Friday, July 26, 2013

Why Search?

In an earlier post, I argued that the current SETI program is not a silly waste of time if we want to search for ET and answer the question of whether we are alone, and I stand by that.  At the time I wrote that post, I didn't think that anyone would be interested in the why question. Of course we want to search, the only question is how, isn't it?  Maybe not for everyone.

All you have to do is to look at people like Frank Drake, Jill Tarter and Seth Shostak, who have
SETI Pioneer Frank Drake
devoted most of the careers to this topic, and you will realize that is is emotionally involving at a personal level, and not just "scientifically interesting".  It isn't purely a matter of scientific curiosity, and certainly not of ambitious scientific careering. 

Well, of course, the small number of people who study a topic are interested in it, and probably find it fascinating in some way.  What about everyone else?

So here is a question to ask yourself: if it was announced tomorrow that science knew for certain that there was another intelligent civilization in this galaxy, what would change for you?  Most adults are highly accomplished at keeping their own little worlds unperturbed.  Would the announcement of a distant ET civilization affect any major decisions you might make about your own life - your job, relationships, where you live, how many children you have, or any religious beliefs you might have?  Probably not you, but the younger generation, yes, because adolescents have left behind the comforts of childhood, and have yet to build their little worlds.  They don't mind being perturbed, and will often volunteer do some perturbing.  With announcement that we know about ET, their worlds just got much, much bigger.

Now it's not just Earthlings alone in the vast, cold universe anymore.  There are the others, possibly many others.  The universe no longer belongs solely to the astronomers, but is now alive, and belongs to everyone.




This emotional uplift will be important, and the scientific import momentous, but there is
something even more important that critics of SETI have not thought of.

It means that we are not doomed.  Because of the vast timescales involved, any civilization we find out there in the cosmos is almost certainly much older than us.  While it could be generations before two-way communication is established with them, and thus much prospect of partaking in their knowledge or even knowing much about them, we would know immediately that it is possible for sentient beings to survive to true maturity. Right now, we do not know that.

The Allen Telescope Array
If after a much wider search than we have conducted to date, the silence continues, then do we Seth Shostak pointed out to me, it simply means that we didn't do the right experiment.  Although radio has its advantages, even SETI pioneer Frank Drake will readily admit that it is possible that radio is just so hopelessly old-fashioned that no one far advanced from our technology would even think to use it.  Keep in mind that these advanced civilizations would likely know that our planet has life - there has been oxygen in our atmosphere for more than 2 billion years - but would probably not know that a fledgling technological civilization is here on Earth, and we can do no more than speculate about why they would want to communicate with us.
conclude that we are not alone?  I don't think so.  As

So, even if SETI as we know it fails, the search continues.  We don't yet know how, but we do know why.