Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Scientists pursue system to explain facts that slip through the cracks

"In each of these areas -- physics, biochemistry and social science -- the theories are mature and largely uncontroversial. Each discipline has its own language and its own separate machinery. Rarely is a scientist an expert in more than one area, because the worlds and languages are so different.

"This means that we can't answer complex questions that depend on more than one field." (Via The Anomalist.)

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is a textbook victim of specialization. In the case of seeking out ETs, we've forfeited the search to a highly specified and rigidly defined group that wields the political might to tell us what is and what is not possible for reasons more political than scientific. In exchange, we're served up hypothetical alien civilizations that are little more than high-tech caricatures of our own, burdened by the same trivialities and condemned to a planet-bound existence because of the presumed expense of space travel.

The idea that we're being visited now, or have been visited in the remote past, is subject to particularly stringent scrutiny; if SETI were a nation-state and not a research effort, it would almost certainly be totalitarian, its populace communicating aberrant ideas through ill-financed samizdats and subject to humiliating public trial if discovered.

Seth Shostak is watching you.


gordon said...

(sigh) I can never understand this negative fascination with SETI ....

There is no _one_ SETI group - there are hundreds of them, more or less independent. Are you referring to one in particular (eg the SETI Institute)?

SETI groups do _not_ assume that alien civilisations are

" ... little more than high-tech caricatures of our own. ..."

Let me repost something I stated elsewhere. The reasons for running programs like SETI are something like this:

1. It is statistically likely that many other intelligences inhabit our galaxy (SETI was conceived before evidence for extra-solar planets, interstellar hydrocarbons etc was found, hence the statistical basis).

2. That at some time in it's development, an extraterrestrial civilisation would probably make use of EMR communications.

3. That, given our experience with (and level of) development of EMR technology, we might be able to find evidence of an extraterrestrial civilisation from its EMR signature.

4. Unlike many other proposals, such an endeavour is reasonably cheap and straightforward to do - all you need is time, and it doesn't preclude you from carrying out alternative avenues of analysis, either.

Statement 2 seems to be the one tha is most often misinterpreted. It does _not_ imply that a civilisation would develop EMR technology and remain stagnant! It simply makes the reasonable assumption that such a ubiquitous phenomenon as EMR (far more common in the Universe than pulsed lasers and the like), which can be easily controlled by relatively simple technology, would be likely to be used by more civilisations (at some point in their history) than any other. Importantly, it could also be identified across interstellar space with our current technologies.

It does _not_ require a belief that _all_ ET civilisations have used EMR tech, or have used it and suddenly advanced no further. And unless there is some reason for all alien societies to suddenly race out into space and erase all traces of their earlier dalliances with EMR, those fingerprints would remain.

Sure, more advanced methods may also be extant in our galaxy - laser/quantum/gravity communications - but we couldn't identify most of these with our current technology unless the signals were specifically directed at us (and probably not even then), so the point is moot.

SETI makes no claims in regards to ET visitation. Whether or not ET is here doesn't negate the SETI postulates (in fact they rather obviously strenghten them if they are).

Individuals within the loose groups that are the SETI initiative do, of course, hold their own opinions on that subject, but surely that is their right. And if they use such opinions to try and justify their own meager funding, well surely they're entitled to that as well. It is up to competing schemes to provide a set of similar, rational arguments if they feel the need for scientific funding. It is not up to SETI to provide those.

KennyJC said...

I still believe it is likely beings out there know of our existence on this blue planet and are just waiting for the right moment to say "Sup?!".

They could have knowledge of the natural progression of ETI and therefor could estimate that we are a couple of hundred years away for being 'safe' to receive contact, wether it be for our safety or theirs.

I guess I just find it a bit hard to believe our planet really is a one off and that our intelligence is rare. Afterall, if Mars was a bit bigger our solar system could have two 'Earths'.

I also wonder if intelligence really is as unique as many people say, because lets face it, it only seems like yesterday when the first advanced creatures roamed the oceans.

It sometimes feels like cheating though if we steal knowledge from ETI. The possible giant leaps of information and technology almost seems like winning millions of dollars for doing nothing. I suppose it just annoys me that ETI could be out there with many more answers for many fundamental questions we always ask.

gordon said...


