Sunday, December 12, 2004

Is It Time to Scrap SETI?

The mainstream dares to question the esteemed Dr. Shostak and his grant-hungry minions!

"A computer can't show a picture that has been compressed by another computer unless it knows how to decompress it, and likewise we couldn't decode a television signal that had been compressed unless we already knew the code. And, Newman and his colleagues argue, any advanced civilization that has used wireless communications for even a few decades would surely have figured out that it makes sense to encode."

Of course, you could argue that that's anthropomorphic chauvinism at its most blatant. After all, who knows what real-life ETs are going to do, or how they'll go about doing it? Still, it's a good question.

The article goes on:

"'In our paper we proved that there's an equivalent result for radio messages,' Newman says. 'The most information-rich radio message looks like thermal radiation, which is the standard kind of radiation that we see in the sky. So that would make it difficult to tell the difference between an intentional transmission that was very efficient and just natural phenomena.'"

So do we scrap SETI? Is it really a "Silly Effort To Investigate," as claimed by ufologist Stan Friedman? I argue that we keep SETI -- but take the necessary pains to keep it flexible, theoretically versatile, and democratized. Humanity needs to prize SETI -- the most potentially momentous endeavor in history -- out of the hands of a few technocratic gurus. There are many ways in which we can do this. We could, for example, enrich the SETI inquiry by calling on minds in fields as disparate as cultural anthropology and planetary geology.

Contrary to SETI dogma, it's by no means a given that a message from extraterrestrials will take the form of an electromagnetic broadcast. This possibility, once-heretical, is beginning to gain attention, with talk of interstellar artifacts surfacing in the scientific literature. We could, for example, be veritably marinated in microscopic ET machines -- "nanoprobes" -- and not even realize it. Or our "junk" DNA could turn out to be an actual message crafted by long-ago genetic engineers.

I'll be talking about this stuff in Sedona next month. If you're in the area, drop by. (More information TBA.)

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