Saturday, October 21, 2006

Why do we have SETI?

` I was just listening to the Point of Inquiry podcast where the host, DJ Grothe, interviews an important scientist/director/chair at SETI, Jill Tartar. As usual, I thought it had some information that my readers might be interested in, and so I thought I'd provide you with a quick overview:

` First, I'll start out with my own personal transcript of Tom Flynn's 'Did you know?' I think some people might be interested in it....
` Did you know that NASA used to have its own program of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence? [Actually, I did!] But in 1993, Nevada senator Richard Bryan successfully introduced an ammendment that eliminated all funding for it. The cost of the program was less than point-one percent [.1%] of NASA's annual budget and amounted to about a nickel per taxpayer per year. The senator cited 'budget pressures' as his reason for ending NASA's involvement with SETI. [It seems that only he knows why!]
` Did you know that many observers feel that NASA's 2007 budget shifts funding away from scientific research? Meanwhile, the SETI institute, a nonprofit corporation, gets much of its research sponsored by NASA. In surpport for the emerging field of astrobiology in the upcoming fiscal year 2007, though, has been cut by half. [What a bummer!]
` Did you know that the signal processing techniques developed and used at SETI have already been applied to the detection of breast cancer? [Really? That's what I call a successful technology!] And did you know that according to the Drake equation, the number of intelligent civilizations existing in our galaxy alone, that might be broadcasting signals, could be in the millions? [Even if you plugged in numbers that are so small as to seem unlikely, you will come out with a sizeable-enough number, say, a hundred!]
` Among the factors multiplied together are the number of sun-like stars in our galaxy, and the number of habitable planets orbiting around them, and the amount of time it takes a civilization to develop advanced technology. I'll bet you didn't know any of that! [Actually, I did... and all of this is good to know!]
` The point of the program is this: Could we be alone? It's a difficult question to answer, although we know - because we exist - that the laws of physics do not prevent life from forming on a planet! (Also, there are many valuable discoveries that inadvertently can be and have been made along the way!)
` Our asking whether or not we are the only life forms in the universe is a very important question, and since it is also a testable question - and therefore scientific in nature - there are ways to find out!
` So far, we are limited to studying this phenomenon without actually venturing to other solar systems. (Although perhaps we won't have to go that far?) The Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe has been around for a long time - although the name is new - and the people working there have done a lot of valuable and important work. (Unfortunately, almost nobody of the public has heard about any of this....)
` On the other hand, the SETI program has merely been going on since 1984, which dates back to a time before there was even a word for astrobiology! Instead of trying to find a way to determine whether or not there is physical evidence of possible life on other worlds, the idea behind SETI is to search the skies for signs of extraterrestrial technology.

` A lot of things have changed since Jill Tartar was a graduate student. For one thing, cosmologists' predictions that there must be other planets orbiting other stars have been confirmed, with 210 extrasolar planets having been discovered to date. For another thing, the earth has been found to be more bio-friendly than we had previously thought with the discovery of extremophilic organisms that, for example, need to live in salt with no water, or in boiling battery acid!
` And don't think that these discoveries are not practical! For example, such life forms could help us understand how to cure diseases - even cancer! Also, discovering the biochemical reactions that occur when rocks are smashed open may not only help us understand how life could arise, but could also shed light on a new way to predict when an earthquake may happen!

` Tartar is also working on building the Allen Telescope Array, a radio telescope that consists of a formation of 350 satellite dishes. Not only will it be used to help find the answers for the 'usual' astronomical inquiries, it will be used to rigorously search for any anomalies which may come from alien technology.
` So how is this proposed to be done? One way of doing this is to use optical telescopes to look for a flashing pattern of light that would indicate that someone is trying to signal our planet with a laser or something similar. Surely that is one way that any intelligent life out there could use to try to get our attention. But would they? Another way, of course, is radio signals:
` Nature seems to be able to make all kinds of radio 'signals', including those that can go for long distances unhindered - such as long-wave radio. However, from everything we know about astrophysics, nature should not be able to create a single, flat tone. So, the discovery of such a tone will either tell us that nature can make a compressed frequency and we didn't know about it, or that indeed it was made by intelligent life!

` Yes, these sound like very crude techniques, and this is true because we're the 'dumbest kids on the block that can do this'. I should hope that someday we will find yet more methods to look for signals. Many people have asked, however, since coming into contact with alien technology seems futile (at least for today) why do it?
` I admit, it does seem silly because they haven't gotten any results yet. But no results in a project of literally astronomical proportions doesn't mean that you should quit. They were right about other planets being out there, and all evidence suggests that there is a a high probability of other life forms in this galaxy and probably others.
` The SETI researchers are hoping that some of this life is not only intelligent, but that it has developed technology that utilizes long-wave radio waves (or at least other types of radiation) for communication. Potentially, they could at some point detect our inadvertent broadcasts from the past, and if we point our telescopes at their home, we could detect their radio signals.
` Of course, even if this were true, they would have to be detectable within the lifetime of our species - not a billion years ago - so there are major time constraints as well.

` In any case, if they're out there they could be found by us! Or, we could be found by them!

