the right size in the habitable zone; it has to have a breathable atmosphere, the pessimists say.

Mike Wall at Space.com takes the new Kepler planet count as justification for revving up SETI.  “Time Right for Next Phase in Search for Alien Life,” he headlined.  Astrobiologists usually are quick to point out that alien life does not necessarily imply intelligent life.  Many would be happy to find bacteria.  Perhaps that’s why PhysOrg reported that some SETI Institute scientists, with NASA dollars, are going to work on the next generation of planet finders: “NASA doubles down on exoplanets and SETI institute will be part of the search.”

Live Science put the I back in SETI with a catalog of “13 Ways to Hunt Intelligent Aliens.”  In addition to standard radio SETI, there’s optical SETI, looking for artifacts on earth or in the solar system (including alien footprints on the moon), looking for tinkering with our DNA, focused searches on the best candidate stars, hunting for life that consumes its asteroids, shows green lifestyles, or presents non-natural shapes against stars, and more.  Maybe dolphins are aliens.  Maybe we should wait for them to invade us.  Still, the opening line is pessimistic: “Really. Where are all the aliens? We should have been probed, exterminated, assimilated, infected, invaded or abducted by now, shouldn’t we?” That’s the old Fermi paradox.  Some of the speculations get ridiculous.  Maybe aliens have put us on their “Do not call” list.  It’s a hard sell, reporter Ian O’Neill confesses, but SETI “is one of the most profound things we, as a species, can do.

Nigel Henbest at New Scientist calls SETI a detective story without a body.  Reviewing a book by Paul Murdin titled Are We Being Watched?, Henbest thinks the first resort remains the best: good old radio SETI.  Combing the radio sky for signals of intelligent origin would provide “the thrill that would come from answering the provocative question in the title.”

Want to find out if you are being watched?  Want to solve the Fermi paradox?  Want to engage in the most profound thing we, as a species can do?  Want a method that is scientifically tractable?  Want to ensure that the universe is not a waste of space?  Want a thrill that would come from answering a profound question?  Want verifiable answers, not idle speculation?  Want a non-question-begging, non-self-refuting approach?  Want assurance that the answer is real?  Then read the artifact left by Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.  Start with the first chapter and verse, Genesis 1:1, and continue on to the grand finale.


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