"I still believe it is likely beings out there know of our existence on this blue planet and are just waiting for the right moment to say 'Sup?!'."

Quite likely, but this still doesn't make SETI a futile endeavour. For each that know we are here, but (for some reason) do not wish to communicate, there should be thousands that are sitting on their own little "patch of blue" wondering what's out there.

W.M. Bear said...

I have read analyses based on the Drake equation that contend (very plausibly to my mind) that it's highly unlikely that there are ANY civilizations in this galaxy at or about or technological level. Even a civilization a thousand years ahead of us would probably be beyond our comprehension or ability to communicate with. And even one a hundred years or so behind us wouldn't be ABLE to communicate with US.

However, I very much like Carl Sagan's idea that even a civilization that has advanced WAY beyond our level might still be interested in "bringing us along," so to speak and might, therefore, have placed EMR "beacons" at various points in the galaxy that broadcast advanced technical and other information (the starship plans of "Contact," for example) to anyone capable of receiving them. These "Encyclopedia Galacticas" are certainly worth listening for. My own theory as to why we haven't picked up one yet is that they are deliberately designed to be just a BIT beyond our current capacity. The idea behind this tantalizing bait being exactly that the kind of information these beacons are broadcasting is not to be put in the hands of civilizations still too immature to make good use of it. Think we're mature enough yet? I definitely don't. I think when we are, we'll somehow "magically" have success at SETI. The year 2012 sounds like a good possibility don't you think? The End of the World... and the beginning of the Universe.

gordon said...


Your reading of the Drake eqn analysis is for _right now_. It doesn't mean that there have _never_ been civilizations at our level. Over the last 10 billion years, I'd wager there have been a few .... And for those, the arguments for SETI still hold. EMR signals could take 100's of millions of years to reach us!

The galactic beacons idea is a nice one - not so nice is the "predator alien" proposal :-(

W.M. Bear said...

not so nice is the "predator alien" proposal :-(

I'm trying to remember where I saw speculation about this. I do recall reading some forum or other on the subject where the point was made that it's likely that there are all kinds alien cultures out there, including possibly the predatory kind exemplified in the movie "Independence Day" (or even the eponymous "Predator" series).

But the Milky Way is "only" about 100,000 light-years across, so at most, signals originating from another MW civilization that was at our current level just about when we were starting our "homo sapiens" stage would be at most this old, still pretty unlikely according to the Drake equation. And it seems doubtful that we'll pick up signals from ANOTHER galaxy, especially one millions of ly distant.

gordon said...


Apologies, I realised that the "100's of millions" tag was a bit inconsistent, but there doesn't seem to be any way to edit a comment :-(

I think Michio Kaku mentioned predation when discussing Karashev's classification schema for civilisations at a conference a year or so ago (it was carried by a few of the news services). It's an interesting concept - that if we decode a "galactic beacon" signal, it may well say something like "stay at home and keep quiet!!"

Relying on just one interpretation of the Drake Eqn is a pretty speculative venture - current solutions vary from 10e-8 to 10e4 for just our galaxy. Regardless of the total number of civilisations that exist though, it is _still_ likely that more civilisations would exist long enough to develop radio communications than, say quantum entanglement communications.

Even more should develop that just bang objects (rocks) together. but we couldn't detect that! Unless they were really _big_ rocks ...


The point is that radio technology is the most primitive inter-planetary or inter-stellar communication scheme that we know of. It is fairly inconceivable that a technological civilisation that developed an interest in Space would _not_ know what a radio wave was. They permeate virtually every part of our galaxy. Providing there is no alien species out there (say a Type II or III civilisation) actively suppressing contact, it is therefore statistically the most favourable type of communication to scan for.

And if there is such a species out there, then _nothing_ we do will work.

W.M. Bear said...

