May 11, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

NASA Resurrects SETI

SETI has had no success since the 1950s. It lost government funding in 1993. It still has had no success. Why is the government throwing tax dollars at it again?

Astrobiology, the search for any kind of life beyond the earth, has never found any evidence, even with government funding since 1996. Much less has its stepchild SETI had success, with all its Star Trek appeal, despite a longer period of searching. The usual appeals for funding use two arguments: (1) it’s hard to find, and (2) success would be so absolutely, fantastically important for the meaning of human existence, it’s worth trying. The same arguments, however, could be made about the search for angels. At least angels have some historical track record in terms of eyewitness testimony. So why does the government fund SETI but not angelology? Is it because angels don’t submit to lab experiments? Well, do space aliens? SETI enthusiasts might combat that question by claiming that space aliens should leave physical evidence of some kind. But as year after year go by without physical evidence (whether radio messages, artifacts, or indirect technomarkers), SETI enthusiasts have retreated into more bizarre explanations for the silence. Some of the excuses border on the mystical, such as imagining that the aliens are really there, but are keeping Earth under quarantine, so that our contagion of environmental irresponsibility won’t infect pristine civilizations on other planets.

So why does NASA want to throw good money at failure again? Perhaps it’s because SETI has a third appeal: (3) technology is making the search faster and easier. Jill Tarter says, “we have the technology now to search for more distant and fainter signals in ways we haven’t tried before.” Faster ways at looking at a blank screen, however, fail to inspire. Rich in propaganda but paupers in evidence, SETI advocates use imagination to tempt government to fork over the dough. They argue that since we evolved and are intelligent, we must be examples of billions of other advanced beings out there. Carl Sagan was a master of this kind of appeal. This, of course, presupposes a naturalistic origin of life and Darwinian evolution.

Congress Wants to Spend $10 Million to Search for Aliens and Texas Is to Thank (Live Science). This article by Jeanna Brynner was reproduced by Fox News under the headline, “Alien shocker: Congress wants to spend millions searching for ET.” The article reviews the history of funding since 1992, when Senator Richard Bryan shut down a proposal for radio telescopes to search for aliens, and SETI became “unmentionable” for the next 25 years. An authorization bill (not an appropriations bill) appears to be the pet project of Representative Lamar Smith of Texas.

Now, the U.S. House of Representatives has proposed a bill that includes $10 million in NASA funding for the next two years “to search for technosignatures, such as radio transmissions, in order to meet the NASA objective to search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.” Such technosignatures would come in the form of radio waves that have the telltale features of being produced by TV- or radio-type technologies. An intelligent civilization could also produce those signals intentionally to communicate with other civilizations like ours.

An unanswered question is, why now? Are Rep. Smith and his SETI advocates trying to get this through before the new NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine appointed by President Trump comes up to speed in his post? Flush with the recent Omnibus funds, are they afraid it will become more difficult later to get more money under a Republican administration working hard to reduce federal spending? We don’t know; but it’s odd that the SETI advocates never succeeded in getting federal funds during the Obama administration, which portrayed itself as pro-science (but see John Stossel respond to that). Before Trump, the tax-and-spend Democrats saw government aid as the answer to every question and the solution to every problem.

The federal government is not the only way to help those who wish to pursue the search. SETI has been kept alive by private funds, and recently got $100 million (ten times the amount promised in the government bill) from Russian billionnaire Yuri Milner for the “Breakthrough Listen” program (22 July 2015). In fact, this privately-funded project just took a huge step forward, says Space.com, so the timing of the NASA announcement seems inexplicable. Nobody seems to be asking why SETI advocates must plunder taxpayer pockets for their hobby. Many great institutions in American history were funded by rich benefactors such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. President Trump himself could probably throw some of his pocket change at Jill Tarter, former president of the SETI Institute, to keep her happy. She likes to quote Phillip Morrison, who said, “The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.” Try that reasoning on the search for angels.

NASA Awards Grants for Research into Life in Universe (Astrobiology Magazine). Astrobiologists are jumping for joy at three new projects funded by taxpayers. Some $8 million in funds will go to three astrobiology projects that avoid the S-word SETI, but are almost guaranteed to fail without tangible evidence of life in space.

Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors (ENIGMA). Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Led by Professor Paul Falkowski, the ENIGMA team will investigate how proteins evolved to become the catalysts of life on Earth by looking at prebiotic molecules and enzymes that are ancestral and common across many types of microbes.

It is certainly an enigma for taxpayers. How will Falkowski connect molecules to microbes, when the first microbes will already be vastly more complex than the molecules? For a more realistic experiment, maybe he could shake the molecules in a test tube for 3 billion years to see if he gets a protein or an enzyme by chance (see The Amoeba’s Journey animation).

The Astrobiology Center for Isotopologue Research (ACIR). Pennsylvania State University, University Park.

ACIR, led by Professor Kate Freeman, will address how the features of elements within molecules reveal the origins and history of organic compounds, from compounds that arrived from planetary environments to those that were derived from metabolic systems, using cutting-edge observational and computational tools.

Cutting-edge observational and computational tools are intelligently designed. Will Freeman allow ID as a cause for the functional complexity of “metabolic systems” as well?

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Pasadena, California.

Dr. Rosaly Lopes will lead research at JPL focusing on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to address what habitable environments may exist on the moon and what potential signatures of life would be expected, using data from the Cassini-Huygens mission. These data cover a wide swath of the moon, from beneath its surface all the way up through its thick atmosphere.

How can one call a moon that is -290 °F “habitable” in any empirical sense of the word? We know of no analogue on Earth, or on any body in the universe, that supports life at that temperature. Lopes is an expert on volcanoes, not freezers. Even astrobiologists know that there is a narrow range of temperatures that can support life. Usually those are taken to be temperatures where carbon-based molecules can interact, and where water can exist as a liquid. Titan is way too cold. Cassini found no life there. It found oily lakes and sand dunes.

You know what the great irony is here? All the projects are founded on the assumption of materialistic Darwinism. The Darwin Party hates and despises ID (intelligent design), but look at them in practice! They use intelligent design in their own minds every day. They design projects. They design machines to search. They establish search targets. They develop criteria for success. They are confident that they can distinguish intelligent signals from non-intelligent physical processes. They use what they hate, and they never use what they believe in (chance). Go figure. If we could just force them to use what they believe in, instead of what they hate, their self-contradictory folly would be exposed.

It’s regrettable that Dr Rosaly Lopes has been sent on a wild goose chase. A qualified volcanologist and a very nice lady, she deserves projects with better chances of success. If she thinks the adulation of her materialist colleagues counts as success, she will certainly succeed at that, even if Titan remains utterly and hopelessly sterile.

Let’s also ask a simple question about the amount of funding. Not knowing the allocation, let’s assume Dr Lopes gets less than 1/3 of the money for the three projects: just $2 million to spend over the next five years. She doesn’t have to build a spacecraft. She doesn’t have to build a new computer. She doesn’t have to design a special instrument. With her position at JPL, she has a desk, a phone, a computer, and pretty much all she needs. The Cassini data is all in the can, easily searchable by any scientist (and much of it by the public). She could probably do the work from home. If I had earned half that rate for the 14 years I was at JPL, I would be rich! I would have almost 3 million dollars! I suppose she could hire some gophers or grad students to help, but we should ask why so much money needs to be spent for someone to sit at a desk and imagine “what habitable environments may exist” on a frozen moon with not a single sign of life. You know what they say about government work. I would rather see Dr Lopes apply her knowledge to help people understand volcanoes here on Earth that could bury their houses or kill them (see New Scientist article).

 

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