` Even if our plan does not seem terribly plausible at present, SETI will go on because the rewards are too great. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we someday had solid evidence of alien life? If there was, it is possible that we could find a way to come into contact with them - as long as we did not receive a video transmission of their futile attempts to stop a gigantic asteroid that destroyed the planet! We would have everything to gain and nothing to lose - as long as they were not hostile toward us!
` Think of the biology lessons that could be learned! Knowledge of alien biology, alien technology, and anything else that could be learned would be infinitely valuable! And think of this; if some kind of bizarre life form that lived somewhere else in this galaxy - or perhaps a visitor from another galaxy - could learn to communicate with us intelligently, would that for its own sake seem miraculous?
` Ask yourself what it would be like if this strange-looking creature (drawn even more strangely with a mouse than otherwise) could find a way to talk with us:

` That would certainly be mind-blowing! But even if we did not get a chance to directly meet the aliens, it would greatly affect the perspective of many people! The galaxy would seem so much more wondrous than ever - and we would not seem so special! Think of the reprocussions!
` And there's another bonus: if we learned much about the way extraterrestrials look and act, then the more bigoted individuals of the human race may realize that we humans are not all that different from one another! We're all the same species, and we all have a common human nature! As for life from completely different planets, I would expect it to possess natural behaviors so foreign that they could be very difficult to comprehend!
` Still, extraterrestrials would presumably be something like humans: They would at least have a social nature because that would allow disparate settlements of them to work together and pool their resources and technologies, making them thousands of times more powerful than just one individual. They would also have to be able to cooperate well enough to make that work!
` Other than that, I would expect them to have such odd quirks that perhaps we would never understand many of them!

` It would also force anyone who believes that the universe was made for our species, or that we are the pinnacle of existence to rethink their assumptions. (In fact, there are still quite a few people in this country who believe - for religious purposes - that the earth is the center of the universe!)
` This is a big universe, and we are small in it. Who knows what is going on out there? That is why we must try to figure it out! However, people who feel threatened by scientific progress aren't helping other people come to this realization. For example, just the idea that we were not lovingly sculpted by a deity makes some go over the edge and fight back with something that they hope to replace not only certain areas of science with, but the very basic concept of it!
` Tartar: From a scientific perspective, you look around you and over time and over space, everything evolves. Everything changes over time, that's all evolution means, it really isn't so terribly threatening. Nevertheless, certain groups have decided to stigmatize evolution, if you wish, to make it in conflict with a religious belief, and that is what has, at the base of all this discussion, created a problem.
` There are other religious traditions which can fully absorb the concept of everything changing over time, including life, humans, as well as molecules and microbes, and stars and galaxies, that's well-suited to certain religious traditions, and it is celebrated by some of the oldest traditions.
` But there are other traditions which find it necessary to make humans absolutely the pinnacle and special in this universe and the universe special for them. And those are the religious belief systems which come in conflict with this idea of change over time and their being and ??? where humans did not exist, and looking in the future, at a time where, once again, humans may not exist.
` That's very uncomfortable for them, and I think, as a scientist, when I can look at the detailed evidence for the interconnectedness of everything that we call life on this planet, I can find no argument that supports the specialness of humans, which would need to set them aside and outside of this scheme of change over time in evolution.
` So, it just is a hot button topic, because now you're talking about what people believe. Not is or what isn't, but what people believe. And belief systems have always been there. Science has not. Science is a new way of knowing, and a very effective way, because it allows us to make predictions and test those predictions and decide what particular outcome is most likely, and what explanation is going to be the most correct that we can come up with at this time.

` Grothe: Irrespective of the beliefs of the scientists.

` Tartar: That is true, and yes, the scientists are perfectly capable - and many do - of holding their own separate belief system. So science is what science is, some other people hold other belief systems, and that's fine. The problem is, when you say that a particular religious tradition or belief system should usurp the teaching of science, should be substituted for, or even taught as the same as, because they are different.
` ...This to reiterate everything I've said before. And now, I must be going! The sky is clear and I judge that it requires enjoying before winter takes hold!


Galtron said...

Micoorganisms living in battery acid? Do they make your batteries sick? ;)

I think that if extraterrestrial contact occurred I could never be depressed by anything because I'd have so many questions!
It would be kinda scary if they landed here, though as long as they're friendly.
...But if the aliens looked like that, I'm not sure how much I'd like to hang out with them!

Gareth said...

I hope you win your struggle to become a mad scientist :P

I was reading your post about the 9/11 conspirarcy theorists - very very interesting post. I did not previously know alot of the science involved in a building collapsing so thankyou for helping me to understand that. I hate it when people totally close their ears and eyes off to something and just assume the worst that their government initiated the whole situation. They are just out to make a name for themselves and nothing more than that :(
Princess Diana's car accident is another one that stupid people have latched onto. When will they realise that people die in road traffis accidents every day and just because you are famous doesn't mean that you are some how exempt for dying in that way.

Thanks for visiting my blog yesterday :)

Aaron said...

Good post Spoony.

I'm a SETI believer. I share a lot of my resources with them.

The discovery of an intelligent ET civilization could be the most profound discovery in human history - that's why I do it.

S E E Quine said...

` Glad you like my representation, Galtron. Yes, I would have to say that unless aliens were going to kill us or enslave us, I don't think I could easily feel bummed out if I only knew they existed.

` No prob. And yeah, conspiracy theorists are really odd. I think part of the reason why they don't care about reality is because when danger is close to home, at least they know where it is.
` Someday, I will be a mad scientist and then someone or another shall be probably wind up making conspiracy theories about me!

` Indeed, Aaron, I think that if we had discovered aliens, there would be a lot of amazing discoveries going on.... And no doubt, several conspiracy theories.

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Gareth said...

Are you off doing your mad scientist role?? :)

S E E Quine said...

` Indeed, I have been and shall be until Wednesday.
` It's kind of funny that I'd ever be paid to act like myself.

Gareth said...

Have a good Sunday :)