Sunday, February 15, 2009

Redefining SETI: Where to begin?

[As my most recent submission to has yet to be posted, I must assume that I've been forgotten. As a backup measure, I've decided to recycle my earliest aboutSETI entries, beginning with the following essay from February of 2008. --Mac]

A few readers have expressed some deserved confusion about what disciplines I was referring to in the previous post. After all, SETI's long affiliation with radio astronomy makes the idea of invoking non-technical disciplines seem both heretical and ill-advised. Wouldn't we be best served, mainstream SETI pundits might ask, by "staying the course" with increasingly robust sky scans? After all, if "they're" out there, it strains orthodox acceptance to consider the possibility that "they" might have made it here.

I'm frankly disillusioned by the casual assumption that SETI is an endeavor best left to radio astronomers. While I support radio SETI, I think an equally valid case can be made for searching planetary surfaces for traces of extraterrestrial habitation.

The lunar surface -- airless and spared the erosion constantly at work on dynamic worlds like Earth -- would seem to be a prime candidate for methodical study. It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Moon (and perhaps Mars) has been visited at least once by a visiting civilization. Ironically, none other than SETI pioneer Carl Sagan championed the possibility that the Moon might serve as a platform for ET monitoring devices. (Sagan's scenario is memorably encapsulated in Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey," a book widely regarded as a formative work of "serious" science fiction.)

But if we're to take up the hunt for ET artifacts, radio-based SETI suddenly becomes of limited use. A meaningful search for lunar artifacts might reasonably call on the expertise of archaeologists (many of whom rely increasingly on remote sensing technology), anthropologists and even artists. Hardly the "hard" sciences typically associated with searching for ET life, they're nonetheless decidedly relevant if we're to advance planetary SETI as a viable alternative.

Is such an unorthodox study feasible in the face of radio SETI's staunch "electromagnetic chauvinism"? I argue that it is, and that its chances for payoff are high enough to justify committed research. In fact, it's just possible that we've already stumbled upon candidate ET structures, only to reject them for fear of violently offending the status quo.

I'll return to just such a case in a forthcoming post.

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