Looking for life on other planets has been a bit of a thankless task for SETI, but now they want to increase their chances by becoming more pro-active, but what might that cost the rest of us?
SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, has been scanning the skies now for over thirty years with, frankly, very little to show for their efforts save perhaps the gaining of a little more acceptance from the rest of the scientific community who have had to accept the widely held public view that in an all-but infinite universe the idea that we alone are the possessors of sentience is just a tad arrogant even for human beings.
Search For Extra Terrestrial Intelligence
• Running for over 30 years with no result
• Scientists want to broadcast not just listen
• Huge risks if we contact the wrong sort of aliens
Whether this is a shame or not rather depends on your point of view, and perhaps how many sci-fi movies you’ve watched. The two major scenarios for contact with alien life couldn’t be more starkly separated with one seeing the world contacted by peaceful, hippy-esque aliens who help up develop a better nicer, more harmonious planet, and the other seeing us all completely wiped out. It would appear that searching for aliens is a gamble with awfully large stakes.
This is why, up until now, SETI has had to confine itself to merely looking and listening, in a sort of galactic equivalent of curtain-twitching. They point their instruments towards distant stars and listen hoping to hear signals that indicates there might be something out there beyond balls of gas and dirt in the manner of a nosy neighbor that bought a directional microphone on eBay. The failure of this method is manifest and has given birth to a movement within SETI that wishes to be more active.
In essence this movement seeks not just to passively look and listen, but scream and shout and see what attention they can garner from aliens in our vicinity, perhaps gambling news reports of the results won’t include a final broadcast from CNN in which Wolf Blitzer has his head chewed off live on air by a large three-eyed, green monster from another planet who didn’t like the tone of his questions. Aimed messages broadcast out into the void in hope of a response.
Is There Anyone Out There?
The chances are, of course, that Arthur C. Clarke was probably right when he said there are unlikely to be any civilizations within a traverseable distance because if there were, they’d have spotted our signals, now ebbing into the universe since early last century, been unable to tell the difference between the real and fictional, and turned up with siren’s blaring to save us from either ourselves or whichever other aliens were invading us in a radio drama that night. They haven’t, so they’re not there.
Not that this stops a lot of people getting awfully worried about this new “active” SETI suggestion, and its major proponent Dr. Seth Shostak’s presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science gained a mixture of responses in of itself, countering the ‘wipe out’ possibilities of alien contact by saying; “I don’t see why the aliens would have any incentive to do that.” Which seems a remarkable failure of imagination if nothing else.
That technically superior cultures always destroy or subsume every other culture they come in contact with doesn’t seem to worry him, he is in essence sat in the US gambling laws of physics will prevent the aliens dropping by, limiting contact to what, for want of a better term, would be advanced emails, and of course if he loses, the message having taken fifty years minimum to get somewhere interesting, he’ll never know because he’ll be long dead.
The gamble on what sort of aliens we might find is one we might happy take now, but the stake will be collected from our grandchildren if we’re unfortunate enough to contact the wrong sort of aliens. Unless of course we ARE the grandchildren and even now an alien civilization is picking up our broadcasts. “Any society that could come here and ruin our whole day by incinerating the planet already knows we are here.” Shostak states flatly.
Great Risks, Few Rewards
The opponents of the move tend to paint a far bleaker picture of contact, David Brin, a writer invited to speak at the AAAS meeting, made it clear that “Historians will tell you that first contact between industrial civilizations and indigenous people does not go well.” and that he felt the Active SETI idea was “railroading the public into sending a message without a wide and detailed discussion of what the cultural impact might be.” Going on to feel that a proper risk assessment should be made first.
But how does one weigh up the risks of such an unknown eventuality? Certainly one could ask the bookies, and sites like Bet365 etc will offer you odds on when life will be discovered beyond our own planet (about 100/1 for much of the time periods on offer) and those of you that like to bet on sport in the US might be willing to wager a few bucks on that happening, because the Active SETI movement see this as a freedom-of-speech issue.
Whether applying the arguments for freedom of speech to a plan that includes announcing to the universe at large where we are and what we’re doing seems a good idea to you will again depend on your point of view. It’s either a cynical attempt by scientists to advance their desires by use of trigger phrases we find hard to disagree with, or a perfectly reasonable argument for being able to get what they want, but either way the chances are they’ll win out.
That they will eventually persuade people to allow them to do this is unarguable, we are not, as a rule given to sensible restraint as a species and this will be just another one of those moments when the human race will stick its head in the noose hoping no one kicks the chair away from under our feet. That not all of us will be involved in the decision, and that none of us will be alive to see whether we win or lose this gamble on alien behavior, doesn’t seem to bother the boys and girls at SETI.