I also recall reading that we probably wouldn't detect just ordinary planetary radio emissions such as our own T.V. transmissions. They will have to be very DIRECTED-beam communications which means they would actually have to be directed at US, which gets into the whole question of whether "they" can detect OUR normal EMR traffic and respond accordingly. And I would think that if a beam WERE directed towards us, we would have received it by now. It may be that the "Encyclopedia Galactica" has such a detection mechanism, which would mean that the nearest one is at least 50-60 ly distant (probably more) given the round trip time for it to receive our traffic and then slew around so that its beam is pointing in our direction. If EG's are stationed at this kind of probable interval, that makes for a LOT of EGs! Much more likely that they're on average much more distant from emerging civilizations, so we may not "hear back" for a while. The greater interval also allows time for the civilization to "mature" after it reaches the EMR technology level. My prediction would be that maybe in 100-200 years we'll receive a "Contact" type signal. But of course, we MUST keep listening!

gordon said...

EMR "beams" are expanding wavefronts, so they would cover quite an arc, unlike a pulsed laser, or some form of quantum communication. So arguments against listening for radio work even more stridently against other scanning methods. Yes, I agree, contact is very unlikely, and yes, we need to keep listening. But radio via methodologies like SETI is the best choice we have. So why are SETI groups so vilified by the pro ETH/Mars artifacts crowd??

W.M. Bear said...

So why are SETI groups so vilified by the pro ETH/Mars artifacts crowd??

My sense is that this antagonism is mostly in reaction to SETI groups opposition to (or simply ignoring of) planetary SETI altogether.

I have to agree that radio frequencies are our best bet. When I read about laser-based SETI, my first thought was uh-uh. A laser or other extremely short-wavelength signal really would have to be aimed directly at us, meaning we would have to be targeted for communication, which seems highly unlikely at this stage(though certainly not impossible). The longer the wavelength, the wider the arc but, at the same time, the smaller the bandwidth in terms of amount of information that can be transmitted. If there are EGs orbiting the Galactic Center, waiting to pick up transmissions from emerging civilizations, they are probably tuned to respond at some frequency that an early EMR-capable civilization would be likely to pick up by just listening to the sky the way we are. But this would of necessity probably be a low bandwidth signal with not much potential for information transfer. So the EG might toggle between a low-frequency "homing signal" and a much higher-frequency information-transmission signal.

W.M. Bear said...

Also, most current SETI programs are aimed at sunlike stars. This procedure could also pick up EG transmission if they've been put in orbit around stars. If this is the case, however, it seems likely to me that, rather than being put in orbit around sunlike stars, which have limited lifetimes and can be somewhat unstable, the EG Editors (shall we call them) may have decided to put the EGs in orbit around the most stable, long-lived stars, which would be white dwarfs. White dwarfs would also produce much less radio interference than sunlike stars (although this probably isn't a primary consideration). So my SETI candidates would be white dwarfs, not sunlike stars!

Mac said...

So why are SETI groups so vilified by the pro ETH/Mars artifacts crowd??

Because planetary SETI is an imminently testable inquiry. If we wanted to, we could go to Mars and put the question to rest. Consequently, planetary SETI might fail to provide confirmation of ET intelligence.

Radio SETI, on the other hand, is *not* imminently testable; it's essentially "wait and see." So the last thing self-styled gurus like Shostak and Tarter want is to set themselves up for a fall that might cast their own pet approach in a bleak light.

There are other reasons, of course. But I think this is one of them.

gordon said...

"Because planetary SETI is an imminently testable inquiry. If we wanted to, we could go to Mars and put the question to rest."

Hmm - I don't think it's as simple as jumping on the next freighter to Mars and having a look.

Any SETI type of investigation is unfalsifible. If the next lander photographs the Cydonia region and sees nothing but geological structures, if the landers find _nothing_ hinting at artificiality, would the proponents accept this? Or would they demand still more money and resources to drill the planet into a sponge? It is _not_ imminently testable at this point in time, unless you _assume_ that just one test at the Cydonia region is enough to "put the question to rest". I don't think you'd except that if the outcome was negative at Cydonia.

Right now, compared to radio SETI, the costs are enormous, and preclude you doing anything else whilst on Mars if nothing is found (well, to an extent anyway). We are not established enough on Mars to do planetary SETI in anything like a rigorous fashion. Radio SETI does not have these drawbacks, so I don't understand why people want to shoot it down in flames. In a few decades, we _might_ be in a position to more thoroughly test the planetary SETI hypothesis. Or we might just get lucky even earlier than that :-)

W.M. Bear said...

