Apr 12 2010

Paul Davies on the 50th Anniversary of SETI

Published by at 1:55 am under Wave Guide 10: Pop Culture

This weekend ASU physicist Paul Davies celebrated the 50th anniversary of astronomer Frank Drake’s “start of the most ambitious scientific experiment in history”: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI); (Wall Street Journal; 4/10/10). On April 8, 1960 Drake, using the 85 foot radio telescope at Green Bank, WV, became the first to listen for signals from intelligent space aliens. But it’s been a long drought. According to Davies,

After five decades of patient listening, however, all the astronomers have to show for it is an eerie silence. Does that mean we are alone in the universe after all? Or might we be looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time?

After 50 years of SETI, why hasn’t ET phoned home yet?
Click .

As I suggested last August, it appears that public interest in intelligent space aliens is modulated by the long economic wave. For example, Drake’s ideas about SETI gained favor as the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window was taking off, as did Carl Sagan’s extraordinary assertion in a respected scientific journal (Planetary & Space Science, May, 1963) that space aliens could come here (and probably had already done so) in real interstellar spaceships and would be aided by relativisitic time dilation!

Likewise, during the decade just prior to the Peary/Panama/Roosevelt Maslow Window — about 2 long waves ago — polymath Percival Lowell founded his observatory in Arizona to study the canals on Mars which he believed were most likely “the work of some sort of intelligent beings” (to the Boston Scientific Society, 1894). And the Guzman Prize offered a lot of cash to anyone who could document contact with ETs — but they couldn’t be from Mars because that was considered too easy!

For more, see: Kepler, Carl Sagan, and the Guzman Prize — Our Century-Long Search for Space Aliens.

The search for extraterrestrial life is a primary driver of human expansion into the cosmos. Indeed, the 50 years since Drake’s seminal observations (nearly one long wave later) have motivated Davies’ analysis and can be expected to lead to increasing public and scientific interest in this fascinating topic — as occurred previously in the 1960s and early in the 20th century — during our approach to the 2015 Maslow Window.

Davies notes that the discovery, during the last decade, of 400+ extra-solar planets and the existence of terrestrial microbes that survive harsh, extraterrestrial-like environments have encouraged many scientists to believe that “the universe is teeming with life, and that some planets could harbor intelligent organisms.” (During the ebullient 1960s, astronomer Carl Sagan maintained there might be “a million technical civilizations in our Galaxy alone.”) And although NASA supported SETI for a while, government funding was canceled in 1993 — near the counter-ebullient long wave trough — because the “giggle factor” made it politically untenable. Today, SETI is privately funded by Paul Allen, Gordon Moore, and others.

Advanced space aliens may use spectacular globular clusters like M13 as galactic “coffee houses.” Click .
Copyright 2002 Michael Richmann

Fifty years of radio silence suggests to Davies that “By focusing on radio signals, the search for intelligent life has been extremely limited.” Although not mentioned by Davies, in 1974 Drake himself — after hearing nothing for only 14 years — engaged in “active” SETI by using the 1000-foot Arecibo radio telescope to beam a message directly toward M13, a globular star cluster. M13 has a million stars but is among the oldest objects in the Galaxy (~12 billion years) and is unlikely to have many surviving Sun-like stars (who die after 10 billion years) or Earth-like planets. But interstellar migration by advanced space aliens and/or construction of Dyson Spheres might give Drake’s beam a ray of hope, although it won’t arrive at M13 for 25,000 years! (In 25,000 years, our superluminal descendants may actually gather at M13 to celebrate the beam’s arrival!)

But not everyone’s thrilled about active SETI. For example, Michael Michaud, member of the SETI Study Group, International Academy of Astronautics, complains that,

Active SETI is not scientific research. It is a deliberate attempt to provoke a response by an alien civilization whose capabilities, intentions, and distance are not known to us. That makes it a policy issue.

Nevertheless several radio messages have been deliberately beamed to nearby stars as recently as 2009. “A Message From Earth,” sent in 2008 toward Gliese 581, should be the first one to ever reach its target in 2029.

Coincidentally, George Dyson, the son of Freeman Dyson (of Dyson Sphere fame among many other extraordinary things) once interviewed physicist Edward Teller (in J. Brockman, Ed., 2010) about contacting ETs. He felt that radio searches would have limited success because any message transmitted between ET civilizations “will be encoded, so it won’t be intelligible to us. It will look like noise.” But like Drake, Teller favored globular clusters. The Galaxy’s large size (100,000 light years diameter) and long radio signal travel times suggest the much smaller globular clusters are better targets. According to Teller, “if there is interstellar communication at all, it must be in the globular clusters.”

Davies concludes with this ebullient comment worthy of the approaching Maslow Window, an expected golden age of prosperity, exploration, and technology,

We have no evidence whatsoever for any life beyond Earth, let alone intelligent life. It could be that life’s origin was a tremendous fluke, and that we are alone after all. But the consequences of discovering that other intelligences exist, or have existed, are so momentous it seems worth taking a penetrating look at how we could uncover evidence for it.

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