Gordon -- Actually Mac was more explaining why the "pro ETH/Mars artifacts crowd" is vilified by the SETI radio astronomers crowd! (Maybe this was what was originally meant anyway.) Since these latter (SETI radio astronomers) are the "orthodoxy" in the field, this vilification is much more deleterious to real research than the (understandable) other way round.

Why we can't have both planetary SETI AND EMR SETI, I don't know. "Science-funding politics" is a good catchall explanation. Interestingly, Carl Sagan in his time was a leading proponent of planetary SETI among the professional scientific community. (Most -- not all by any means -- planetary SETI now seems to done by non-pros, at least not "orthodox" pros). But this spirit seems to have died with Sagan.

I think radio SETI should be continued although I do think it's unlikely if we haven't heard something by now that we're going to hear anything ever. (But maybe, just maybe.) What ETI civilization would WASTE energy (even if they had it to waste) on non-directional EMR beams anyway. And what reason would they have to direct a beam at us? (Hence my holdout hope for robotic Encyclopedia Galacticas floating around the Milky Way.)

BTE, Mac seems to be suggesting a MANNED expedition to Mars not just more robotic probes. That's probably the only real way to test the artificiality hypothesis, I agree. (I also retain a sneaking suspicion that we, the public, would be the last to hear -- if ever -- that it was confirmed. In fact, even if it WAS confirmed by astronauts actually digging up, say, the breastplate from an ancient Martian robot, I'm sorry to say that I strongly believe that not only would we not hear about it, but we -- the public -- would acutally be DISINFORMED that were NO artifacts on Mars. This is just the way our government seems to work, alas.)

Mac said...

Actually Mac was more explaining why the "pro ETH/Mars artifacts crowd" is vilified by the SETI radio astronomers crowd! (Maybe this was what was originally meant anyway.)

Your guess is as good as mine!

And yes, I was talking about a manned mission -- moreover, one with some archaeological expertise.

gordon said...

WMB, Mac,

As I stated earlier, there are hundreds of SETI researchers. You seem to be focussing on two that have voiced rather strong opinions on the unlikeliness of the ETH. I would agree with you if you simply said these particular two seem to be rather blinkered in their personal opinions, but that shouldn't lead you to denounce SETI so vehemently. And I see no evidence that they are in _any_ position to threaten the manned space program.

So if you're talking about a manned mission, why on earth are you stating it is "... an imminently testable inquiry"??

We won't be able to accomplish this for at least the next decade or so. So what is the problem with continuing with radio SETI? It doesn't take anything away from the (proposed) human exploration of Mars. You're arguing in circles ....

Mac said...


Have I ever condemned radio SETI? Hell, I've even done my part and run SETI@home.

Don't misunderstand: Radio SETI is worth doing, but its leading lights would like nothing more than to dispense with other avenues of research, including the search for artifacts on other planets and the study of UFOs (whatever they are).

And I see no evidence that they are in _any_ position to threaten the manned space program.

They're not. I simply meant that a blow to planetary SETI -- assuming for sake of argument that we took it seriously enough to mount a manned Mars mission in the next 20 years (and as far as things like this go, that *is* "imminent") -- could derail radio SETI's "rah-rah" approach to funding if it failed to find any alien artifacts.

Man on the street: "Well, scientists thought there might be alien stuff on Mars and it turns out they were full of it. Why should we finance pie-in-the-sky searches for radio signals?"

gordon said...


" Have I ever condemned radio SETI? Hell, I've even done my part and run SETI@home."

Well your commetary that these comments are attached to _does_ seem to do just that. Re-read your last two paras under

"Scientists pursue system to explain facts that slip through the cracks"

Maybe I don't understand your greater context, in which case I apologise?

And how does the negative outcome of a human search of Mars for alien artifacts affect SETI's funding?? All radio SETI funding is voluntary, the "Man on the street" attitude that you describe is _already_ evident right now (eg my wife's crowd, all lawyers, think it is complete rubbish).

A positive outcome would surely bolster (and focus) any SETI research. So I just don't understand how you find one to be a threat to the other.